Did the Idea of “Knowledge for Knowledge’s Sake” Die With the Internet?

Moravian

This article recently came across one of my social media feeds.  It is written by Byron L. Grigsby, the president of Moravian College, an excellent liberal arts college in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Grigsby writes:

Vocation. This is a word with deep and important significance. Liberal Arts. This is an ideal of education with an equally deep set of meanings. Liberal arts colleges already do a great job developing a diverse group of socially responsible, critical thinkers, but they must start guiding students to their true vocation. For liberal arts colleges, the idea of knowledge for knowledge sake can no longer be your primary focus. That idea died with the onset of the Internet.

I don’t mean vocation in the way it is used today, a trade, but rather by its original meaning, “to find one’s calling.” So, how is this achieved while staying true to the foundations of a liberal arts education?

The answer is deceptively simple; liberal arts institutions can no longer stand pat with traditional models alone. They must start to embrace career exploration, technology, and professional programs.

Read the entire piece at a website called University Business.

I need to begin my analysis of this article with a caveat.  I am not opposed to helping liberal arts students think about what they can do with their liberal arts degrees.  Anyone who reads The Way of Improvement Leads Home knows that I have been committed to these kinds of efforts.  I devoted a whole chapter in my book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past to career options for history students and I have devoted extensive time at this blog to my “So What CAN You Do With a History Major?” series.

But I was troubled by the way Grigsby framed his piece, particularly this sentence: “For liberal arts colleges, the idea of knowledge for knowledge sake can no longer be your primary focus. That idea died with the onset of the Internet.”

If I read him correctly, Grigsby seems to think that a liberal arts education is simply the accumulation of knowledge–information that can easily be found online through a simple Google search.  This is the equivalent of the idea that the study of history is simply the memorization of facts.  Frankly, I am surprised that Grigsby would say such a thing. His bio suggests that he is a humanities person–a scholar of early modern British literature.

By making the leap directly from Internet knowledge to career development, Grigsby misses what is perhaps the most important contribution that liberal arts colleges can make to democratic life–training in the ability to think critically about the information found on the Internet.

I thought about Grigsby’s piece as I read Sam Wineburg‘s article “Why Historical Thinking is Not About History.”  Many of you know Wineburg.  He teaches history teachers how to think historically from his post at Stanford University. He directs the Stanford History Education Group.  He has written several books including one my personal favorites, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.  His appearance on The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast is our most popular episode (#4).

In his latest article, which is adopted from his keynote address at the 2015 meeting of the American Association for State and Local History, Wineburg approaches our information-saturated way of life from a different perspective than Grigsby.

He writes:

Think back to claims that our president was born in Kenya. This was a claim embraced by many prominent people, including a current Republican candidate for president. And there on YouTube was an actual tape, a tape of Sarah Obama, the president’s grandmother, being interviewed by an American cleric about the circumstances of our president’s birth.

So I wanted to do an experiment with the generation often referred to as digital natives. I was asked to give a talk at a highly regarded independent school. The administration had assembled their sophomore and junior classes, over 100 students. I asked these kids how many of them had heard that President Obama had been born in Kenya. Sophisticated and well-healed, they looked at me as if I were from outer space.

But then, knowing teenagers as I do, I appealed to their bravado. “I assume,” I said, “that if you are so certain, you all must have examined the evidence. I assume all of you have heard the tape of Sarah Obama, the president’s paternal grandmother, talking about being ‘present’ at her grandson’s birth. Just so I can be sure, please raise your hand if you’ve listened to this tape.” No hands went in the air. “Soooooo,” I taunted them, “you’re judging a claim without looking at the evidence?” And then—those of you who work with teenagers will recognize this move—I asked them, “Are you open-minded or closed?” I’ve yet to meet a teenager who admits to close-mindedness.

I played the tape. Sarah Obama, a woman who had never left Kenya, claimed that she was “present” at her grandson’s birth. Someone’s a liar. Either an 86-year-old woman or the President of the United States. Now, with a little bit of nudging, students started to motivate some questions. Had the tape been doctored? No, it had been examined forensically. It was authentic. What about the material that comes before and after the part I played–a lovely question, very pertinent to historical thinking. Another wanted to know if the translation into English was correct, an astute question because Sarah Obama was speaking Swahili, not her native language. What happens to this word “present” as it moves from Luo, Sarah Obama’s native language, to her broken Swahili and then into English? Does it mean she was physically present? Or, that she merely heard of her grandson’s birth?

“What else would we want to know about the tape?” I pressed on. But it seemed that I had exhausted the bank of student questions. Despite the fact that many of these digital natives were headed to top colleges, they were still babes in the woods when it came to asking rudimentary questions of historical thinking: Who authored this tape, how did it come to be? Who was this Bishop Ron McCrae, the head of the Anabaptist Church of North America, the man heard speaking to Sarah Obama’s interpreter? How would we find out? Such questions-the A’s, B’s, and C’s of historical thinking— were anything but intuitive to this group of bright teenagers.

Let me suggest, then, that it is one thing to be a digital native and quite another to be digitally intelligent. Long before the Internet, Thomas Jefferson argued for the wisdom of the yeoman farmer, a person who would think, discern, and come to reasoned conclusions in the face of conflicting information. Today, when practically everything has changed about how we get our information, what does informed citizenship mean? 

This what a liberal arts education should be doing–teaching students how to think and evaluate evidence so that they can be functioning members of a democratic society.  This is what historians do for a living.  Yes, vocation is important. Yes, careers are important. But the notion that liberal arts colleges should focus on these things because all the information we need can be found on the Internet just seems naive and completely out of touch.

Wineburg concludes:

Back in the analog stone-age we could rely on factchecked newspapers to stay well-informed. Watching the news at night, we could rely on the major outlets and their anchors to save us from error. Peter Jennings. Tom Brokaw. Brian Williams. (Okay, maybe not Brian Williams.)

What once fell on the shoulders of editors, fact-checkers, and subject matter experts now falls on the shoulders of each and every one of us. But there’s a problem with this new reality. As the journalist John H. McManus reminds us, in a democracy the ill-informed hold just as much power in the ballot box as the well-informed. The future of the republic hangs in the balance.

Reliable information is to civic intelligence what clean air and clean water are to public health. Long before the Internet, long before blogs, before Instagram, before Twitter and Yik Yak, James Madison understood what was at stake when people cannot tell the difference between credible information and shameless bluff. “A popular government,” Madison wrote, “ without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Read Wineburg’s entire piece here.

4 thoughts on “Did the Idea of “Knowledge for Knowledge’s Sake” Die With the Internet?

  1. Dave: Great catch. Thanks. The link is fixed. I am surprised no one caught this earlier. Perhaps this tells me something about the way people read (and perhaps comment) on my posts.

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  2. This comment is well to the side of your points here, but when Grigsby implies that, traditionally, a liberal arts education is all about “knowledge for knowledge sake,” he’s mistaken. That was John Henry Newman’s notion, but his was an eccentric take. Historically, from the ancient Greeks on, a liberal arts education prepared students for the vocations associated with being a gentleman (politics, law, military, etc.). The liberal arts were always seen as eminently practical.

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