David Brooks weighed in last week on the books versus Internet debate. Though I had no doubt that he would side with the print camp, I was surprised by the route he took.
He begins by citing one study showing that kids who took books home over the summer did better than those who didn’t, and another demonstrating that broadband penetration seems to correlate with decreased math and reading scores among North Carolina’s 8th graders. Fair enough.
But then he takes an odd turn, citing an unnamed philanthropist’s observation that kids most benefit from the identity that books provide them as “readers.” This identity places them at the bottom of a great hierarchy of knowledge, a subservience to which Brooks celebrates as the only path to “serious learning.” The Internet, on the other hand, encourages rampant and egalitarian “antiauthority disputation” (you can just hear the sneering). It seems that Brooks thinks students should only participate in intellectual conversation when they’ve earned the right. I disagree.
This surprising line of logic led me to spend a few hours writing a letter to the editor. I’m not sure it will be published: it’s a little longer than the Times recommends, but I couldn’t find much more fat to trim. I’ve inserted it below. Let me know your thoughts.
To the Editor:
David Brooks argues that literary culture produces better students than digital culture because it demands subordination to an established hierarchy of knowledge (“The Medium Is The Medium,” July 8). He suggests that students do well when they defer to intellectual superiors and abstain from “antiauthority disputation.”
Brooks forgets that it was the very birth of literary culture that spawned the greatest example of “antiauthority disputation” in history: the Protestant Reformation. The invention of the printing press allowed 15th century Christians, now armed with Bibles in their own language, to contest dubious practices for which the church had claimed biblical authority. And no sooner had Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to a church door than they were reprinted across Europe, stoking a revolution that arguably paved the way for the founding of the first American colonies.
Many of humankind’s greatest advances take place when a relative unknown summons the courage to challenge the conventional wisdom. In the debate over print versus digital, count my vote for whichever medium encourages students to remain ever skeptical of the status quo.