Mulgrave News

T.S. Eliot and the Internet

Posted: April 2, 2015

In “Choruses from ‘The Rock’”, T.S. Eliot wrote:

Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

Eliot’s quote resonates today. It illustrates that the need to distinguish among information, knowledge and wisdom is as relevant and timeless as ever. The advent of the internet has only amplified this a thousand by a thousand by a thousand times.

The internet will surely be known as one of the seminal inventions in human history. Its transformative effect on how we work, how we access information, how we communicate, and how we relate to one another is reshaping society in almost every facet. It is democratizing knowledge and revolutionizing how people conceive and describe the world to an even greater extent than the printing press did in the 1400s.

The great revolution is not, however, in technology itself, but, as Alan November reminds us, it is in access to information. Research has never been easier, information never more accessible than it is today, and yet, the easiness of the means may loosen the ends. As powerful as the internet is, our point and click proclivity tempts us into superficially gleaning bite-sized pieces of information as we search and surf. But searching is not knowing. Too infrequently we stop to make sense of what we look up, to question its assumptions, to understand how it fits within a larger context, or in contrast to other salient points of view. In short, we have information in abundance and, at best, the most dubious of claims to knowledge let alone wisdom.

The quick-twitch nature of internet-based research can, if left undisciplined, lead to the shallow aggregation of information absent any meaningful analysis. The primacy of the internet, if anything, only serves to heighten the need for critical thinking, for filtering the meaningful from the superficial, the signal from the noise. The critical thinking skills involved in assessing the quality, validity and reliability of information, to seek out alternative viewpoints and to arrive at an informed perspective have never been more critical, never more important to the constitution of a well-educated person than they are today.

The growth of massive search engines also adds to the premium on critical thinking. The development of predictive analytics – web sites tailoring your searches to other similarly predicted areas of interest – can narrow focus and increase myopia. Each additional search on the same subject hastens a cycle of informational bias and reinforcement. At the same time, the objectivity of some information is compromised. The possibility now exists for two people to conduct the same inquiry through a search engine and receive different answers. Are search engines creating a form of informational relativism?

These are exciting times in education. This past weekend, twenty-five Mulgrave teachers attended the Google Apps for Education (GAFE) summit held at our school. It was a cutting edge experience where teachers learned practical tools such as Google Lit Trips (tracing the routes that famous literary characters travelled) and Google Cultural Institute (virtual tours of museums and archives from around the world). If we can prioritize the thinking skills to leverage these tools for their maximum benefit, then we will have laid the potential for great learning.

This is where the IB, with its central focus on Approaches to Learning (ATL) Skills, is integral to our students’ education. The five skill domains – thinking, communicating, self-management, research and social - transfer across subjects and enable students to move from having information to using it in knowledgeable ways to understanding the world around them. This is a skills framework for which the Advanced Placement (AP) program has no equivalent. It is a core element to what makes IB students attractive to universities and what underwrites their track record of success after high school.

The internet has changed the world; it will continue to change it for ages and ages hence. What remains constant is the need to think, to reason, to communicate and to process, now more than ever. An educated person will not simply be one who has a lot of information because anyone can have a lot of information. An educated person will be one who understands how they know what they know. An educated person will not lose their understanding in knowledge, nor lose their knowledge in information. They will know the life in living.

Gordon MacIntyre small.jpg

- Gordon MacIntyre, Deputy Head of School