In the age of Google, the ability to research almost seems passé, a mere bone of the past actually hindering rather than helping academic progress. Every website has a search bar; every search engine has add-ons and toolbars; and if it's not on Wikipedia, it probably isn't worth knowing. Information is expected to be instant and comprehensive.
These attitudes are poison for students. They suggest there's nothing worth knowing beyond the surface, and they ingrain a passivity that allows a student's knowledge to be shaped by unseen forces that are in turn shaped in the same way. Knowledge becomes a limited hamster wheel endlessly homogenizing all those running in it.
Used wisely, the Internet can be a great source of information. It can also be an even greater source of misinformation, outright lies, and frustrating reductionism. How many times have you read a Wikipedia article, only to find the exact same content appears unchanged on seven other sites? This isn't a democratic exchange of knowledge, it's standardization.
What's wrong with standardization? Nothing, as long as the standards are high. The problem with the Internet (at least, for the most part) is that "standardization" is simply shorthand for "lowest common denominator." Content is intended to be universally accessible, eradicating any sense of perspective or even genuine objectivity in the sea of regurgitated factoids.
Real research should be self-directed. This doesn't mean students should have no guidance, but that they should be able to pursue information they find relevant or interesting, or that they believe will fill in gaps in their understanding. If you limit your search to the first page of Google results, you're only going to get the information Google deems important.
If we can't use the Internet, what can we use?! some will doubtless want to know. First of all, you can use the Interwebs, you just have to know how. And second, there are these things called Books that were once the sole repository of all learning and knowledge; because Books were less ethereal than the Internet, they're still around.
There are also journal articles, magazines, newspapers, etc., all designed to help researchers find what they're looking for. A student who knows how to make use of these sources will be way ahead of the student who can only mine Wikipedia, both academically and intellectually, and will probably end up more disciplined to boot.
Because computers have pretty much taken over (is it time for a Butlerian Jihad?), the act of tirelessly pursuing information has largely disappeared; satisfied with the immediate results, students and casual users alike have seemingly lost the ability to find the one fact that can hold together an otherwise flimsy thesis. Worse, they've lost the interest.
Proponents of the Digital Age, the Technological Age, whatever you want to call it, celebrate the ubiquity of information. But with this dubious ubiquity has also come a reliance, an assumption that the most important knowledge will be readily available without demanding too much effort. So intellectual stamina has been greatly reduced, and with it the spark that leads men like Galileo to reinvent astronomy, men like Alvin Plantinga to revolutionize Christian philosophy, and women like Marie Curie redefine science.
Will giving your kids good study skills mean they'll necessarily discover something great or be brilliant students? No, but it will mean they'll be able to learn on their own, to sift through various viewpoints, and to analyze carefully. In the much-touted Classical education model, students learned how to learn before being allowed to form their own opinions; imparting research skills today is comparable to preparation for the Logic and Rhetoric stages through a solid Grammar education.
We do want to be careful not to idolize learning. Unlike Jesus Christ, learning can save no one. It can help us to be better thinkers and communicators, however, and to that end learning should be embraced and pursued. And one of the best ways to ensure your kids don't end up enjoying learning simply for its own sake is to teach them from the beginning how to do it right.
Some of the newer titles in this section deal with the problem of Internet research, and offer strategies for making use of the vast information structure that is available (going beyond Google and Wikipedia, of course). They also teach kids how to unlock the perennial power of books, how to use them effectively, and how to be shaped by their studies—the ultimate goal of any good scholar.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.
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