Briefly Noted: “Only Disconnect” by Andrew Reiner

Now this is an interesting suggestion. In the September 28, 2012 edition of The Chronicle Review (p. B20) Andrew Reiner, professor of literature at Towson University, writes that college students can better learn how to learn by taking a sabbath from technology–a social-media sabbath. Reiner’s impetus for this suggestion is the rampant preoccupation college students have with social media.

Reiner cites a study by Reynol Junco that suggests American college students may spend, on average, one hour and 40 minutes on Facebook and three hours a day texting. Reiner also shares that, after surveying his own classes, one student admitted to “fake texting” while in public. The problem, Reiner suggests, is not with social-media per se but with many (most?) students’ fear of being left out of the crowd, whatever crowd that may be. It is no wonder that this problem also manifests itself in classrooms. How many of us peek at Facebook or text (or even fake text) while in a classroom, or even (gasp!) in a sanctuary? For college students and others, then, endless access to social-media may not be a sign of humanity’s tech achievements but rather its desire for distraction.

Going beyond this diagnosis, Reiner suggests that all the social-media activity reveals students’ fears of vulnerability and failure. He claims, “when we allow for intimacy, we open ourselves to two of the most dreaded conditions in our culture–vulnerability and failure.” So, learning requires intimacy, relationship with one’s subject. Yet, because hyper social-networked students seek the crowd, they eschew taking the necessary risks inherent in learning about something other than themselves or their status update. Why spend time learning about something new when I can find out what new pics my “friends” may have uploaded today? For Reiner, education suffers because social media is a safe place for this generation of American students.

To provide a remedy for this problem Reiner suggests that students take a social-media sabbath in order to “create a space of deceleration–and detachment from outside distractions.” Reiner follows the suggestions of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book The Sabbath. In 1951 Heschel argued that mankind’s solution to its many problems would not be total renunciation from technology but “in attaining some degree of independence of it.” Thus, he called for a day of rest from that technology. Reiner calls for the same. To that end, he gave his own students an assignment to take at least four hours away from all social media. After the experiment one student wrote that she “hadn’t felt so light in years.” It remains to be seen if students will automatically learn better due to such a sabbath, but it does seem a more human way of living. Indeed, for those with a biblical worldview, Sabbath has always been a godly thing.

Now, after I post this blog, I think I’ll tweet a link to it, and then say something about it on my Facebook update. Grin.


Book Notice: “The Liberal Arts: A Student’s Guide” by Gene Fant

If you’re interested in Christ-centered learning, you’ll want to click here and make a purchase. Recently we posted about the new series Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition (Crossway) edited by David Dockery, President of Union University. One of the first installments in that series is Gene Fant’s, The Liberal Arts: A Student’s Guide. Fant is a professor of literature and vice president for academic administration at Union University. With earned degrees in Renaissance literature, biblical studies, English, anthropology, and education, Fant serves as an expert guide for college students into the art and science of liberal arts.

Fant believes that “Christ-centered learning as viewed through the Scriptures . . . is able to teach, to reprove, to correct, and to train in righteousness” (p. 21; cf. 2 Tim. 3:16–17). Thus The Liberal Arts explicates this truth, surveying the history of liberal arts education and cogently and compellingly arguing for Christ-centered learning in seven chapters:

Chapter 1: The Beginning of Wisdom

Chapter 2: Christian Responses to the Rise of Liberal Learning

Chapter 3: What’s So Liberal about Liberal Learning?

Chapter 4: Wisdom and Liberal Learning

Chapter 5: General Revelation and Liberal Learning

Chapter 6: Liberal Learning and the Core Curriculum

Chapter 7: Current Opportunities for (and Challenges to) Liberal Learning

Fant wonderfully balances the relationship between the arts and sciences in the liberal arts, always connecting the two to God’s word and God’s Son. For instance, chapter 5: General Revelation and Liberal Learning, examines the nature of stories (narrative) and science and the relation of each to objective truth. Fant thus states, “Truth is discovered and described, but it is independent from human affirmation, existing apart from our understanding and unchanged by discovery” (p. 62). This point undergirds scientific inquiry and literature, for “Christians . . . understand that Christ seeks to reconcile all things, including our stories” (p. 76). Hence, chapter 5 in particular is an example of what kind of presuppositions and motivations govern “Christ-centered” education.

