Print virtue and the ontology of the Bo-ring

Here’s a riddle: What does the musical interval of a fifth have to do with discussions of multiple literacies, the millenials, and Marshall McLuhan’s predicted decline of print literacy and the corresponding rise of a more multi-sensory way of being, thinking, and judging?

Answer: play the high note and followed by the low note of the interval of a fifth and it says something that the written word alone can’t convey: “Bo-ring,” spoken as a one-word argument against an idea or a statement whose expression fails to hold the attention of a thoroughly modern person. “Bo-ring,” in the age of print culture’s decline, is the new “stupid.”

If you say a person’s argument is unsound or falls apart because of some unconsidered factor, well, you may be right and you may be wrong, but either way you’re going to have to explain yourself using greater detail and subtlety than the original expression, and a rebuttal to your argument will have to go further still into that detail and subtlety, thus demanding progressively more and more of your audience’s span of attention and ability to concentrate. This is simply the nature of investigations which have literal truth as their goal, and follow from a strong interest that some people have in “getting it exactly right.” That interest in “getting it right,” in knowing the truth, is still a virtue today, but will perhaps not be such a virtue in the future, and probably already isn’t for a lot of people. The character of investigation into truth and of truth’s expression as we know it from the context of written, rational discourse derives, as McLuhan showed, from centuries of print literacy and is correspondingly shaped by the nature of the printed word as a medium of communication. Thus, print culture has a shaping effect not only in the way that people learn things (as advocates of multiple-learning styles like to talk about) but on the kinds of truth, in a very deep sense, that people learn and generate.

We can be somewhat specific about what print literacy is good for. Print literacy is good for engendering an intellectual separation between oneself and the world, so that one is able to make independent judgments and form abstract understandings of things, people, events, ideas, arguments, etc., by applying to them the standards of an individual mind full of the operations of logic, insight, questions, prior knowledge, and abstract moral principles. This individualistic, intellectual separation and independent judgment is an important virtue in our culture and is sometimes called “critical thinking,” in the broadest sense of the expression. This critical thinking allows us to be far more rational in our decision-making and in our everyday judgments than we would otherwise be, and much less likely to be manipulated by others. Those for whom critical thinking in this broad sense is a paramount virtue (and I am one of those people) usually think that most other people don’t have enough of it. To these rational individuals, in the beginning of the 21st century, many people are frequently saying, “Bo-ring!”

To say, “Bo-ring,” is, in effect, to say that there is something more important to be considered than an idea’s relation to the truth. It may even be to demonstrate a comparative lack of interest in what is the truth. “What could be less virtuous than that,” we critical thinkers wonder of people who say that we are “Bo-ring.”

New categories of virtue may be emerging in the era of print culture’s decline. A critical thinker might identify the new, non-boring virtue as “entertainment value,” since that is what seems to be most valued by those who find long passages of text, or lectures without slides, too boring to tolerate, and who always prefer more sensory stimulation and less intellectual content. Those who can better articulate the new, multi-sensory virtue from its own perspective might talk about it in another way, making reference to things like Grace, connectedness, “keeping it real,” life-energy, flow, Being-Here-Now, or not being paranoid. (Certainly, too much intellectual separation between oneself and the world can be pathological and dangerous to those who lack the strength to maintain that human connection, though history’s greatest intellectual heroes have embodied that separation in extreme degrees.)

Whatever the opposite of boring really is, if it is a virtue of the information age, many people clearly would rather be called stupid than boring. (This is a fact that I wish Al Gore and John Kerry had understood, in all of its implications.)

I am very attached to the print literacy that is in decline, and to the value of the skills of concentration that were once taught as part of a young person’s development into an adult, but are now regarded merely as a personality trait of language-oriented learners. Print literacy and the critical thinking skills that go with it are the underpinnings of a rationally-deliberating, democratic society (to the extent that any such thing has ever existed). I strongly believe that the discussion about learning styles, though it has some basis in real psychological differences, is mostly a cover for a broad, society-wide de-prioritization of print literacy in favor of communication media that are a) more fun, b) more sensory, c) more interactive, d) less subject to questioning and accountability with reference to rational standards of truth, and e) more capable of manipulating people, for both commercial and political ends. I am also aware that my own beliefs about this matter are conditioned by the historical culture of print literacy in the West, and may ultimately not be connected to anything truly universal. I just wish that more people saw the unique value of print literacy and were not under the delusion that media are content-neutral, and saw the breadth and historic implications of the contemporary shift in McLuhanesque terms. The contemporary shift is not simply an extension of the values of educational democracy into our society of experiential, visual, and auditory as well as language-oriented learners, and it is not simply an accomodation to the new generation of learners reared on video games, as though the What of their learning is not being changed by the How of their learning. It is a shift that for honest educators and librarians raises questions that go much deeper than questions about format, but actually concern matters of pedagogy and values at the deepest level, that make us ask, what are we here for as educators in the first place?

