Sanger on learning and the Internet

For next week’s reading group, we are reading Larry Sanger’s Individual Knowledge in the Internet. I usually enjoy Sanger’s thoughtful writing, and this is no different. In this piece he attempts to refute three claims made by online enthusiasts about education, including that memorization is no longer important, group learning is superior to outmoded individual learning, and co-constructed knowledge by members of the group is superior to lengthy and complex books. He discusses some of the arguments (from Brown and Adler, Carr v. Shirky, Bauerlein, Keen, etc.) and concludes that a good basic education is acquired by becoming acquainted with original sources, the classics, and reading increasingly difficult and important books. His concluding paragraph is provocative and certainly fits well with the themes I discuss in the Good Faith Collaboration about the controversy over Wikipedia:

I fear that if we take their [Internet enthusiasts’] advice, in the place of a creative society with a reasonably deep well of liberally educated critical thinkers, we will have a society of drones, encultured by hive minds, who were able to work together online but who are largely innocent of the texts and habits of study that encourage deep and independent thought. We will be bound by the prejudices of our “digital tribe,” ripe for manipulation by whoever has the firmest grip on our dialogue. I see all too much evidence that we are moving headlong in that direction. Indeed I fear this is already happening. I honestly hope that I proved to be an alarmist, that I am a realist reporting on my observations. I wish the news was better. (Sanger, p. 23-24).

Ported/Archived Responses

Peter Damian on 2010-10-22

Thank you!  Reconstructing your argument I understand it:

1.  In the past, people (Socrates, Leibniz) have argued the grounds of supposedly harmful effects that the increased dissemination of information is a bad thing.

2. These people were wrong

3. Therefore, Sanger is wrong

I’m not sure that follows.  You have given no arguments for assumption (2).  And even if assumption (2) is correct, why would it have to follow that Sanger is wrong?  What Sanger is actually arguing is that the instant availability of information online does not make the memorization of facts unnecessary or less necessary.  Background knowledge it requires assimilation and understanding as well. But assimilation and understanding (by implication – Sanger does not spell it out) take longer than just looking something up, and require memory of some sort. (Not so much recall, but assimilated or ‘compiled’ memory).

He is complaining that we have completely devalued or forgotten about the deep importance of ‘the sort of nuanced, rational, and relatively unprejudiced understanding of issues that a liberal education provides’.

Larry Sanger on 2010-11-02

Joseph, you know, it occurs to me that we have let things go unresolved here, and I wish we wouldn’t.  So let me put my concern a little more clearly.

Your comment that begins, “I tend to be interested in Sanger’s argument as polemic…” certainly looks like it smears me as being akin to historical figures who were spectacularly wrong about the beneficiality of writing and the printing press.  Of course, I like being compared to Socrates and Leibniz, though of course I don’t deserve it, so it’s not TOO terribly insulting.  But the comparison is still obviously unjust to me because, as you know, I am not actually opposed to a lot of the new Internet technology that has come out; in fact, I’ve actually invented some of it.  Moreover, my essay expressed no opposition to new technologies but only to implausible claims that people make about them, such as that we can learn less now that Google can remember for us.  You neither respond to my arguments nor defend the claims I target.  So, I’m sorry to have to say so, it looks like a smear.  When I called you on it, you did not do me the courtesy of clarifying yourself.  You merely said, “I didn’t mean this and I didn’t mean that.”  So, what the hell did you mean?

We can all see what you wrote.  You must have meant something by it.  Please do me the courtesy of either retracting your unwarranted assertions or implications (maybe you’d want to do that after actually reading my essay), or else clarifying them so that they are more plausible.  Or if, indeed, you want to accuse my views of being somehow, in some way, akin to historical defenses of illiteracy and censorship, then indeed “man up” and spell it out.  I ask this because I would like to defend myself in a logical dialogue, and I’m frankly tired of having to deal with innuendo on the Internet.  This is one reason I don’t really like arguing in places like Wikipedia anymore.  Simply too much dishonesty and unfair dealing going on.

Peter Damian on 2010-10-25

Larry, I was looking at the paragraph that begins “Before the Internet …”, where you talk about the Internet as being a potential source of distraction, and that the ability to focus may now be more important than actual knowledge.  From this I inferred your conclusion in the form of a syllogism:

(1) The instant availability of information online is a distraction for people who find it difficult to focus
(2) Being distracted hinders the acquisition of true knowledge
(3) Therefore the instant availability of information online is a hindrance to actual knowledge

Perhaps I should have qualified the conclusion by saying ‘in the case of people who find it difficult to focus’.  And perhaps I am guilty of what Wikipedia calls ‘synthesis’, i.e. inferring that a writer would agree with a conclusion that logically follows from premisses he agrees with.  Do you agree with the premisses?  If you do, are they a reasonable summary of what you said?  If not, I apologise!

