Orwell and Socrates Want You to Make Sense, Not Nonsense

In 1946, Orwell published an essay called “Politics and the English Language,” in which he bemoaned the “mental vices” that had put the language into decline. He said that the English language, “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”


That is why deep learning is important no matter what method of acquiring information we use. The Socratic method tends to force deep learning on the student, because the effort of memorization ensures that everything resides within, while the use of debate ensures a critical questioning of everything that we think we know. A person with deep learning won’t accept just anything. He learns to recognize malicious nonsense for what it is. Expert performance in writing requires curiosity and a critical mind.


But because Socrates was not a practitioner of reading and writing, he couldn’t see the subtle ways in which it might be used and useful, even for the kind of learning that he was after. Lev Vygotsky, born in 1896 in Belarus, founded a branch of psychology known as cultural-historical psychology. He viewed writing as every bit as dynamic as speech, perhaps more so, and fully capable of creating the same sort of dialog that Socrates used. It can create that dialog inside the writer. The effort of writing and rewriting, over and over, gradually refines the text so that it can become as sharp and deep as Socratic dialog. When approached in that way, with great effort, writing can lead to what Socrates called “virtue,” the handmaiden of truth. But both the Socratic dialog and expert writing are hard work.


Maryanne Wolf is the director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University. She wrote that “Reading is… enriched as much by the unpredictable indirections of a reader’s inferences and thoughts, as by the direct message to the eye from the text.” She expressed her concerns not unlike those of Socrates and of the Sanskrit scholars in the fifth century BCE, who were also against writing. We are at a similar turning point as we make the transition from a world of rich voluminous texts to a world of digital imagery, video and audio clips, and fragmentary messages that have no dramatic structure. (Dramatic structure imbues a text with the emotional valence that makes it durable in memory.) Most of those new channels through which we receive information serve to shatter attention, not to drive a coherent narrative. This shattering of attention began with radio and television (or perhaps much earlier if we include ancient cave art as a contrast to reality). In those broadcasts the narrative is constantly interrupted by advertisements. The effect has grown dramatically with the use of the Internet. And as in the time of Socrates, there are those who believe that this new technology is going to make us stupid.


It is now well known among neuroscientists that certain parts of the brain can rapidly recast their networks of neurons in response to whatever we practice doing. Learning to read, for example, changes the visual cortex, among other areas. Instead of interpreting the lines and angles of the letters, we develop new networks of neurons that are devoted to recognizing whole words and instantly connecting them with their meaning, their mental models and emotional labels. Reading also forces us to practice paying deliberate attention. To comprehend what we read requires disengaging from whatever else we are doing and diving into the text. And reading with deep concentration and comprehension activates the brain broadly, across many different areas, in a complex recursive process that not only allows us to understand what is on the page but that calls up the whole universe of our own knowledge, experience, inference, and imagination. When reading a good book, you may say, “I felt as if I were there.” If you felt that way, you were there.


Surfing the Internet, sending text messages, watching videos, or downloading music does none of that. I enjoy those activities and find them useful. But they are also brief and fragmentary exercises. We’re adept at learning what we practice. With enough practice, we begin to learn a new way of approaching the process of acquiring and using information, one that skims the surface without the need for understanding or even emotion. With our brains thus altered, we begin to do everything a little bit differently. We learn that we can have answers instantly, and we gradually give up analytical thought. This can have catastrophic effects when we attempt to choose our leaders in this frame of mind.


Because the Internet allows us to do many things quickly and simultaneously, we learn both to hurry and to distribute our attention over many unrelated matters. Rather than regarding the world with a deep curiosity and a critical eye, we begin to accept what is presented unquestioningly. If we drive a car, we are not walking. And to walk is to be human. It is our most ancient legacy. To drive is, well… A dead end.


Already the influence of the Internet can be seen in television, which scrolls news across the screen and uses pop-up ads. Magazines have fragmented their text and graphic design into bite-sized bits that at their best disrupt deliberate attention and at their worst make no sense at all. Newspapers now feature capsule summaries so that people don’t have to read the articles. The headlines in the New York Timeshave lost all meaning as far as news is concerned. And signs and instructions everywhere have been stripped of words in favor of icons. (I saw a street sign pointing to the library. It had no words on it, only a silhouette of a man reading a book. Presumably, this was intended to direct illiterate people to the library.)


Obviously, there are clear benefits of having instant access to a universe of information. As a writer, I find that in an hour I can do research that would have taken me a week or a month to do just a few years ago. But every new advantage comes with unintended consequences. Just as a sedentary life will erode our strength, the shattering of our attention by brief bursts of unrelated information will influence the way we think. With the Internet at my fingertips, I begin to feel as if I know everything. But I have to be careful to separate what I know from what I can look up, lest I, as Socrates put it, “appear to be omniscient and… generally know nothing.”


   Technology is already changing the way people read and learn. A five-year survey was conducted at University College London to find out how people use two popular research sites, one operated by the British Library and one by a British educational consortium. The study showed that researchers are skimming, not reading deeply. They quickly move from source to source, reading a page or two. They don’t return for an in-depth look at the work. The report said, “It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of ‘reading’ are emerging as users ‘power browse’ horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.”


Wolf argued that the Internet is weakening our ability to think deeply, interpret text, and make the rich mental connections that lead to real learning and new insights. She wrote that the beauty of reading is that it allows us to “reach beyond the specific content of what we read to form new thoughts.” She worries, probably with reason, that the Internet is going to rot the minds of her children.


Every new technology comes with a cost. Even something as simple as the clock changed the way people use their minds. As Joseph Weizenbaum, a computer scientist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, observed in his book, Computer Power and Human Reason, clocks led people to reject their direct experience of the world. For example, we eat at meal times rather than when we’re hungry. 


    In the face of these inventions, the quest for inefficiency becomes a noble aspiration. Looking up a word in a dictionary is different from looking it up on the Internet, because the way a book is structured forces you to browse, exposing you to all sorts of words that you had no intention of finding. The same is true of browsing the stacks in a library. You discover books that you didn’t know existed and remember ones that you had forgotten. You take detours, find dead ends; and all the while your brain is working. At what, you cannot tell. But that very process of exploration in pursuit of a goal is an essential part of developing a rich interior life and a critical faculty that will keep you from accepting nonsense as the truth, even as the effort informs and enriches your writing.