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There’s a Sheep Loose in the Lane

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Every week, I help high schoolers with their research projects. I watch them take the assignment, type its prompt questions exactly into Google, and then copy-paste the answer from the search result preview box into their slideshow/paper/spreadsheet. They evince no awareness of whether the text they are plagiarizing is thematically compatible with what they have already copied, or even whether it is grammatically consistent with the previously stolen sentence. On those rare occasions when it does dawn on them that what is in the box may not be what they need, they look at me like I’ve started speaking Welsh when I actually click through to follow a link to a website, or try to explain to them how they can skim through that page to find a relevant section by looking for keywords (precisely the job they use Google to do for them). The moment we leave that preview box, they are utterly lost.

I know why they are, too, because every week I sit in meetings with teachers talking about how “everything is on the Internet now” and “anything they need to know they can just look up on Google,” and why, in consequence, we need to shift our focus from teaching them “mere” facts to focusing on “critical thinking skills” and the ability to “evaluate sources”. The trouble is that, as Carl Hendrick has recently written in an essay that absolutely everyone in education should be forced to read with their eyelids peeled back, decades of psychological research has shown that there are no such things as generic “critical thinking skills” abstracted from subject-specific knowledge contexts. Cognitive abilities developed in one domain or in one activity do not automatically translate into other areas. Champions of Pi memorization competitions are no better at memorizing long strings of letters than a random person on the street.

The further trouble is that the “evaluation of sources” depends ultimately on being able to judge claims against prior background knowledge. Our present focus on source evaluation is, ironically, being rapidly rendered obsolete by the same digital information culture that prompted it in the first place, as the widening availability of ever more sophisticated tools in both desktop publishing and web design makes it increasingly easy to imitate the appearance of professional sources. Thus, we are pushing students with less and less facts at their disposal to trust more and more in traditional indicators of source reliability at the very same time that we are witnessing a massive proliferation of so-called “predatory publishers“. These academic scams work by convincing trained scholars that they are legitimate sources, and thus persuading them to submit papers and to pay for open access publication. What is more, these sources are increasingly showing up as citations in legitimate research (they are open access, after all), threatening the integrity of the whole academic chain. How do they eventually get found out? A specialist in the field perceives discrepancies in their facts, which my fact-starved students could never hope to notice.

Simply put, we are producing an entire generation powerless to detect rapidly proliferating academic fraud and “fake news”, and arming them only with extensive training in general cognitive and critical thinking skills that our research shows do not actually exist.

On the purely quantitative level of the sciences, there can be said to be such a thing as “progress”. We are, collectively, more knowledgeable about the processes of the material world and more skilled at the manipulation of our physical environment than any generation to precede us (and, not coincidentally, more in danger of catastrophic environmental failure than any generation to precede us). In the qualitative realms of the humanities, however, human nature is enduring and the limits of its reconfiguration are narrow. In education, as in politics or philosophy, there are changing fashions, but nothing truly to be known that was not known a thousand years ago. The best preparation for our students in this rapidly shifting age of Google is still classical—a foundation of many years’ training in grammar (which to the ancients meant not just the rules of language, but the raw facts that formed the basis of understanding in any field). This, as cultures from first century Gaul to fifteenth century Mesoamerica recognized, is an indispensable preparation for the critical discipline of logic that engages new data to solve new problems, as well as for the subtle art of rhetoric that unmasks fallacies and sophistry.

To so many progressive educators of the past hundred years, the nineteenth century’s drone of Windsor-knotted elementary schoolers reciting Latin conjugations seemed little more than the bleating of imperial sheep. Thinking to free such pupils from their pen, the reformers pulled out their sledgehammers and knocked out the posts. I can’t help but feel, though, as I watch my high schoolers in the computer lab today, that what the progressives thought was Pink Floyd’s wall was actually Chesterton’s fence.

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1 Comment

  1. […] There’s a Sheep Loose in the Lane […]

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