The internet age had promised a great deal. It has no doubt delivered spectacularly on many fronts, but it has also become clear that the progress on some of the other fronts may never be nearly as spectacular. The spread of the internet has placed terabytes of data only clicks away from a large chunk of humanity. With this unprecedented and easy access to information, it seemed reasonable to expect an increase in the average level of general education among the masses and their competence to offer informed opinion on important issues.
Sadly, this is where expectations deviated from reality. Because all that this easy access to gigabytes of information did was make good students better, and bad students worse. No doubt, it is true that in the pre-internet days a large body of information and knowledge was available only to a select few with access to books and libraries, and that too after the expenditure of much effort on the part of interested parties. Now, much of that material is available online, and a lot more in text, audio, and video form on every subject under the sun. This should have resulted in a marked improvement in the general education level of the public, had there not been a simultaneous trend that offsets this gain. Where previously the problem was that there was too little information, the difficulty now is that the information available is too much. The wheat needs to be separated from an ever-increasing quantity of chaff – a Herculean ask in an atmosphere crawling with fake news, orchestrated trends, and misleading thumbnails. In the pre-internet days, it needed hard work to access information. Today, it takes hard work to keep all the false data at bay and not be affected by the rampant misinformation coming from all directions. Being well-informed was always hard work; and that remains the case today despite all the technological advances. When something appears to have become easier, it is almost never good news.
While it is true that becoming reasonably knowledgeable on most topics today can simply be a matter of carefully watching a few videos instead of poring over page upon page of thick tomes found in obscure library shelves. Technology has no doubt made life much easier in this respect. However, ease is a notoriously relative term, because what is felt to be easy today may be felt by the same person to be difficult tomorrow. So it is that the apparent ease in accessing information has done nothing for the attention span of the public. In the first phase, videos were welcomed as a marked improvement on text. Then it transpired that the same videos were felt to be too much to watch if they happened to be more than ten minutes long. Now even ten minutes is way over the average attention span. Indolence has this way of creeping into one’s attitude and then spreading all around. This is why good rarely comes out of ease – in education as in any other sphere of human activity.
Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal’s biographers have chronicled the great man’s travel to Yemen to learn a prophetic tradition from Imam Shafi’i. He had planned to perform Umrah on his way to Yemen. When he reached Macca however, he came to know that Imam Shafi’i was also there for Umrah. He therefore made it a point to pay Imam Shafi’i a respectful visit. The man who had accompanied Imam Ahmad remarked that it was fortunate for them that Imam Shafi’i was there in Macca, because now they did not need to travel all the way to Yemen in the South. Imam Ahmad told his companion that looking for convenience was not the correct attitude on the part of any serious-minded student. That he intended to go to Yemen as originally planned and benefit from his distinguished teacher at the latter’s residence. With this he gave a valuable lesson to all students to guard against indolence. The lesson is as valid today as it was all those centuries ago.
Learning is such an exciting and meaningful process precisely because it can never be free of stumbling blocks and difficulties that at times seem all but insurmountable. There is just no way around it.
Movements in education that advocate making life easier for students by spoon-feeding them everything are non-starters because they fail to take the ill effects of intellectual sloth into consideration. The student makes real progress only when he allows his intellect to be challenged. He may be spoon-fed all sorts of facts and explanations, but he is unlikely to appreciate all that information unless he has brought himself to the stage where he appreciates the difficulty or the question to which answers are being provided. Learning is such an exciting and meaningful process precisely because it can never be free of stumbling blocks and difficulties that at times seem all but insurmountable. There is just no way around it. Always on the lookout for convenient shortcuts is rarely beneficial in any activity of life, education being no exception.