In a New York Times Op-Ed on Thursday, David Brooks rehashed what is, in my mind, a very old and tired argument, one that thanks to the recent publication of Nicholas Carr's The Shallows, is getting a lot of play: namely the Internet makes you stupid.
But in the case of Brook's editorial, I want to go one step farther. Not only is the argument stupid, it's dangerous (or at least dangerously antiquated).
On one hand, Brooks asserts something that I support fully: we need to make sure that all kids have access to learning opportunities when they aren't in school. Brooks praises a program that gave disadvantaged students a dozen books to take home and read over the summer. Research from the program found, unsurprisingly, that the students who took books home (and/or had books at home) were less affected by "the summer slide," the dip in reading scores that occur when kids are out of the classroom for the holidays.
But Brooks goes one step farther and cites a study that contends that low-income students suffer academically when they have access to computers at home. The "digital divide," this study implies, is a good thing.
The bulk of his argument goes from there: books are good (and I agree), the Internet is bad (um, no). Writing for edReformer, Tom Vander Ark offers a good counter-argument, citing MacArthur-funded research that found that kids learn valuable skills via their online interactions, arguably skills for which traditional ways of calculating "literacy" do not account. As Vander Ark writes, "the books vs. Internet is a rearview mirror argument that has little relevance going forward. Books are online now; learning is going online. Online and blended learning is the one shot we have to change the curve�to create much more productive learning experiences and experiences."
However, Vander Ark says that Brooks gets the conclusion right in his Op-Ed. "It could be," admits Brooks, "that the real debate will not be books versus the Internet but how to build an Internet counterculture that will better attract people to serious learning." And while read by itself that does seem promising, I'm not sure I do support Brooks' conclusion.
I worry that the counterculture that Brooks is talking about here is one that I am very hesitant to support. Because this "counterculture" is something that he associates with the hierarchy and deference he thinks we learn from literature. Books teach respect. The Internet, for Brooks, teaches disrespect. It's an anarchic, disruptive place, one where "the dominant activity is free-wheeling, disrespectful, antiauthority disputation."
I am rather fond of this anti-authoritarian streak myself, admittedly. But even so, I'm not sure I agree that reading books is a disciplined or disciplinary practice while being online is an unruly one. I'm not sure I believe that the lessons to be learned from reading capital-L-Literature are better than the lessons to be learned from reading graphic novels, for example.
And I bristle at Brooks' support in the first half of his essay for the idea that Internet technologies should be kept away from low-income students "for their own good," followed by his praise in the second half for hierarchy and authority. I don't really like the "cultivation" Brooks praises if it merely reinforces power dynamics -- hierarchies of class, race, sex, national identity -- that I believe the Internet can help us challenge.