I read an interesting article the other day that I printed out for safekeeping and then promptly lost.

That article is either here somewhere or it is in a trash bin elsewhere starting its decomposition process.

The ideas the article planted within me, however, are strong and growing into seedlings that I will share with you now for watering or cutting down.

The core of the article argued that “The New Research” means students and faculty and others in need of information no longer read what they refer to or quote: Doing online searches has replaced reading the text. 

We now rely on Google and Ask and MSN and Yahoo! to do the “reading” for us by pre-scanning texts and websites for our pertinent scholarly returns.

Now I take up the mantle of that argument to make it my own. We have acquiesced our cogent notions of context and meaning to computers and — instead of questioning those returns or being led into the deeper waters of our minds — we just blindly accept, and then copy-and-paste, what the search returns provide us as true and intellectually vetted when they are confessedly not.

We have lost our necessary inborn ability to question authority and the status quo and — I also argue today — the end result of that submission of morality and learning and duty is what directly creates a somnambulistic mentality of following and doing as you are told and not what you think is best.

This sort of “you read it for me” practice of non-learning has been around for many years in the form of Cliffs Notes (born and bred in Lincoln, Nebraska!), and The Skim Every Three Pages Method of self-taught speed reading 30 minutes before an exam on the material and, finally, using the coverall answer “Man’s Inhumanity to Man” as blanket protection when asked to divine meaning from a text you never read.

With the uprising of the Search Engines — note they are not called “Research Engines” out of the necessity to pretend their employment is a beginning and not really an end-all — a new generation of Big Thinkers believe learning begins in fingers typing instead of eyes reading, and our intellectual future rots away before us all as quoting replaces understanding and footnotes replace meaning and the hotlink burns away the branding of original thought.


  1. Spot on David – and not only in the area of research but right across the board.
    All kinds of skills are being lost to humanity because of *instant* and *Short cuts*.
    Another area affected is mathematics where use of calculators are replacing basic numeracy skills.
    On a wider scale ready made meals, fresh or frozen – is eroding a generation of cooking skills, frozen vegetables are a lazy way out of growing your own, we long lost the ability to feed and sustain ourselves.
    Other skills being lost are parenting, story telling, music making, furniture and woodwork skills, weaving, sewing etc etc .

  2. Yes, Nicola, we are teetering in dangerous times where the chasm between self-sufficiency and free thought is being replaced by the electronic agenda of “we’ll think for you and let you know what to think.”
    We used to think we’d lose our individuality in the mass of people, but we really lose who we are in the anonymity of the internet ether encompassing every moment of our days.
    We lose the use of our hands and muscle while other parts of us grow lard to sustain prolonged sessions of sitting in chairs and staring at computer screens.
    Now one could argue the reverse angle this way: There are some who believe in myths and home remedies over hard research provided from scholarly internet resources.
    I am then led to the recent discussion on your blog concerning ear candling.
    Everything I’ve ever read about that process based in scientific fact is that the process is not recommended and is frankly dangerous.
    Yet many people on your site — true believers of myth and wanting — press down my research links to medical science because they prefer their own inner somnambulism and the sanctuary of believing to the hard evidence of medical fact.
    I’m not sure how we resolve these disconnects from the self and cogency. In one direction we have total complicity with the veracity of search returns and in the other opposite we have those who don’t wish to be inconvenienced by medical truths so they can maintain their mythic value sets.

  3. The ear candling is an interesting example – especially as the NHS ( Our National health system) has now adopted it and pays for it as a treatment – which means it has passed the clutches of NICE – which many drugs including those for Alzheimer’s, breast cancer, bowel cancer do not.
    I would assume that as the NHS has adopted the practice as an approved treatment that there is research and results to say that not only is the practice safe but also effective and a viable alternative to ear syringing which is horribly painful. I will see if I can unearth some of the research and findings.
    There are other old wives tales and *miracle* cures that are also coming out of the wilderness and gaining mainstream acceptance – the use of manuka honey, tea tree oil, buttercup syrup, leeches and maggots as antibacterials, cough medicine and infected wound and flesh cleaners respectively.
    Manuka honey has proved invaluable against some of the superbug infections such as MRSA. Sadly the research results were not available until after I had my brush with it.

  4. Hi Nicola!
    Yes, it is fascinating how folklore can triumph over medical research.
    I won’t repost all the scientific links I posted on your site concerning the dangers of ear candling — a lighted cone on fire stuck in your ear canal! — but doing just a basic Google Scholar search reveals more danger than benefit.

  5. I did read all the links, and appreciate the time and trouble you undertook to make us aware of the dangers. As a *risk* manager I was happy with the way the risks were managed. I guess all practitioners are not the same – very much like other areas of alternative medicine.

  6. Hi Nicola!
    You were absolutely generous and kind — as you always are — to the comments I posted on your blog and I thank you for that consideration.
    Alternative medicine is a fascinating field and I am a big proponent of that sort of healing in concert with traditional medicine and research proof — I’m just currently unconvinced that ear candling is an appropriate and safe solution for the proper removal of ear wax.

