The Internet: An Economic Triumph, An Academic Threat

Jennifer Beck

July 1, 2001

In an interview with C-SPAN’s "Booknotes" series, Professor Harold Bloom said, "The Internet is a terrible danger to the life of the mind; it is a terrible danger to real reading." Mr. Bloom asserted that the Internet has become a venue of teaching that is void of "intellectual authority" and is a massive yet deficient route to obtain knowledge. While it may seem to be a technological advancement for many across the world, it seems entirely true that the Internet poses a danger to the valid search and acquisition of the knowledge serious students crave.

Much evidence of this academic epidemic has been seen since the Internet has come to occupy a foothold in mainstream culture. Unless otherwise directed, today’s students will opt for a perusal of the Internet, which may be entertaining but is virtually without serious scholastic value. The reason for this drift toward lower forms of information can be summed up in two words: availability and awareness. It is unfair to say that younger generations have ceased to find knowledge appealing. The reality is that the Internet can be called up from almost anywhere, and, unfortunately, this includes the library and classroom. Fifteen- or sixteen-year-old students rarely have the chance to explore the minds of great writers, such as Hemingway, Twain, Shakespeare, or Austen, yet Internet homework assignments are a part of everyday curriculum now. Students will flock to the resources that are most available to them in order to fill their minds with some form of information, and the Internet occupies this place by a significant margin. As a result, missed opportunities for real learning abound.

One of the most attractive features I have found as a student is the never-ending opportunity to explore all ideas and theories behind the subject of my study with other students. However, the Internet makes this aspect of education null-and-void in three major ways. First, it makes online forums of discussion available without requiring every visitor’s participation. Secondly, it both increases the temptation of simply usurping others’ creative ideas and downplays imagination. Finally, the Internet has introduced increased availability of what has been affectionately deemed "distance education." At a plethora of first-rate schools worldwide, curriculum on every subject imaginable is now available in the form of online courses, making actual classroom time unnecessary.

Many education majors are subjected to theory that it does not matter how education is achieved, as long as the student enjoys it and it is within his ability. This ideology, however, permits the use of the Internet as an instructional tool within virtually every classroom in America. This theory is problematic because it quietly asserts that students only learn from what they already know to be enjoyable. Countless students at my high school enjoyed reading Cosmo or the latest Stephen King masterpiece; however, how much knowledge did they walk away with after finishing these pieces of literature? It seems impractical that we assume that simply because the authors’ names are long or the titles of the books suggest serious issues are addressed inside, the student would not soon become engrossed in the author’s aspirations or ideals.

Secondly, how can a student know what is in his ability until the farthest corners of his ability are tested? Had I never been pressed on the matter, I might never have realized that I understand and am riveted by the language and mastery of a Shakespearean play or a poem by T.S. Eliot. The point, while obvious, is worth repeating: one never knows what he is capable of until he explores the vast array of what lies before him.

In today’s world, sadly enough, the printed book is faced with the danger of becoming a convention of the past. The number of students dashing off to the library to read a book in order to get their hands on the knowledge they seek decreases continuously because of easy access to critical essays online on nearly every subject. When given the choice between actually reading these works and reading what "smart people" have said about them, a student from the era of Internet in the classroom and pop culture magazines on library bookshelves will most assuredly opt for the latter. Libraries are brimming to the rafters with Internet access and computer stations these days, and for one to enter the walls of a public library in search of an actual book is a grim and perhaps even hopeless endeavor.

I must ask this, and forgive me for sounding archaic or outdated: Is this what we have come to? If I ever want to read a classic literary piece via the Internet, I will be done with it and well into the second by the time I get my hands on a real, live copy. Unfortunately, I utilize the Internet far more than I should, for its convenience and "fast-food" style service appeal to me. It can be persuasively argued that all the rage over finding anything and everything we need online is a part of our "hurry it up" attitude. However, there is something to be said for sitting down in one’s favorite niche of the house or campus with a time-worn and perhaps weather-beaten copy of a classic novel, be it Dostoevsky, Whitman, or Fitzgerald, and smelling the stamp of the years upon this masterful literary work. Not only is it a charming experience, but it is one that makes the education process seem more tangible. It conveys to me the sense that right in my hands is the very vessel that will deliver me to a deeper understanding of the things that countless others have devoted their time and energy to as well in the hopes of becoming intimately aware of where the text can take them and what it does for their mind in the process. Even though it is a demanding and timely process, I would love to put everything aside and begin reading one of the numerous pieces of literature I’ve vowed to read some day. However, I will not blend in with mainstream Americana and get a "quick fix" in order to check one more title off the list. No thank-you – I’d rather do it the good old-fashioned way: with a book in my hands and time to enjoy every last word.

Jennifer Beck is a junior from Perrysville, Ohio, majoring in English and minoring in political science.