THE MESMERIC WEB
Years ago, I got a phone call from an old friend asking if I had the words of a poem called “The Trimmings of the Rosary”. As a child she used to hear it on a Radio Eireann sponsored programme but she didn’t know the author. Now, as I lived in a book-filled house, I began my search, convinced I had a copy of the poem somewhere. After an hour of futile searching, it suddenly dawned on me to try out my recently installed computer. So, I Googled “The Trimmings of the …” and before I had even added the word “Rosary” up popped the poem. Not only did it provide the words of the poem, I learned that its author was John O’Brien, the pseudonym of a Fr Hartigan (1878-1952), an Irish priest who spent most of his working life in Australia. As my caller didn’t have an internet connection, I printed out the poem and posted it to her. Problem solved thanks to Google.
The creation of the Internet has been compared to the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg around 1440. At that time the facility to produce and reproduce texts swiftly and relatively cheaply led to rapid change in Europe, culminating in the Renaissance and the Reformation. If anything, the world wide web is having an even more profound effect on human activity because of its reach and universality. It has created a second Industrial Revolution.
Because most of us carry a mobile phone, most of the time, we can use it to access a vast store of knowledge instantly. Looking at the list of sites I have visited in the past few days gives some idea of the scope and range of knowledge that is available within seconds.
- The death notices in Rip.ie (to find the family names of the deceased and to send condolences)
- Information about the novelist, Maggie Farrell
- The origin of the word “toddy”
- The English translation of a Japanese song that features in a Netflix series called “Midnight Diner”
- Details of Jack Charlton’s funeral last year.
- A chronological list of the Lynmouth detective novels written by Andrew Taylor
- The Irish background of the Canadian comedienne, Katherine Ryan
- The location of a medical supplier in Ballyhaunis
- The actual time in Dallas, Texas (so that I could make a phone call at a reasonable hour)
- The meaning of “VPN”
- How to treat mould on the interior of a car
- The postal code of a cousin’s house in Dublin
- How to sharpen a chain saw blade
- The number of steps I walked that day
- An account of the French-Scottish rugby match
- The manual for an old Kenwood food mixer.
To make internet searches even easier there is a section called “People also ask” that deals with related aspects of the topic you are inquiring about. Unfortunately, it’s fertile ground for those of a curious disposition and it is easy to wander from one question and answer to another, losing track of time in the process. In one of his poems, John Keats tells us that as a result of his reading: “Much have I travelled in the realms of gold, and many goodly states and kingdoms seen”. With the internet that same realm is now boundless.
I have no idea how Google has created this extraordinary compendium of knowledge but it’s breath taking when I consider how hard it was to find answers, to even the most basic things, in pre-internet days.
However, I suspect that there are huge areas of the internet that I know nothing about and that I only see the tip of the iceberg. Despite this I am greatly impressed by what I already know.
This ease of access to knowledge must be changing the nature of schooling also. So much of my education was about the acquisition of knowledge so that later these facts could be regurgitated in examinations centred around history, geography, science, etc. In my day, for example, we spent lots of time learning the large towns of every county in Ireland and their main industries. We learned off incomprehensible Gaelic poems. We memorised formulae and statistics without ever knowing why. All of this knowledge is now available at the touch of a button so why waste precious time learning it by rote?
So, what is the future of education and schooling if knowledge is now so readably available? After months of home schooling due to Covid, where children learned from the internet, are teachers now redundant?
Curiously a similar issue was dealt with by a Roman Catholic Cardinal in the middle of the Nineteenth Century. As Rector of the newly established Catholic University (later UCD), John Henry Newman wrote about education and the value of a University education. In his day there was a vast explosion in printed material – books, magazines, newspapers – due to the spread of literacy and the wealth created by the new industrial cities. So, knowledge was more easily accessed for these early Victorians than for previous generations.
However, Newman warned that the acquisition of knowledge was not the same as education. Using an image from his own time he wrote: “What the steam engine does with matter, the printing press is to do with mind: it is to act mechanically, and the population is to be passively, almost unconsciously enlightened, by the mere multiplication and dissemination of volumes.” He goes on to make a vital distinction between education and knowledge: “education is the preparation for knowledge, and it is the imparting of knowledge in proportion to that preparation”.
And this brings us back to schools and teachers. For education to happen young people need a place where they can meet, mix and learn from one another under the guidance of those with more experience. Newman elaborates on his idea of a college: “It is seeing the world on a small field with little trouble; for the students come from very different places, and with widely different notions, and there is much to generalise, much to adjust, much to eliminate, there are inter-relations to be defined, and conventional rules to be established, in the process, by which the whole assemblage is moulded together, and gains one tone and one character”. In short, children learn vital life skills from each other and this is the context for the acquisition of knowledge.
So, home schooling though useful in some respects, is a poor substitute for the real thing. I suspect that many students, and not a few parents, are delighted that schools are reopening despite all the complaints about uniforms, rules, exams and the other irritants of day-to-day schooling. Young people need good schools and good teachers will always play a vital role in their development.