While The Liberal Arts is intended as a student’s guide, in keeping with the series, this book will benefit all those interested in learning more about learning, especially from a Christian worldview. Indeed, college students of liberal arts colleges and universities especially will benefit from learning about the history and intention of the liberal arts.


Briefly Noted: Briggle and Frodeman on The Problem with Philosophy

Now these two fellows have gone to meddlin’. In their recent article in The Chronicle Review, Adam Briggle and Robert Frodeman argue American philosophy departments are out of touch with reality, and will soon be out of business, if they cannot foster an environment in which philosophers can be generalists instead of specialists, and public philosophers instead of isolated eggheads.[1] Those are my words, not theirs, but that’s the gist of it.

Briggle and Frodeman write, “We are saddled with early-20th-century modes of philosophy. In the 20th century, philosophy abandoned its Socratic heritage in favor of a disciplinary model of practice. Rather than engaging citizens in all walks of life on the issues they faced, philosophers spoke mainly to one another about problems of their own invention.” (B11) This recent development is problematic; it is irresponsible, and politically and economically unsustainable.

The ever-increasing specialization of philosophy is politically and economically unsustainable because such specialization comes at the cost of cultural insignificance. Public perception is that philosophy is a discipline for irrelevant egg-headed navel gazers who make no real contribution to society. “Of course, philosophy is secure at America’s elite universities. But what of the vast number of universities whose future is tied to the decisions of state legislatures or other financial considerations?” (B10) The authors imply that state legislatures and community college CFOs will not long put up with philosophy unless philosophers learn to “go public” which means that there must be a role for generalists.

Thus, “It is time to reclaim the public role of philosophy.” (B11) Rather than operating under a paradigm in which philosophers must focus narrowly on one or two of the philosophical subdisciplines, why not train some philosophers as generalists so that they can work in the public and private sectors?  (B11) “Why, for example, are philosophers housed in philosophy departments? Should groups of two or three philosophers be placed in departments across campus, to draw out the philosophic aspects of chemistry, economics, and business? Why is there no ‘lab’ or ‘field’ component for philosophy courses?” (B11)

In light of these critiques, they offer three areas of reform: “First, we need to reconsider what counts as expertise, rigor, and excellence–the single-model of specialization that keeps us writing philosophy papers for each other…. Second, a new philosophy calls for new types of philosophers trained with the skills necessary for being ‘interactional’ experts…. Third, the case for reform made here involves an appeal to prudential self-interest–devising ways to survive in a harried, impatient, and increasingly market-driven age.” (B12)

I could not agree more with Briggle and Frodeman, and I would expand their critique beyond philosophy to the other academic disciplines, including theological studies. As I see it, both generalists and specialists are needed for the health of academic disciplines such as philosophy and theology. When our universities and seminaries foster an environment in which one must be a specialist in order to be hired or promoted, they (unintentionally) also create a situation in which they are (or, at least are perceived to be) increasingly irrelevant to society and culture at large.

One of the reasons the French existentialists (e.g. Sartre and Camus) were so successful in their day is that they were able to write both for the academy and for the general public. They published not only academic tomes (e.g. Sartre’s Being and Nothingness), but also fiction and drama (e.g. Sartre’s Nausea and Camus’ The Plague), and public opinion pieces in newspapers, magazines, and so forth. Likewise, one of the reasons Abraham Kuyper was so successful in his day was the fact that he was a generalist able to articulate the significance of Christian theology for every dimension of human life and every sphere of culture.

Thank God for the generalists. May their tribe increase (though not at the expense of the specialists).

[1] “A New Philosophy for the 21st Century” by Adam Briggle and Robert Frodeman in The Chronicle Review (December 16, 2011): B10–12.