In a recent essay in The New York Times’ "Sunday Review," writer/ professor Sherry Turkle makes observations about our culture’s “flight from conversation.” She laments that, despite our technologically linked world, as we are only a text or chat or status away from sharing something, we “hide from one another, even as we constantly are connected to one another.” Her insights are sharp and valuable, as we should be striving to see how our technological advances have shaped and will shape the social and cultural world around us. Turkle’s hypothesizing offers much provocation about the way our culture’s social values will evolve and shift over time, especially in the spheres of behavior, learning, and education.
One fascinating thing Turkle says is that the “thing we value most is control over where we focus our attention.” Valuing our own control over where we focus our attention will surely have vast social consequences, especially in the area of learning. If learning at a distance that we ourselves control becomes the norm, what will happen to learning itself? Will we stop being able to leap into someone else’s perspective, in order to understand a problem or see a solution in a better way? Will we stop paying attention to things that we might be drawn to unexpectedly? How will our privileging of the control of our attention change the way we learn, and change the way we think? Turkle's essay opens up this necessary dialogue.
Another thing Turkle discusses is the way technological connections prevent us from learning how to be alone. “Indeed our new devices have turned being alone into a problem that can be solved,” she writes. She worries that our habits of being only a click or a text away from sharing our thoughts will deplete our cultural ability to be alone, and as a result, everyone will be lonely, ironically creating a world more disconnected than ever before. Turkle suggests, “Lacking the capacity for solitude, we turn to other people but don’t experience them as they are. It is as though we use them, need them as spare parts to support our increasingly fragile selves.”
Turkle provokes thought on things like “Siri” which promise a simulation of companionship and compassion; she surmises that with technology we are “cleaning up human relationships” which are “messy and demanding.” But for a price – human relationships have a richness that the simulations, for obvious reasons, don't have. In the end, our flight from conversation represents a loss for humanity that will have ripple effects in all areas of human life.
As I read, it struck me that we often talk about the “academic conversation,” and I wondered how Turkle’s thoughts and ideas about technology’s influence on social conversations could be thought of in the context of academia. Conversations teach us patience, she proffers, while technological connection and exchanges speeds things up, but only by dumbing us down and removing complexity and true understanding. How will this dumbing down of our communication affect the kind of sustained conversations we aim to create and participate in within and across our academic disciplines?
Looked at through the frame of education, the flight from conversation would wound our ability to see and understand different and new perspectives, a cornerstone of true forward thinking and learning. Turkle says, “In conversation we tend to one another.” To unpack this statement, she looks at the etymology of the word, which comes from the verbs that mean “to move, together,” and suggests that having a conversation is kinetic, and generates energy, and asks us to see things from perspectives other than our own. The loss of this sort of mobility in perspective, as well as these changes in social habits of expression that Turkle describes, will surely affect academia and scholarship in more ways than we can predict.
But what I want to suggest here, though, to contribute to these speculations, has to do with the way these changes may affect our perception of graduate school in a positive way. My provocation here is that perhaps a benefit of these changes may be that the inherent value in a graduate education will become more visible -- will be thrown into sharp relief -- as this social and cultural lack that Turkle identifies persists and intensifies.
From some advice given in The Chronicle by writers considering the cause and effects of the bleak academic job market for liberal arts and science Phds, it doesn’t always seem that a getting a graduate education from a arts and sciences school is a smart or practical decision.
Yet, if we insist that graduate liberal arts education is built on meaningful exchanges of ideas between people, then perhaps it will become one of the only spaces in which the skill of sustaining a conversation – and by this I do mean an oral, face to face conversation, complete with eye contact, internalization, reflection, depth, and response – is still fostered, nurtured, and practiced.
With no irony here or facetiousness here at all, I can see a way to look at graduate school and graduate education as a location in which an insistence on conversations will continue to exist. I offer this with all earnesty, and perhaps with a shade too much idealism. But perhaps a graduate school education will be a space in which the value in conversation, solitude, patience, messiness, demanding relationships, and mobility in perspectives will be preserved. And perhaps if we look at it as such, we may begin to understand the terms under which a graduate education in the arts and sciences is inherently worthwhile, despite the kinds of obstacles that exist for grads to becoming employed and earning a living.
What do you think of the role of graduate education in the preservation of conversation? What do you think about our "Flight from Conversation" in terms of education, higher learning, and academic scholarship? I’d love to hear your sustained, intimate, genuine thoughts – even if it’s just in a post to Facebook or this blog. Perhaps then we can go get some coffee and discuss one on one! ;)