What do we feel connected to, embedded in, surrounded by? What is the ground on which we stand? Let me put that question in context: I recently read about The Aztecs (Thames & Hudson, rev. ed., 2000) and the crucial importance to them of “teotl.”
As author Richard Townsend explains, the root “teo” “may be used to qualify almost anything mysterious, powerful, or beyond ordinary experience.” From lightning bolts to birds of prey and a good harvest to a murder, everything animate and inanimate was “charged to a greater or lesser degree with vital force or power.” If you know anything about a culture before, say the 18th century, you will see parallels–whether it’s medieval Western Europe where a flower with three petals was a sign of the trinity, or 17th-century Puritan Massachusetts where earthquakes signaled divine judgment. In 19th-century Europe, and then North America, that sense of the sacred surrounding every aspect of life began to be replaced by a narrative of national history.
As nationalism began to shape nation-states and science and technology overmastered nature, and European empires spanned the globe, history seemed to provide explanations. Evolution explained how we became human, while ethnicity, race, Christianity, capitalism, and democracy, or, alternatively, socialism and Marxism, linked the human past, present, and dawning future. But, as my former professor Tony Judt observes in a collection of his essays titled Reappraisals (Penguin, 2008), the combination of the horrific wars and genocides of the 20th century and the end of the Cold War wiped history away. “We have become stridently insistent–in our economic calculations, our political practices, our international strategies, even our educational priorities–that the past has nothing of interest to teach us.”
Certainly some among us do still live in a world defined by the sacred, and many of us pay attention to our own particular pasts (in tracing our roots, in reading about our own heritages, and in supporting memorials to victims of history with whom we have a connection). But neither faith nor history holds sway as it once did. Where do we instinctively turn–to make sense of life?
I found one answer in the December 2013 issue of Scientific American “Google Is Changing Your Brain” (titled online, “The Internet has become the External Hard Drive for Our Memories”). The article is a précis of several studies conducted at Harvard by the late Daniel M. Wegner and continued by his former student Adrian F. Ward. Tests have demonstrated that Google–or more broadly the ever-present and ever-expanding Internet search–has become part of how we see ourselves as individuals. Where once we carried a mental Rolodex to reference something that a colleague, friend, neighbor, family member, or library resource might have the answer to, we now feel smarter, more alert, more alive, and better about ourselves if we turn to Google. Google has become a part of our wiring, the way prayer was at one time.
Sure, many people do still pray. But only some of us, those who define themselves as devout, see every second of the day as part of a divine story, with actions in relationship to the sacred. Similarly, we all know about George Washington, July 4, 1776, and the Civil War, but are far less certain what that past full of flaws, missteps, and different interpretations means about who we are now. However, we are certain that if we need to find out anything about the past, present, or the future we can turn to digital. Google is no longer a tool, it is a social fact woven into the fabric of how we think.
The question for educators is how to treat this relationship–which is somewhere between the “feed” as nightmarishly predicted by M. T. Anderson in his prophetic book by that title (Candlewick Press, 2002) and the daemons envisioned by Philip Pullman in the “His Dark Materials” (Random) trilogy. We need to shift from our search engine and Wiki lessons to thinking about exploring, mining, and, especially montage. The famous French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote about “bricolage”—tinkering—the way a culture gathers, juxtaposes, combines, and recombines existing elements of their world to solve problems, innovate, and invent. Students lacking history assume that the Internet provides all the answers. We must show them that history offers slices, pieces, parts to assemble, disassemble, compare, contrast, and turn upside down.
We should begin research classes by having an art teacher do an exercise with collage. You don’t paste down a blue square on your paper and say “finished.” You turn the square at an angle, glue down a few lines of print, add a spray of glitter–and create something new. In this way students might understand that the ubiquity of the Internet is not an answer. A fast fact is the opposite of deep inquiry.
In the past, a shared belief–in the sacred, in history–offered answers, passed down by priests and rituals, professors and pageants. Of course, there were always schisms, debates, and new interpretations, but they existed within a shared language. Now what we share is a pathway for the search–one that offers many possible answers. And that ever-present option to search is changing us.
We no longer need to store information in our own memory, or or query an acquaintance if we need it, we can turn to the Internet to find or recover it. But that means we must encourage our students to use that newly freed brain power to create ever deeper, richer, and more rewarding investigations. We must master our changing brains. Otherwise we merely become more dependent and more distracted–as people in the past resisted science and relied on faith, or believed stories about how their national histories made them special.
We should be modeling those plunges into the infinite all the time. Post a new research question in your library every day–and see what students find, exploring across languages, with Google Translate at their side. We are living in the Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus books (Disney/Hyperion), inextricably bound to a djinn who can empower us–but also threatens to consume us. Which will it be?