I think we need to ask those most basic questions about pedagogy and the What of learning as a part of our approach to the “hot” questions our profession is facing at the moment, having to do with formats, the millenials, the web, networked information, Library 2.0, and the rest. So, I am recommending some McLuhan, and for good measure, this article about propaganda by Aldous Huxley, which relates in an interesting way…

5 comments on “Print virtue and the ontology of the Bo-ring

  1. Something I now wish I had worked into this posting is the connection between the shift away from print literacy and consumer capitalism’s overtaking of the public sphere…

  2. Let me disagree with a few basic points before making my main argument. Unfortunately, I’m going to have to somewhat reinforce your own argument when I start out by saying I don’t have the time to research these first couple of disagreements well enough to verify their veracity. Let’s call this my first “suggestion” so I don’t lend it the air of unwarranted veracity:

    1. The people who are the truth seekers, who are interested in “getting it exactly right,” have always been in the minority.

    Philosophy is one of the occupations that I would associate with truth seeking. I would say it is probably the occupation that is most directly involved in seeking truth. Most other disiplines are interested in truth tangentially, like knowing truly which gas becomes a solid at the lowest temperature, and if we’re lucky why. Not to mention the whole “beauty is truth, truth beauty” statement that indicates some sort of truth embodied in art, but now I’m a little off track. Where I meeant to go with this is that Philosophy has never been an occupation that employed the masses. For most people simjple economics comes into play. It’s quite difficult to adequately provide for yourself and your family while still taking the time to seek truth. Your Huxley article even points out that the most that can be expected is for us “to respond as well as we can to the limited truth and imperfect reasoning offered for our consideration by others.” We can also go on all day about the difinition of truth, but there’s probably no need for that. Let’s just say that it appears that the vast majority of people are not interested in seeking truth, or at least have a difficult time recognizing it when they see it. When philosophy becomes politics slogans get crafted and banners get sewn . . . and the people shout the slogans and wave the banners without much interest for the underlying ideas.

    Um, yeah, that was one of my “small” points of disagreement. Let’s just move on to the big problem with this line of thinking. I’m not at all familiar with McLuhan so I may be misinterpreting what you and he are saying, so be forewarned. The argument seems to be that our use of different modes of commmunication changed our ways of thinking. The Gutenberg Press greatly increased the the use of print materials and print materials promote subject specialization among experts. The move away from the aural/oral tradition changed the way we think about knowledge.

    Here’s the big problem, though. There was no stopping Gutenberg. His press was going to come along and change the way we communicated. Maybe some people preferred aural/oral communication and disliked the change to print. I’m sure there were such people. There’s almost never change without conflict. In the same way, there is no stopping the Net or movies or radio. People will continue to use them and simple print may start to be phased out along with the mental framework that it embodies. What would you have us do to stop that? Huxley doesn’t seem to have an alternative. McLuhan also doesn’t seem to argue that we can stop media evolution. Perhaps we can recognize the benefits of various media and attempt to tie our message to the right sort of output device/media/whatever else you want to call it.

    Do you want me to recognize an oncoming societal shift? Okay, fair enough, people are or are going to think differently due to the internet. Now, let’s get back to what that means in terms of library service. As the Gutnberg model shuts down, do we want to be left as the archivers of books that noone will read? Really, I just don’t see where you think this argument gets us. I don’t think it allows us to continue to exist as we have.

  3. I’m not arguing that we should be opposed to the shift that McLuhan was talking about (in the 1960s), and he certainly wasn’t. I am saying that our discussions of technological change should recognize the depth of the change.