Peter Damian on 2010-10-26

As Joseph hasn’t replied yet, I will add some thoughts.  I discussed the problem on the WMF list - this post is typical - of why the liberal and humanities in general, and philosophy in particular, are so badly represented on Wikipedia.  It soon became clear that, possibly because many Wikipedians come from a technical, computing background, that very few of the participants on the list had a good idea of what this kind of education involved. E.g. one of them argued that because military history was a part of history, and history was part of the humanities, therefore his work on battleships counted as the humanities.  I didn’t have a good answer to that.  The articles on battleships are very good, but they do not have the broad view that I associate with true historical writing, and the humanities in general.

At one end you have people writing about battleships, swords, different types of armour with their technical specification.  At the other end you have Edward Gibbon who is attempting to take a stretch of more than a thousand years of history, and make a difficult judgment about why an empire declined and fell.  There is the difficulty of which pieces of the enormous amount of information to select, making judgments about their possible bias and accuracy, adding to that a general ‘compiled’ knowledge of the course and flow of events during that whole period, understanding the different civilisations and languages and cultures who contributed to the process, understanding key theological, philosophical and political issues throughout the period.  And of course some difficult judgments about human nature itself which are much of the value of Gibbon’s work.  Even if we don’t agree with the judgments themselves, we can be entertained and informed by the insight they bring to a difficult question. 

I don’t think computer science undergraduates (or graduates) are trained to deal with this kind of stuff.

Peter Damian on 2010-10-21

Thank for the link to that excellent article.  By coincidence, I wrote on a similar topic earlier .  If I have time, I will summarise Sanger’s main argument (since this is the Web, and no one will have time to read 10 pages of “wordy, abstract, and dense” prose!) and post tomorrow.

Joseph Reagle on 2010-10-25

Hi Larry, I do not claim that you say information is a burden, I say that the concern you speak of about memorization is also often accompanied (historically, in arguments about mediating technologies) by complaints about information overload. For if we decide some things are important to know – as represented in curriculum or reference works – and to even memorize, who decides what is important? So the two concerns frequently go hand in hand.

Joseph Reagle on 2010-10-26

Just to be clear:

1. I haven’t said anything about the substance of Sanger’s argument.
2. I didn’t dismiss Sanger’s argument as merely polemic, I said I’m interested in it “as polemic.”
3. I did not claim that Sanger is somehow pro-censorship – that’s a stretch!
4. I never dismissed concerns about the appropriateness or affects of new media on learning.

Peter Damian on 2010-10-22

I summarised Sanger’s essay here.

I would be interested in hearing whether you agree with his view, and - if you do not - your arguments and reasoning against it.

Larry Sanger on 2010-10-26

Joseph, while we agree on 1, I find it strange that you say this, considering that you wrote, “I tend to be interested in Sanger’s argument as polemic, as it expresses a series of concerns and anxieties…”  This context sure made it sound as if you were elaborating on concerns and anxieties contained in “Sanger’s argument.”  So I think you can understand my confusion.

Seth Finkelstein on 2010-10-25

Joseph, I believe one problem with your approach can be summarized in this quote:

“But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown. – Carl Sagan”

In other words, there have been concerns about writing, there have been concerns about printing, there have been concerns about radio and television. But there have also been concerns about lead plumbing, radiation, and mercury.

Joseph Reagle on 2010-10-22

I tend to be interested in Sanger’s argument as polemic, as it expresses a series of concerns and anxieties that have arisen throughout time as the underlying media change. (The most common anecdote of which is Socrates’ supposed concern that writing weakens human memory.) This also relates to the concern, centuries-old again, that changes in media proliferate information that is a burden. (For example, Leibniz’s call for the censoring of unworthwhile books as he saw no end their “continuing to increase in number.”)

My personal opinion is that a memory of particular facts (such as the Battle of Hastings) is not terribly important, but maintaining an ability to focus and concentrate is. I also think there’s a lot of hype and punditry on these questions, with many unconvincing books on the subject. The sole exception I have encountered, despite the hyperbole of the title, is Bauerlein’s (2008) “The Dumbest Generation.”

Larry Sanger on 2010-10-22

Joseph, where in my essay do you find me making any claim that “information…is a burden”?  Why do you assume that I am a critic of new technology?  I am merely saying that some wild claims made for it, by some people, are incorrect, and that at bottom it is no replacement for liberal education.

And, Peter, where do you find me saying anything like “Therefore the internet is a hindrance to true knowledge”?  I’m not aware of ever saying such a thing.  The job title I give myself is “Internet knowledge organizer.”  (Right now, for example, I am organizing the knowledge contained in Internet videos, with

But thanks for your latest response, Peter, which I thought was pretty much right.

Guys, I am flattered that you find my essay worth commenting about, but please try to respond to my actual arguments, as opposed to straw men!

Larry Sanger on 2010-10-25

Well, I’m puzzled.  So let me try to take this apart.

You say–as if it were relevant to what I wrote, of course–that in response to new media, Leibniz came out as pro-censorship and Socrates came out as anti-writing.  You imply that my essay “expresses” a SIMILAR “series of concerns and anxieties that have arisen throughout time”–which implication is surely in need of clarification, since it is after all about some brand-new technologies, and whatever analogies you are finding are very far from clear.

