How E-Reading Threatens Learning in the Humanities

Naomi S. Baron, Dave's Educational Blog, Jul 16, 2014
Commentary by Stephen Downes

Having made my living somehow as a student of the humanities, and having read extensively both in the paper-based and digital forms of long and short text, I think I'm in a good position to discuss this commentary in the Chronicle (where else?) from Naomi S. Baron explaining why digital reading is so impoverished. In a nutshell: it isn't. The article looks at reading strictly from the perspective of a paper-based reader, and the surveys (unreferenced and unlinked) seem to be of people from that perspective as well. The core of the criticism is essentially that people can't read deeply online.

"Are students even reading Milton or Thucydides or Wittgenstein these days," she asks. The invocation of Wittgenstein creates an odd example, making me wonder whether she has read Wittgenstein. Reading Wittgenstein is like reading OLDaily (not an accident). Wittgenstein's work was created on small sheets of paper or index cards, which had no fixed order (his books, other than the Tractatus, were actually assembled by his students, who relied on their own notes from lectures as well as Wittgenstein's actual writing). You would never simply 'read' Wittgenstein. And that's the problem with Baron's argument: a failure to understand that there are multiple ways to approach text.

And this makes me think of the obvious counterexample to her argument: software programming. Virtually all of it is done on a computer screen. It is deep, exacting work, involving a precise grammatically perfect body of text running many times longer than War and Peace. It can be read beginning to end, but is better read with intent (to identify a variable, to debug a function, to optimize a sort or search). It proves that people have the focus to create and master deep and complex works digitally. And, I contend, they can do this with Wittgenstein, with Milton or (if they must) Thucydides (far better to read Herodotus or Hume). Indeed, one of the reasons people read shorter items online is that, in many ways, they read much more deeply, extracting and even debating picayune details in book-length discussion threads.

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