    McLuhan’s ideas are complex. He did believe that ways of thinking that are connected to older technologies persist in the new context, just as the older technologies do. He said that print culture was in decline and being superseded by a culture that has more to do with television and other more sensory and especially aural modes of communication, but he did not say that people would stop reading or that the ways of thinking that go along with reading will simply disappear. So, on the one hand educational institutions may have a primary role in teaching the ways of thinking that go with print literacy; that may continue to be their primary role. If, on the other hand, they incorporate newer more sensory media more extensively, which they are beginning to, they will need to approach the process with more attention to what the new media themselves contribute to the nature of learning and thinking, to how media shape not only how we learn but what we learn. I am only saying that we need to be more conscious of this aspect of the relationship between media and thought in order to be in control of what we are doing as educators, in order to know what we are doing.

  4. Also, Alex, I think the drive to investigate the nature of truth (philosophy) is different from the drive to know what the truth is, which is very often present in people with what philosophers would call a naive understanding of truth. So, for example, imagine a debate about tax policy. At the media/public level, it’s mostly rhetoric, but even at that level there are references to arguments which in a more serious setting, like a debate between policy analysists or just between regular people who want to approach it seriously and logically, involve that concern for the truth that I am talking about. Both parties in that kind of debate listen to each other and respond to each other’s arguments in a fair way, bringing in perspectives that have a basis in abstract ideas generally learned by reading texts. In such a debate about tax policy, the nature of truth doesn’t have to be a part of the discussion for there to be a genuine interest in knowing what facts and generalizations involved in the discussion really are the truth. Now, what a person thinks about the nature of truth can affect how they think about such discussions, but the key thing is that there is a level of “aboutness” going on at that philosophical level that doesn’t have to be a part of the debate on tax policy. So, I’m not talking about truths about truth, necessarily, in referring the “boring” interest some people have in really getting to the truth. I agree that maybe it was never a quality that everybody or even most people possessed, but I think that that basic respect for truth and interest in knowing the truth is and always was more common than a strong philosophical bent.

  5. Alright, Rory, first let me ask about your comment #3. So are you really only saying that we need to take a good hard look at what this innevitable media transformation is doing and how to use it? I’m not entirely sure that we can predict how a web-based knowledge base will affect societal attitudes. I don’t think I can imagine a study or even a series of studies that will adequately represent the change. Our only real option seems to be to monitor the changes and learn what we can. I guess this is what you’ve been saying, but the idea of being aware of this shift doesn’t really help me get closer to what it means. We know that information is being transmitted more quickly and in higher volumes. Immediate access to a large number of informational (and semi-informational) sites means many people are coming to see information as some sort of free, naturally occurring necessity, like air. So what does this mean? Does knowing this mean we now “know what we are doing” as educators? It helps us understand what library users expect and we can set our goals based on those expectations, but what else do we need to know?

    Regarding comment #4, I’m always surprised at how few people are interested in what is true. I’d be very surprised if more than 10% of the population did any kind of daily or even monthly fact checking on the things that they BELIEVE to be true. The percentages may go up when you’re talking to academics and librarians, whose jobs depend on the transmission of truth, but I wouldn’t guess they go up an awful lot. My mother, with a degree in Educational Psychology, often regales me with tales of soon-to-be teachers as well as other professors who simply aren’t interested in getting the “facts” about how and why people learn. Once people are convinced that something they know is true, regardless of where that conviction started, they will not easily change their minds. Hundreds of years of relying on truth in the printed word has not changed this immovability of underlying beliefs. Policy analysts and, certainly, regular people rarely have the reasoned debates with scholarly evidence that you mention.

    To some extent, my underlying pessimism regarding human nature is showing through here. I’m not necessarily saying that we need to give up on education, but we do need to be aware that most people grasp onto the first idea they hear regarding any subject and really have a hard time letting go. Debates between two people that have strong and differing views on the same subject, seldom truly end with a simple display of evidence. Hegel’s thesis + antithesis = sythesis argument seldom works out that way when using real world examples. People just default to their original beliefs, regardless of the facts. You really need to beat the facts in with a sledgehammer, repeatedly, to change someone’s mind on any firmly held conviction. . . . so enjoy educating the masses! It’s easier to change a rock to to water than to change someon’e mind.

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