Antiauthority disputation? Yes please.

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.

Jarred Tay­lor