Yesterday’s New York Times brought a disappointingly poor and ill-informed take on the world of ideas in a piece by Neal Gabler entitled “The Elusive Big Idea.”
Gabler finds himself, and let me reiterate that, finds himself in, “an increasingly post-idea world — a world in which big, thought-provoking ideas that can’t instantly be monetized are of so little intrinsic value that fewer people are generating them and fewer outlets are disseminating them, the Internet notwithstanding. Bold ideas are almost passé.”
Without a doubt I agree with his wish to live in an age rich in ideas: one, as he says, where
we collected information not simply to know things. That was only the beginning. We also collected information to convert it into something larger than facts and ultimately more useful — into ideas that made sense of the information. We sought not just to apprehend the world but to truly comprehend it, which is the primary function of ideas. Great ideas explain the world and one another to us.
But I entirely disagree that we are living in a sterile time. Gabler is welcome to speak for himself when he writes that ” We are inundated with so much information that we wouldn’t have time to process it even if we wanted to, and most of us don’t want to,” but how dare he speak for the rest of us, who, to the contrary, are exhilarated by the richness of available information, the stimulation sharing is providing us, and the inspiration it gives us to be, all of us now and not only some select elite, idea generators and sharers ourselves.
Gabler observes that so much of the information distributed today is worthless gossip (“who Jennifer Aniston is dating right now”)– but that has always been the case. We know from reading Plato about Socrates that the vast majority of conversation in ancient Athens– one of the richest mines of great ideas our world has ever known– revolved around Athenian celebrities and who they were and weren’t romancing. It irritated Socrates even as he indulged in it himself.
He then takes his attack to social networking, and this social networking advocate is appalled by his lack of understanding of the opportunities social media provide. Social media are “supplanting print, which is where ideas have typically gestated,” and I have to beg to differ: ideas have gestated in conversational and communication exchanges: at the trading routes, in the markets and universities and cafes and laboratories and anywhere persons have had the opportunity to discuss, debate, and inspire each other to take their thinking to the next level and incorporate a multiplicity of influences. There was brilliant idea-generating before print (Athens again, for just a single example among a thousand), and even after print there have been many idea-centric environments where putting ideas into print was an afterthought. Social media becomes another watering hole, another site of sharing, another and a wonderfully powerful vehicle for the growth of ideas.
Perhaps I cite him too often, but Steven Johnson is a guiding influence here. Read his chapter on Networks in his recent book, Where Good Ideas Come From, for a powerfully persuasive articulation of the significance of exchange and interaction for idea generation. “The most creative individuals consistently had broad social networks that extended outside their organization.”
Social networking, Gabler writes is nothing but ” instant 140-character tweets about eating a sandwich or watching a TV show. ” Yes, it is for many, but how sad it is that he has not had the easily available opportunity to push just a little further into Twitter to realize that millions of users have nearly never written or even read such a tweet. In any environment you can find many talking about the silliest things alongside others who are talking about the most serious things: it is as if one were to walk through a university quad and decide to dismiss the scholarship happening in the laboratory or the library because the sophomores were tossing a frisbee.
His next criticism is that Social media “tends to shrink one’s universe to oneself and one’s friends.” If you use it well, however, as many, many do and as I am so sorry Gabler hasn’t learned how to do, it is quite the contrary: you massively expand your intellectual universe.
He concludes this discussion by being not only ill-informed but nasty: “you can’t think and tweet at the same time either, not because it is impossible to multitask but because tweeting, which is largely a burst of either brief, unsupported opinions or brief descriptions of your own prosaic activities, is a form of distraction or anti-thinking.” This is appalling: millions of us are finding ourselves engaged in vastly richer thinking because of the idea exchange which is twitter, and if you choose to remove yourself from such this idea-factory, there is no need to bash those who are richly benefiting from it.
An idea-factory? Yes. In the past, say, 24-36 months, social media and social networking, most particularly via Twitter and blogging, have brought me a delightful abundance of ideas in learning, with the following examples:
- Angela Maiers and her visionary ideas about Passion-Based Learning are awakening many educators to redefine themselves as passion-based teachers and are leading literally tens of thousands of students to find new joy and meaning in their learning.
- Chris Lehmann’s ideas about reinventing urban secondary education in a school embedded within a museum are inspiring hundreds of teachers and principals to shake up their schools.
- Lisa Neilsen shares ideas with great enthusiasm about how Unschooling can lead us to rethink traditional schooling and how mobile devices can empower students to be constructive creators of their own learning.
- Reverse Instruction and Karl Fisch’s flipped classroom concept are ideas which have opened up a great new burst of re-thinking how time is used at school and at home.
- Diane Ravitch has offered new thinking and new ideas about the tragic toll testing and union-bashing have taken on public education.
- Bill Ferriter is another idea inspirer, particularly his ideas about reinventing professional development for educators.
Perhaps these are not all “big ideas” like some that Gabler cites (though some of his references are not all that impressive either), but the point is that significant new ideas in particular fields are anything but elusive. If my field is representative, and I think it is, they are more abundant than ever before, and social media is a prime mover in this. I am entirely certain that I am thinking far, far more about my practice and profession than I was before social media.