By way of clarification you cite “Socrates’ supposed concern that writing weakens human memory,” evidently with the first part of my essay in mind.  That part argues that easy online findability of facts does not render it less incumbent upon us to get knowledge, or to learn things.  You see, I think that we have to memorize items of declarative knowledge, so if you’re opposed to memorization, you’re opposed to knowledge and learning.  But in saying this I am criticizing neither the easy availability of information nor any technology at all, but only what people say about it and the use to which they think it is properly put.  Socrates by contrast was supposed to be criticizing the new technology per se.  So your analogy there fails, as I fail to draw the straightforward anti-new technology conclusion that he is supposed to.  I merely unmask the folly of people like Don Tapscott, whose positions on memorization straightforwardly imply that we, even educated people, can stop learning lots of stuff.  I disagree, and I think most serious intellectual types should as well.  They had better.

And then you say that “this [ref?] also relates” to a “concern” that “changes in media proliferate information that is a burden,” citing Leibniz’s alleged view [citation needed, I fear] that “unworthwhile books” should be censored.  You evidently think these remarks are relevant to my essay, but I couldn’t guess how.  I mean, do you think I’m saying we should censor online conversations or collaboration or something?  Oh, no, I’m sure you didn’t mean that.  But if not, why mention this?  You now attempt to clarify what was probably impossible to clarify as it was bullshit in the first place: “the concern you speak of about memorization is also often accompanied (historically, in arguments about mediating technologies) by complaints about information overload.”  That may be so, but nowhere in my essay do I discuss this as a problem, and none of my essay’s arguments depend on any view about info overload.  So I’m not sure what the point of mentioning it is.  Are you sure you weren’t just sophomorically attempting to tar me with the brush of censorship a la Leibniz?  Surely not.  After all, I’m the guy who is saying it’s important to read books, y’know; you, Tapscott, and others are the ones saying we can now conveniently avoid internalizing information.  :-)

Joseph, what it seems you’ve done with this discussion is point to my essay–and that I appreciate, of course–only then to (apparently?) dismiss it as mere “polemic” which “expresses a series of concerns and anxieties” (as if my arguments were driven by fear rather than reason?).  Once you and your group have read my essay, you’ll see that it does not really express “concerns and anxieties” about technology itself, but about the implausible claims made on its behalf.  I’d be curious to hear if anybody had anything intelligent to say about it in the group!

Joseph Reagle on 2010-11-02

The larger arguments about Wikipedia are fascinating to me, but I have not yet partaken much of them myself, I was simply saying this piece would fit nicely into a historical thread I identify in chapter 7 of the book. For myself in terms of what I find convincing, I tend to like empirical arguments rather than more abstract ones, hence my sympathies with Bauerlein. Before I would make even a qualified claim, I’d want to consider things such as:

1. what do we mean by memorization (how many facts, retained for how long), as I’m sure no on truly intends to be absolutist, though many arguments are rendered that way.
2. are individual learning and group work necessarily exclusive, or perhaps even complementary?
3. do we presume a homogenous population, that is, perhaps in the old days perhaps some minority did read War & Peace, but perhaps most did not, or did and got nothing out of it?
4. do we presume education for homogenous tasks/careers?

I do find the concluding paragraph to be colorful (drones, hive mind, etc – all themes discussed in the book), but ending with a zing/bang is not a bad thing in an essay :) .

Peter Damian on 2010-10-26

[Reagle]>>I did not claim that Sanger is somehow pro-censorship – that’s a stretch!

And Sanger did not claim that you claimed that he is pro-censorship.  Read carefully what he says.

>>I didn’t dismiss Sanger’s argument as merely polemic, I said I’m interested in it “as polemic.”

If you qualify it ‘as polemic’ then you have qualified it as polemic.  You regard it as such.  The ‘merely’ is Sanger’s qualifier - note how he uses the scare quotes (mere ‘polemic’).  Again, read carefully what he says.

Larry Sanger on 2010-10-25

I think a question anyone coming to grips with my essay should be willing to answer is: “Are you in favor of liberal arts education generally, or (if this is different) of people being liberally educated?”

Larry Sanger on 2010-11-02

Your four questions are well taken.

“I was simply saying this piece would fit nicely into a historical thread I identify in chapter 7 of the book”–well, I’ll have to look at ch. 7 to discover what you mean.  “Fit nicely” is vague; a weasel word, in this case.  You say, “The larger arguments about Wikipedia are fascinating to me,” but I didn’t make any arguments about Wikipedia in my essay.  Well, I think I mentioned it once or twice, but in a completely ancillary way.  The essay’s focus is not on Wikipedia at all but on various radical claims about how the Internet should change education.

By the way, the concluding paragraph cannot be taken out of context.  The preceding several pages give it crucial context; it begins, “The educational proposals and predictions of the Internet boosters described above…”

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