Food for the Soul
A bi-weekly blog on the virtuous life. Written not by a master, but by a student, but one at least who knows whence sound teaching is found.
The different disposition of men for the operations of the soul depend on the different disposition of their bodies. - A. G. Sertillanges, O.P. The Intellectual Life
Education is the introduction to the whole of reality. - Luigi Guissani The Risk of Education
What overcomes abstractness is only the present. The present is the real object of knowledge. All that is not, in some way, in the tangible present does not exist. Even God, in His existence, must be present here, since presence is the characteristic of God's being. - Luigi Guissani Generating Traces
In the quiet spaces opened up by the prolonged, undistracted reading of a book, people made their own associations, drew their own inferences and analogies, fostered their own ideas. They thought deeply as they read deeply. - Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains
The faster we surf across the surface of the Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google gains to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. Its advertising system, moreover, is explicitly designed to figure out which messages are most likely to grab our attention and then to place those messages in our field of view. Every click we make on the Web marks a break in our concentration, a bottom-up disruption of our attention—and it’s in Google’s economic interest to make sure we click as often as possible. - Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains
Media aren’t just channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski. -Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains
To remain vital, culture must be renewed in the minds of the members of every generation. Outsource memory, and culture withers. -Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains
The tensions disturbing the world today are in fact related to a more fundamental tension rooted in the human heart. In man himself many elements are in conflict with each other. On one side, he has experience of his many limitations as a creature. On the other hand, he knows that there is no limit to his aspirations, and that he is called to a higher kind of life. - Gaudium et Spes 9 &10.
I want to begin this post by acknowledging the difficulties that parents face in making decisions about how to raise and educate their children. The world presents itself as a very complicated place; without the gift of wisdom, it is in fact a very complicated place. Wisdom simplifies things because it gives one the perspective of God who knows the interconnection of things at their most fundamental level. God's knowledge of himself and all creatures is perfectly comprehended in one Word. We don't have the same vantage point as God. We begin with the complexity of individual things and over time, hopefully we begin to see things in a more simple and basic manner, which is a higher kind of knowledge that we call wisdom. I think we need to take a closer look at the complex reality of technology applications, especially in the area of mobile devices, social media, and internet based learning in order to gain some wisdom about the way in which we should be using things things.
I am writing this blog post from a laptop computer. I'm not advocating for the complete repudiation of technology. I don't believe the Amish are fundamentally right in their approach to this question. But I am a millennial: I was born in 1984. I remember the advent of Nintendo, the internet, classroom computers, cordless phones, bag-phones for the car, flip-phones, and now smart phones and now free wi-fi, 4G and LTE. These things have changed my life, and the lives of everyone around me...not all of it is for the better. Technological progress is not necessarily human progress. I've come to see that quicker, flashier, and easier are not necessarily better. Using technology is not always better.
The most important thing that anyone reading this blog should know, especially any parent of a Bishop Ryan Lion, is that everything that I am trying to do within the school is aimed at providing an education in virtue. We have to get our humanity right if we are going to truly educate our children. I think that technology, in many ways, is messing with the proper maturation and perfection of our children in their humanness. The are being hindered in their ability to grow in emotional maturity, intellectual depth, and fulfilling relationships by the uncritical use of technology in nearly every aspect of their lives, including their schooling.
The two videos that I embedded in this post should sound an alarm within our minds. In my case, I know that they confirm what I have been thinking and fearing for a while now. Interestingly, the first video is the only video that I could find referring to the full length 60 minutes interview. Those episodes are no longer on Youtube's website... It is a shame, everyone should see the full length interview. 60 Minutes also interviewed app developers with neuroscience backgrounds that make money by designing applications that are more effective in producing the outcomes they want in terms of clicks and time spent on the app, i.e. they are designing the applications to produce the dopamine releases in just the precise way that will get you hooked. Very insightful. Worth our attention.
