In a mere 20 years the internet has moved from a high-tech curiosity to a basic element of modern life. It changes how we live, from how we shop, communicate, do business, learn, and, in some cases pray. It has transformed information from a scarcity to a glut, brought the world right into our homes and offices, and become a necessity. To take a few examples, consider the following:
Reading is in dramatic decline. The essential practice of extended, critical, and book-grounded reading retains its importance in reality but is declining in practice amidst today’s technology-centered frenzy. Reading is “at risk” in American society, especially among the young (NEA 2004, 2007). Not casual reading, as of e-mails and instant texts, but extended, concentrated reading of narratives and novels. The extent of the consequences of this trend will not be known for some time, but one that has been identified by Nicholas Carr (2010) is the “culture of distraction” that is having profound impact on how we think. Computer users can scan, multi-task, and perceive vast amounts of data, but they are losing the ability to concentrate and focus their attention with persistence.
RIP, the Book. Few cultural topics have drawn more attention and generated more discussion in the past few years as has the “future of the book.” Many writers have pronounced the book dead, or certainly doomed. But the characteristic extended reading of the narrative is a primary prescription for countering the onslaught of the constant interruptions and “surfing” of internet use. Two points are useful here: a) pundits, the prominent, and former presidents all produce their book. Fame and media attention prove fickle; lasting influence is achieved by writing an extensive account of one’s “story” and seeing it placed on the library shelf. Thus is the story presented and preserved for lasting influence. And b) no topic has seen more rapid and steady growth than text guides to new software and hardware. No sooner is an important program, let’s call it XYZ software, introduced than appear various handbooks: XYZ for Dummies; Complete Idiot’s Guide to…; Quick Reference Guide to…; XYZ Zen, on and on. If e-learning were the magic bullet in fact, these guides would soon disappear from the shelves of bookstores and libraries. The book will be around for a long time. It serves many needs well.
Rewiring our brains: There is growing evidence that the internet is rewiring our brains, creating an “ecosystem of interruption technologies” and patterns of distraction and forgetfulness. Younger generations are absorbed in the constant interruption of this “age of participation” and social interaction of the internet and mobile communication. The decline of deep reading and the accompanying loss of the fusing of minds, imaginations, experience, and meaning across space and time on the printed page will have a far-reaching effect on language and our entire culture (N. Carr, The Shallows, 2010).
Long live the book: While reading is increasingly de-valued in the internet age, it remains the essential learning skill. Reading (free voluntary reading) improves vocabulary, writing, understanding, and communication skills (Krashen 2004). Serious reading is not “natural;” it has to be learned and cultivated. But examples including the phenomenal success of Oprah’s book selections and J. K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter novels among the young demonstrate that people will read what interests them. Deep, or extended reading characterizes the intellectual achievement of the modern world. The power of literature, the sciences, the humanities and social sciences enabled unprecedented advances in the 500 years that the printing press and steadily growing literacy created the tools for this achievement. But, serious or popular, extended reading is the desired goal. Uncovering and stimulating intrinsic interest to increase voluntary reading is the primary mission of University of the Book (UBk).
The trouble with college. Not all of our institutions have adapted to the new realities. Traditional college education is coming under increasing fire for being too expensive, too inflexible (with tenured professors teaching obsolete theories) and lock-step curricula running along narrow disciplinary tracks, using mind-numbing jargon; and with growing administrations that outnumber teaching faculty. The system remains embedded in an information transfer model, what John Seely Brown calls a ‘push’ paradigm that marginalizes essential skills for dealing with accelerating change. Better tools are required for ‘pulling’ needed information out of the static and noise of information glut. The long ignored best means to that end is simply to focus on what the learner needs to know. The mainstream model inadequately cultivates this essential skill.
The campus is slowly adapting, experimenting with undergraduate research, inquiry and discovery learning, problem-based learning, learning communities, and distance and online learning. But these endeavors continue to bear the weight of extended overhead and disciplinary (epistemic) control of the curriculum that is too extensive and often out of date.
Autodidacticism, or self-directed learning has been a hallmark of original thinkers for centuries, from Descartes to Einstein, from Ben Franklin to Thomas Edison, from Abraham Lincoln to Malcolm X. By focusing on the interests and context of the reader, the method can impact ordinary people as well, at any age.
FROM CAMPUS TO COMMUNITY
Assumptions: a) good book collections—available in thousands of libraries across the country and around the globe—provide a rich “wherewithal” for learning and knowledge; and b) professional librarians can guide reading inquiry. Good reading compares with classroom instruction for effect. In the library the learning mode is to match the resource to the individual, utilizing the well selected and ‘presented’ books in the collection (and other cooperating libraries).
A new emphasis on ‘what is learned’ is gaining traction amidst a tradition of emphasizing ‘what is taught.’ A more easily certifiable definition of learning is: “learning is engagement that changes perception, belief, or behavior.” Good books have provided the means to better understanding and perspective (i.e. leadership) for generations. Formative assessment in the form of reading journals and e-portfolios can demonstrate when and if change has occurred. When learner and guide agree that sufficient change has occurred and the learner’s goal is met, then true learning can be demonstrated.
WHAT CHANGES ARE NECESSARY?
Realization of this idea requires several changes:
1) A transformation of the library, from thinking of itself as a source of information, to becoming a center for ongoing, lifelong learning, the hub of the emerging learning society. One component is to implement resource (book) based, learner initiated, reading/ learning (by either the individual or group), librarian guided, specialist advised, technology enabled engagement that changes learner perception, belief, or behavior.
2) An extensive network of tutors, scholars, and lovers of learning and the book must be gathered and coordinated into a force providing support for everyone needing to learn something new, in their context, using their preferred learning style, at nominal cost.
3) A multi-dimensional, hydra-headed campaign to champion the book as a central component of learning and the competent society. Libraries, publishers, book stores, teachers, and all stakeholders of the printed word must coordinate a major campaign to counter the “death of the book” chatter on behalf of deep learning.
The University of the Book champions reading and the printed word as a powerful technology for developing the habits of complex thinking, extended argument, and the creative analysis that characterized the intellectual dynamism of the modern world. Extended reading, nurtured by reader self-selection with knowledgeable guidance, must remain a core skill for anyone who would play a leading role in the civic, cultural, and economic life of the future.
In sum, the University of the Book offers an alternative, scalable system that utilizes existing resources in communities across the globe to supplement the education system to assure that deep reading and the accompanying powers of concentration and discipline remain competencies for future generations and, notably, those who would prepare themselves to lead.
Note: This enhanced activity provides the library with a new role that is stakeholder-engaging and revenue generating, an important consideration today.