This week, I am pleased to share with you Melissa Schomers’ remarks on information, knowledge and wisdom, which were presented at The Gunnery on October 3, 2017. Ms. Schomers is a faculty member in the English Department and the Wallace Rowe Chair. Although her thoughts were initially intended for our students and faculty, I believe many adults who have too much “information at their fingertips” will find her words meaningful and relevant.
Our optional faculty summer read is Neil Postman’s The Disappearance of Childhood. Written in 1982 and re-released in 1994, the book argues that childhood—as an idea or social construct—emerged with the invention of the printing press (1440) and that the invention of modern communications technology–the telegraph, radio, television, and advertising, in particular, caused its disappearance.
Some of you are nodding right now while others of you find this so intuitively ridiculous that you’re about to click on to something more relevant. Hang tight, doubters.
Even if you’re skeptical about Postman’s central thesis, it relies on a contributing thesis that has broader significance for all of us. It’s the kind of thing that, if true, is not waiting around for you or me to assent to it. In other words, It’s not a question of taste—and as much as almost everything these days seems to be decided based on taste (beets, kale and brussel sprouts weren’t trendy ten years ago…) I hope we can still agree that there are some things (like gravity and most other laws of physics) that aren’t up to us.
Postman argues that the technologies humans create inevitably act back on their creators. A relationship that seems one-sided (humans create something—the ax, the car, the telegraph–and those things do what we tell them to do) is actually reciprocal (the things that we shape end up shaping us and our culture, often in profound ways that happen gradually but become ubiquitous such that we don’t question them…and those who do sound like scaremongering idiots or Luddites).
I’ll quote Postman for a bit: