Jesse Sternberg is a Content Developer at Knewton, where he helps students with their GMAT prep.
The other day, I was telling an older family member that I worked for an online test-prep company when he proceeded to launch into a Bill Cosby-style tirade against “kids today with the hippin’ and the hoppin’ and the clickin’ and the bloggin’,” and the internet’s overall uselessness as an educational tool. Undaunted, I asked him why he felt this way.
“Well,” he said, “There is simply no substitute for reading the great works of literature. Reading books helps boost students’ attention spans and allows them to build the reading comprehension skills they need. Furthermore, students must be familiar with the canon of English and American literature if they want to be taken seriously as part of an intellectual community in college and beyond.”
This view is not limited to the crotchety and out of touch, but is the subject of a debate currently raging in the blogosphere and beyond. Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains basically agrees with my unpleasant relative’s contention that the internet is harmful to students’ attention spans, as well as their ability to think deeply and comprehend dense texts. David Brooks of the New York Times cited Carr in a recent editorial, arguing for the relative effectiveness of giving out books to underprivileged students rather than allowing them to rely on digital media, and pointing out a study that finds high-speed internet access to be “associated with” lower math and reading scores.
As a GMAT verbal content developer, I tend to think of claims such as these in logical terms, whether they are made by psychologists, editorialists, or pompous relatives. Therefore, I decided to approach this argument with my family member as if I were solving a “weakening arguments” problem on the GMAT—by looking for and pointing out unwarranted or unlikely assumptions and logical flaws.
“Hmm,” I said, “Your argument seems to rely on the unwarranted assumption that increased internet usage is negatively correlated with reading books. If that assumption isn’t true, it will seriously weaken your argument.
“But,” my relative countered, “Recent studies show that students who spend more than 3 hours a day on the internet are significantly more likely to be depressed and have social anxiety issues. The internet is a threat to students’ mental health!”
“Well now, you seem to be assuming that correlation implies causation, a common logical fallacy,” I replied. “In fact, I think you may be using reverse causation. Doesn’t it seem more likely that being depressed or having social anxiety issues causes students to spend more time on the internet?”
“Well… maybe,” he admitted, starting to get flustered, “But… well, we didn’t have the internet in my day, and we all turned out just fine.”
“I’m sure you did,” I allowed, “But that seems like an illogical comparison of incorrect entities. We’re talking about whether or not the internet is a useful educational tool today.”
“Alright fine, smart aleck. Where’d you learn all this junk anyway?” he asked.
“Online,” I replied.