  7. Hi David,
    Not reading the whole post and just going with the small excerpt is dangerous. My Filipino discussion yesterday was an example where a post that contained the phrase that the Philippines is more Americanized than America could have easily been taken out of context because the author was saying something completely different than just that one quote.
    The same thing happens with movie reviews. I remember hearing someone say on a radio program that he said he’d have to watch a movie over and over again just to figure out what it was about because it was so horribly written. Of course, he was quoted in an ad saying that he’d watch the movie over and over — giving the idea that he thought it was good.
    Cutting and pasting is valuable if the selections are done with an eye toward the full and complete thought in context.

  8. Chris!
    I agree reading only excerpts are dangerous! There are even full university professors who now claim just reading review of books is enough to “know the book” to quote it without reading it in full purchase.
    Full context is important.
    I used to have a roommate who would religiously read every Sunday the NYTimes Review of Books. He then claimed he had actually read the books and he was smart enough and clever enough to use the reviews to cover his pretending that he actually read the books.
    For his associates that didn’t know any better he came off as an incredibly rich — to afford all those new books! — and deeply well-read. It was all a sham from the start!

  9. Hi David,
    We used to be quizzed on the news of the day when I was in certain classes in Journalism school. The easy way back then to always be prepared was to read the contents page in the New York Times to get a general overview of what was happening, even if all the stories weren’t read.

  10. Hi David,
    We used to be quizzed on the news of the day when I was in certain classes in Journalism school. The easy way back then to always be prepared was to read the contents page in the New York Times to get a general overview of what was happening, even if all the stories weren’t read.

  11. Chris —
    There are a lot of students who pretend to know what they are required to read. The difficult thing is for those charged with teaching them not allow them to so easily get away with that kind of surface understanding. It is certainly a challenge to get people to behave as they know they should!

  12. Hi Gordon!
    That’s an excellent resource and I think that book was mentioned in the article I still can’t find!
    Yes, what a crock that book is and it simply disgusts those who care about detail and knowing!
    I’m sure that book is being translated right now. It’ll likely be a bestseller — but will anyone read it? Or will they only pretend? :mrgreen:

  13. Well honestly I think the book is more targeted towards people who attend dozens of cocktail parties a month and are constantly faced with people who want to know their opinions on certain novels and other pieces of literature that some people just can’t be bothered to read.
    I’m very curious to read the book if not just to practice my French reading ability. I’m going to wait until I see it in stores around here, though as the cost of importing it is ridiculous.

  14. Hi Gordon!
    I found the article thanks to that book you mentioned:

    There are two ways to approach our cultural crossroads. You can either wring your hands and lament — as an eloquent school librarian did recently in The Washington Post — that literacy today has less to do with Wordsworth or Faulkner and more to do with ”how we find our way through the digital forest of information overload.” Or you can be a sport about it, slip your earbuds back in and pick up a copy of Pierre Bayard’s best-selling ”How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.”
    There is one catch: Professor Bayard writes in French. Of course, that hardly matters as, by definition, you’re not going to crack the spine.
    To summarize: Don’t be put off by your ignorance. Let your subconscious do the talking. Remember that text matters less than context. A 52-year-old professor of literature and a psychoanalyst, Mr. Bayard has got this far without ever having picked up ”Oliver Twist” or finished ”Ulysses.” He remains guilt-free on both counts. In his view, to engage with one book is to forgo the acquaintance of many others. Reword that slightly, and you have the battle cry of half the men I dated.

  15. Hi David,
    Have you had any problems with “professional note takers” in big lecture classes?
    I know that these businesses were getting started when I was in undergraduate school using photocopiers. Now, they advertise on the net looking for smart students to sit in on big lecture classes to take notes for the students who feel it isn’t worth their tuition money to show up. Or, are they just using a tool to make sure they’ve covered all of the relevant classroom material?
    Mike McElroy wrote about the service for IU’s Indiana Daily Student last year:

    So is your E201 midterm, and your M118 test is Friday.
    In case this is news to any IU students, seniors Benny Goldman and AJ Punjabi are hoping they have a solution.
    “We saw a need for a bunch of students missing class and not having the notes,” Punjabi said. “You might be online at 4 in the morning and realize you have a test in four hours — you might want to get the notes.”
    The two entrepreneurs decided to sell students those notes via the Internet.

  16. Chris!
    Yes, professional note takers are a big problem in big classes that never change. I know professors who haven’t changed their semester lectures for 30 years! They lecture from yellowed, typewritten pages, and their exams never change. That is dangerous teaching because it requires not new generational though. All teaching should be dynamic and relevant.
    The biggest threat is not just note takers who make money, but surreptitious and illegal recording — both audio and video — of lectures and class discussions. That’s a growing business because you really can “attend” class without attending.
    Some universities are placing lectures online in recorded format for listening and viewing. I’m against that sort of pimping of learning, though. You cannot discount the live dynamic between student and instructor — and if that dyad CAN be discounted, then it isn’t being properly taught or presented.

  17. Grad school drudges like myself are constantly battling against unread research. It simply doesn’t work in an argument, and it shows. Shortcuts will never win in academia as long as we get paid just enough to justify reading undergrad dreck carefully.
    The real arena for half-cocked, half-researched, half-considered theories? Publishing. You only need half a thought to put out a wildly successful book on, say, man’s inhumanity to man. You don’t even need to write it yourself… it’s “homage” if you liberally quote without quotation marks.

  18. That’s right, tangle! Stealing of thoughts and wonderings of others on all levels is a pernicious and continued threat against higher thoughts and deeper meaning everywhere!

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