Less Informed, More Educated

"You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them." - Ray Bradbury

I have written about reading before, and I will continue to write about reading. It is not an exciting subject, but I hope to convince, at the very least, how critical reading is, not just individually, but as a society.

There is a great fear among thinking people in the west that this 'information' age may be more detrimental than helpful to the minds of young people. You only need to be under 30 to see or be a part of the damaging effects of instant access to information.

The digital viciousness, let alone the physical violence, of the 2016 presidential election in the United States is an obvious example. Made worse by competing media organisations on both sides, the race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was never a contest of ideas or a policy duel. It was a no holds barred brawl of character attacks and slander. Not only between the two candidates but between the supporters as well.

To bring the example back to Australia, we saw the same thing in our Same-Sex Marriage debate in 2017. What little attempt at rhetoric there was, quickly turned into personal character attacks and verbal fist-fights on the streets of Facebook and Twitter. Each side ironically demanding that the other go and educate itself. We all knew that by "educate" the Yes camp was asking the No base to read more Guardian articles, and the No camp was demanding the Yes side to watch more Sky News. Either way, empathy was at a deficit bigger than this year's federal budget - the logical fallacies of ad hominem and her sister tu quoque ruled the day.

Yet, each side in any public debate nowadays claims to be more "informed" than the other. And they are right. They are more informed about their own argument. But, they are more often than not barely aware of the full context of the subject, and likely do not have a smidgeon of understanding of the broad range of opinions, or frames of mind, or directions from which the matter can be seen.

How did it come to this?

I would argue that ready access to the world's library of information from your pocket has contributed significantly. An intuitive mind can spot a confirmation bias a mile away on social media. More people need to know how obvious their Wikipedia eisegesis is when they post to Facebook or Twitter.

Everyday digital habits are predicated on speed and convenience. The technological advancements of the last decades have been pointed wholly at making our lives more comfortable and convenient. Unfortunately, that includes learning. It has become possible to learn single pieces of information with ease in seconds with a quick search phrase.

You may want to sit down for this next sentence.

It was once customary to, dare I say, read a book when you wanted to learn something. How absurd!

Here is a prominent example. One of my good friends once argued that the Bible explicitly justifies slavery. Naturally, having grown up reading the Bible and having some formal education in Bible study, I questioned his interpretation and pointed him to some examples of pretty blatant condemnations of slavery. His response was this, "I can only see how it justifies slavery." This is an obvious example of eisegesis - reading ones own presuppositions, agendas or biases into a text, as opposed to exegesis - critical explanation interpretation of a text in its broadest context.

The problem begins when one can too quickly pull out his phone and Google the point he is trying to make. It should be more widely known by now that Google will show you what you want to see based on your question. There is no reading into the full context, there is no critical thinking applied, and there is certainly no quality rhetoric. More dangerously, there is little to no way of accurately vetting or qualifying sources.

There is a significant difference between being 'informed' or 'educated' by opinion pieces and Wikipedia articles on the one hand, and being legitimately well-read and educated on a subject reinforced by a robust unstifled rhetorical debate on the other.

What can we do about it?

John Stuart Mill famously said that anyone who has any confidence in his judgement could only obtain such confidence by making it his practice to "listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by as much of it as is just, and expound to himself, and upon occasion to others, the fallacy of what was fallacious."

"Because he has felt," Mill continued, "that the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind."

What I am about to suggest may sound ridiculous to people my age and younger because it takes more than 5 minutes. But, we do need to start reading the great books. We need to turn our minds from merely becoming "informed", because information means nothing without the wisdom of critical thinking, and make education - classical education - our priority.

If I knew more about classical self-education, I would go into more detail. I can, however, provide a useful resource. Try The Well Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer. It is a thorough guide on reading for self-education using the trivium of classical education - grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

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