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Textual-Embodiments-from-Plato-to-KindleThe written word has obviously been crucial to the preservation and development of Western civilization. Without the invention of the alphabet and the printing press, or the widespread use of writing, you would not have access to the minds of those who contributed to Western thought.

Considering that you live in a culture sculpted and hewn by great contributors to Western civilization, prepare to be taken aback by Plato’s harsh warning about the written word in the Phaedrus:

Theuth said: “O King, here is something [writing] that, once learned, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memory; I have discovered a potion for memory and for wisdom.”

The king, however, replied: “And now, since you are the father of writing, your affection for it has made you describe its effects as the opposite of what they really are. In fact, it will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. You provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality. Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much, while for the most part they will know nothing. And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.

Around the time I was pondering this mysterious passage, I read several articles discussing the pride colleges and high schools are taking in using only Nooks or Kindles for their classes. The institutions claim this equips students with the necessary technological proficiency for life post-graduation. Many think this is a wonderful achievement because of its efficiency—what many employers and teachers consider to be an important goal for work and education. One of the most brilliant, and alarming, advances in student efficiency has been text-searching, or using your device to find a word or passage in a book for you. Despite the promise of saved time and marvelous productivity, many are protesting this form of “reading” because it is not the same as reading an entire book. In his article The Bookless Future, historian David A. Bell muses about the dangers of text searching:

Reading in this strategic, targeted manner can feel empowering. Instead of surrendering to the organizing logic of the book you are reading, you can approach it with your own questions and glean precisely what you want from it. You are the master, not some dead author. And this is precisely where the greatest dangers lie, because when reading, you should not be the master. Information is not knowledge, searching is not reading; and surrendering to the organizing logic of a book is, after all, the way one learns.

If David Bell’s words are true, then we have a problem. This trend contrasts sharply with the traditional view of education, especially with regards to the role of liberal arts. Before “text search,” students were expected to be students, not masters, of the works before them. Authors intended their works to be read as wholes. If you open War and Peace for the first time and dive into the middle of the book, you cannot expect to understand who the characters are or the significance of the scene painted for your mind’s eye. Instead you have to turn back six hundred pages and make a proper beginning. Great writers intend for the reader to temporarily submit to the logic and the order of the story. To read well we must submit well—to lose ourselves, even. As Will Self eloquently points out, it is good to be

lost, abandoned, absorbed—tossed from wave to wave of language as we relapse into the word sea.

Readers are not supposed to pull what they think is necessary from a book and toss the rest—not until they have actually read it. Otherwise students will think that books—and their education in general—can be whatever they want. They will never know the importance of context, or of seeing the parts in relation to an entire body of thought.

Let us return to that passage from Phaedrus:

Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much, while for the most part they will know nothing.

The king prophesies that information will be mistaken for knowledge. When students are encouraged to write reports rather than arguments, or to regurgitate a professor’s interpretation of a book rather than submitting their own thoughtful analysis, and then are awarded a degree that testifies to their “knowledge,” do they really know anything?

If we understand that Plato is warning us about a potential human invention, then maybe his statement would not be so problematic. Obviously the written word is a good, not an evil. The danger lies where technology begins to replace memory, thinking, and the discipline needed to learn. This substitution will undoubtedly result in an unhealthy reliance upon technology to perform the work which should be accomplished by our minds. It is already happening.

So, what is to be done? The most important thing is to accept the wholeness of a book, realizing that it was not created for disposal, and to pass that love for the complete work on to students, family, and friends. Consider it a duty the reader owes to the author. Books are not written so that readers can “play God” or selectively reduce them down to their parts.

Technology and the written word are both here to stay, but we should heed Plato’s warning that inventions can, if used wrongly, take the place of learning to read well—and submit to—books. There will always be the danger of mistaking an achievement in innovation for real wisdom. No matter how convenient an opportunity may be, or how badly you need to write your next research paper, nothing should reduce the value of knowing a work. I offer you the challenge to do this always, by humbly submitting yourself to books.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission of the Intercollegiate Review

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5 replies to this post
  1. An important warning, but I think on the whole, to access the writing of many (via the Internet/ebook/etc) has enabled me to access the wisdom of the ages. “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” Proverbs 15:22 (NIV)

  2. Actually, I can see where these devices could be quite helpful in the case of textbooks. I can recall having to lug around chemistry and calculus textbooks that must have weighed about 5 lbs each, as well as others nearly as bulky. No wonder you see students using backpacks, which were once used only by hikers. A device that weighs less than a pound and that can store dozens of textbooks would be a real blessing by comparison. Not to mention, e-texts could be updated far more easily, there would be no need to print out a whole new book to accommodate what is usually a handful of minor changes.

    Of course, that’s for textbooks. For real books, both fiction and non-fiction, I still prefer the old fashioned printed versions.

  3. And that’s at the heart of classical education, isn’t it? Seeing things in context? Being able to reason and communicate rather than just recall technical facts?

  4. Thank you for this essay. Someone once said the history of the West is but a footnote to Plato. It is rather ironic that a man skeptical of the written word-should have his words quoted and honored.
    It should be noted that both printing and gunpowder were not invented in the West. However moveable type and the musket were refined there. For longer than many realize printing did not catch on like TV or the computer. The Ottomans, for one thought it blasphemous. Firearms caught on much faster than literacy.

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