An advertisement for a trip to Yellowstone National Park

Among the wonders to behold over the years in a college classroom has been the presence and use of technology, both in the design of instruction and in its reception.
Students are now treated regularly to presentations of information that rival the best of public media, and the “sticking power” of such engagements is evident.

As one of the species dinosaurus pedagogicus – soon to be extinct, I suspect – I have mostly been an observer of these advances, noting with amazement the ease and creativity with which colleagues provide lively contexts of engagement with whatever the subject.

Of particular interest to me is the availability of the various devices that students use in the process of attending to a classroom experience.

They can take notes electronically, check references if they wish, play games and send brilliant lecture points instantly to friends overseas.

If the dog eats the homework, it can be e-mailed immediately – complete with a picture of the dog.

With encyclopedic knowledge available at their fingertips, they become bionic Aristotles with all the world’s knowledge centrally located and systematically arranged.

I have stopped being surprised when a question about some historical detail is met instantly with an answer from a barely visible device in a student’s hand. For most anything you want to know, I’m told, “There’s an app for that.”

I don’t want either to glorify or to diminish technology as a tool for living and communicating. I am a great appreciator of it, and I can’t imagine anyone wishing to do without its benefits.

But I do have a concern that the tools of technology might become a distraction that can keep us from attending to some other levels of thinking.

In an introductory class on religion, we use an early book by Rabbi Harold Kushner (“Who Needs God,” 1989). In a chapter titled “Putting out Sacred Fires,” he makes the statement: “Technology is the enemy of reverence” – a statement with which students immediately and almost universally disagree.

It does, however, provide us an opportunity to explore what he might mean. His point calls attention to a tendency we seem to have to become so fascinated by what we can use our creative skill to develop that we lose our capacity to see or notice the depth of realities that lie beneath our current workbench.

Working with students on such questions has led me to note that with all the sophistication of modern technology and its instant access to all knowledge (and very effective delivery of that knowledge), students still have difficulty with some things.

For example, discerning the difference between a theological concept of creation and a scientific concept of evolution; or between the truth of the Bible and its scientific and historical accuracy; or a concept like the separation of church and state and how that is different from being a person of faith in politics.

If there is an app for something we are wondering about, whether it is the location of the nearest pizza place or the location of a particular phrase in the works of Shakespeare, it means that someone has organized a mass of information in a way that certain keys can call forth specific elements of it.

All of us who have searched through massive printed indexes, card catalogues and concordances appreciate the value of such tools.

These tools seem to be marvelous manifestations of what we might call “template thinking” – creating patterns that serve as guides for access to information that we seek to find.

Discovery becomes a connection with something that happens to fit the template that has already been designed to bring it to us.

But we are usually not through when we make that connection because we are pulled in our search for meaning to ask about the significance of what we discover and the relationships that exist within it. That requires a level of nuanced thinking for which there is often not a template.

A dear and late teacher, mentor, friend and colleague used to remind us with some frequency, “Information is not education,” in her effort to encourage us to work on developing the discernment in ourselves and in our students to see those levels of truth that lie beneath and behind the information we explored.

We are probably seeing in much of our public discourse and in the ethical thinking that informs it the consequences of not seeing those levels. I don’t believe there is an app for that.

ColinHarris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.    

Share This