Luigi Guissani, an Italian priest who was a life-long educator and profound thinker, understood very well that the role of education in our lives is to bring us into contact with the whole of reality. The truth of things is the object of knowledge, but the truth of things requires an accurate perception of things as well. This is where Fr. Sertillanges' quote comes into play: "The different disposition of men for the operations of the soul depend on the different disposition of their bodies." To use an obvious example, if my eyes do not function properly, my soul will not be well disposed to understand visible things properly. Similarly, if my brain is being shaped by the technology that I use, that shaping of my brain may either help or hinder my intellect's ability to think, reason, and understand things properly.
One of the ways that technology is undermining a virtuous disposition of one's mind is through replacing one's own memory with the external memory of a device. The problem with this is that depth of thought and true insight do not come without an understanding of things, and one's personal memory is the storehouse of ideas from which understanding, synthesis, and growth in knowledge comes. Only superficial mental connections can be made between things that I do not hold within my memory. Only superficial thinking can happen when we outsource memory to a device.
Yet, Google is undoubtedly an amazing resource; so amazing that it easily gives one the false assumption that because I can "google" just about anything, I actually know just about everything. The amount of times that I have heard students cynically question their need to remember something or know something because they can just "google" it when they need to, confirms the temptation to confuse potential knowledge with actual knowledge. Without diligently building one's personal knowledge base, which is founded upon the use of one's memory, one risks become a sophist who uses words without knowing their meaning.
Nicholas Carr wrote a very illuminating book about the way that the internet is changing the way that we think. It isn't just changing what we think about, it is changing how we think. The process itself is being shaped by the media through which we engage information. This way of engaging information in a nearly continuously changing and omnipresent way is leading to distraction and superficiality in our thought. We skim and scan more than we read intently and completely. We jump from page to page, idea to idea, without quietly and clearly understanding things at a deeper level. Our interior lives are becoming a cacophony of competing voices in which it is becoming more difficult to hear and think clearly about what is being said. Creating a narrative has replaced communicating the truth as the overarching purpose of public communication. Soundbites have replaced arguments. Riots rival debates for levels of persuasiveness. Facebook posts have replaced editorial columns. Snapchat mocks real face to face conversation. We are becoming detached from real communication. We are communicating in a less human way. Our thinking and emotional life are suffering for it. I believe that our uncritical use of the internet and mobile devices is contributing to this trend.
I'll conclude by quoting Nicholas Carr again: "To remain vital, culture must be renewed in the minds of the members of every generation. Outsource memory, and culture withers." I see a withering culture when I look at our society today. In our culture we see people engaged more with machines than with other people. We see people who claim to be connected deeply lonely and sad. We see kids who have been given everything suffering from staggering rates of anxiety. We see students who can't part from their phones suffering depression as a result of what happens on those phones. Is this a healthy culture? We see sexual "relationships" (this culture would not support marriage) mediated by mobile apps and conversations by emojis. Cave men communicated with emojis. Words were a real advancement. Is this a good thing? I think that some of the practices that we are commonly engaging in on the internet are deeply disordered. What I mean by disordered is that the practices promote ways of living contrary to authentic human happiness. Fleeting dopamine releases, sure, but happiness, no way. I seen our culture today an increasingly restless, anxious, and dissatisfied culture. I am not comfortable supporting this culture.
I feel the need to cry from the rooftops that there is a better way! These things are not negligible, they touch upon our capacity to be happy. My hope is that by having the courage to face the truth about how technology is affecting our children, we will be able to build a culture within this school in which parents, teachers, and students prefer reality to virtual reality, face to face relationships to virtual ones, and holy detachment from the addictive devices in each of our pockets to the slavish dependence upon the "latest and greatest" dopamine drips. Real life is much more fulfilling than produced, directed, and filtered life lived on the internet, but in order for our students to learn this truth, they need to be reintroduced to the primacy of reality.
What are some of my recommendations to help in this regard?