Opinion
Reading & Literacy Opinion

Information Overloaded

By Thomas Washington — July 30, 2007 7 min read

As a high school librarian, I’m reading all kinds of damning reports these days on the student flock’s increasing attention-deficit-disorder brain mode. This multitasking generation, we’re led to believe, can’t seem to focus on any one item for longer than nine minutes. Yet I, too, am having trouble concentrating lately. So I wonder if I’ve become afflicted with the same baffling disorder that seems to affect my students, whom I so often condemn for not checking out the latest nonfiction best-sellers on my new-arrivals display shelf.

The other night, for example, I stumbled over this paragraph in Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom: “The self-denying ordinance to refrain from majority rule on certain kinds of issues that is embodied in our Constitution and in similar written or unwritten constitutions elsewhere, and the specific provisions in these constitutions or their equivalents prohibiting coercion of individuals, are themselves to be regarded as reached by free discussion and as reflecting essential unanimity about means.”

I don’t normally venture into books on economics, but a conservative friend told me Friedman is a must-read for making sense of real estate bubbles and stratospheric budget deficits, and for keeping faith in the magic wand of the marketplace as a cure for socioeconomic ills. There was a time when I might have worked with his convolutions to unspool the main idea. Today, I have neither the time nor the desire. Well, I probably do have time, but with so many other books by my bedside, queued like a fleet of 757s on a snowy runway, there’s too much competing head noise to plow through this prose. I put Friedman down for good, just after Page 30.

The tipping point in information overload has been reached, and the students’ apparent aversion to reading does not signal an attention deficit at all.

Milton Friedman is, in fact, the latest in a long list of reading casualties that now lay scattered around my home in tiny piles. Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu is a long shot, but I try him anyway, mostly because he is still praised in numerous circles as a delightful adventure in reading. Though I’ve come to accept my failure with Joyce and Pynchon, I hate to think I’m missing out on some grand literary scheme by not reading Proust. Worse, I don’t like thinking of myself as dimwitted for not “getting it.”

When I heard Alain de Botton, who wrote How Proust Can Change Your Life, praising the author on National Public Radio as a modern-day soothsayer for our harried lives, I went out and bought the Everyman’s Library six-volume boxed set of his work. I’ve failed at least six times over the last decade to mount a full assault on the first volume, Swann’s Way. Proust’s verbosity gets the best of me every time, just after Page 100 or so, when all that talk about waiting for his mother to come tuck him in subsides.

I often make the rounds through our school library carrels to see what students are reading, sometimes to gain a better sense of their frustration with the likes of The Scarlet Letter and The Odyssey, sometimes to suggest other books to cure their ills, and occasionally to test a hypothesis: Do the students know something I don’t? Has it taken them just one or two years to arrive at the same conclusion, however unrealized, that I’m reaching today, after a quarter-century of sustained reading habits?

My theory is this: The tipping point in information overload has been reached, and the students’ apparent aversion to reading does not signal an attention deficit at all. Moving on to something else is a survival tactic for negotiating the jungle of our information-besotted culture of words. Kids’ success in beating the best path through this muddle, so that they can seamlessly deal with an e-mail, a Word document, and an iPod download, is based more on the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff than absorbing excess information.

This is the shining dilemma of the information age: The pursuit of knowledge is less a process of acquisition than one of hurling irrelevant material out the window. And it makes no difference whether you are a student or an adult (although I do think this new generation comes more readily wired for negotiating the database mines). I, for one, am devoting more energy to ignoring most of the small print in all shapes and forms—newspapers, manuals, king-size novels, the word spillage at cocktail parties or at the meeting table—than I am in bundling it for a semblance of meaning.

Weeks ago, when I was switching the lights off in the library back room, a student popped her head out of a carrel and shouted, “There’s still somebody here!” I politely asked how much more time she needed. Her reply? “At least another year—until I make it through this book.” The student was stuck on the second chapter of William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, a reading assignment for her American history course. She was having particular difficulty with a passage in which Bradford describes the problems the Pilgrims had in escaping England and making it to Holland. The girl had highlighted the entire paragraph—two pages—in fluorescent orange. Probably, she’d have a quiz or a test on the chapter soon enough, either a Scantron multiple-choice affair that measured her ability to paraphrase and decode the information vitals, or an essay composition that might compare the work against Colonial America’s broader panorama of events.

Because I was an English teacher before I became a school librarian, I am guilty of having inflicted this same reading punishment on kids. Yet, with so much else to choose from today on American history, Bradford would be out in my book. Although I still believe students have to pay their dues as readers—you make them more skilled readers by having them read Bradford or George Eliot, in the same way a fitness trainer slowly increases the heaviness of a weight to create muscle—I question this choice of primary text for an examination of Colonial America. In fact, if I were teaching this course, I’d skip Bradford altogether and opt for a secondary history text that would boil down the student’s highlighted section to this: “Bradford tells how the Pilgrims were forced to flee to Holland in 1608. He writes about the immense suffering they underwent while there, and their eventual determination to sail to the New World.”

My slash-and-burn technique would not go over well with historians. But who has the time, when there is so much other information to absorb, or when other history books (pass the Wikipedia) can fly the reader over Bradford’s settlement and provide a snapshot view, rather than making you slog through his forest of words?

This is the shining dilemma of the information age: The pursuit of knowledge is less a process of acquisition than one of hurling irrelevant material out the window.

If we’re going to insist that students bring home the information booty on Bradford by extracting the main ideas from his journal instead of simply admiring the book’s aesthetic values of form, rhythm, and content, then we need not bother with him, really. For proficiency’s sake—and ever since the information-overload bomb dropped, it’s all about proficiency (read: testing)—we can amass far more data in less time with a secondary text, whether a CliffsNotes or wordage from an American history scholar.

Clearly, living under this full-court press of information overload forces a few key questions for students and adults alike. What do we need to know? Why do we need to know it? And, given the fact that by the end of our lives we will only have absorbed and converted to knowledge a sliver of the information available to us in this new database-and-blog universe (the Web-page world, after all, is expanding and contracting at the rate of 1.5 million pages a day), should we bother knowing it?

The Pulitzer-prize-winning biographer Stacy Schiff argues that the very definition of reading has changed. “We are no longer reading,” she writes, “we’re searching.” Along with such changed reading habits, I would add, the definition of how we’re educating students must also change—dramatically.

What, for example, are we to do with the term paper as a means to measure what students really know? Many educators have argued for some time that the term paper is dead. But the real conundrum here is the proliferation of Web sites where students can purchase homework and research papers as easily as they shop for a new cellphone.

Information (and the means to locate it) no longer runs at a premium. What will run at a premium is the ability to inspire students to turn up gems of original knowledge in the digital-information mine, thoughts and ideas that advance thinking rather than regurgitate data.

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