“...though we can condemn the material suppression of literature - the persecution of writers, acts of censorship, the burning of books - we are powerless when it comes to its worst violation: that of not reading the books...For that crime a person pays with his whole life; if the offender is a nation, it pays with its history”
- Joseph Brodsky, 1987 Nobel Lecture
The rationale of the center on critical thinking is rooted in both a pedagogical critique of contemporary institutions of higher education, and the recognition that the pursuit of knowledge is a contextual activity which occurs along the timelines of human history in concert with broader social, technological, political and cultural elements of the human experience.
Most professors, academic disciplines, intellectuals, activists, and the institutions that they inhabit are the progeny of the revolution engendered by Johannes Gutenberg and the literacy that came with the reading of books. This intellectual technology ushered in the forms of knowledge and power native to the modern era. Remarked Marshall McLuhan in The Gutenberg Galaxy “Western man knows that his values and modalities are the product of literacy”1.
McLuhan, however, also worried that it was “necessary to understand the power and thrust of technologies to isolate the senses and thus to hypnotize society.” The “conforming of beholder to the new form of structure renders those most deeply immersed in a revolution the least aware of its dynamic...it is felt, at those times, that the future will be a larger or greatly improved version of the immediate past”.2
In other words, those who find themselves living at the heart of technological revolutions are the most likely to remain ignorant of their true effects.
But technological revolution is never a monolithic expression of progress (certainly there is no romance in settling for the 'values and modalities' of 'western man'). Thus, The Centre's critical relationship with the new information ecology is not one based in nostalgia for a more pure form of modernity. It is rather a reflective exercise necessary for anyone who hopes to seek knowledge as the basis for action regarding social, psychological, political, and economic questions in this era. Our student participants come because they are dissatisfied with the state of their world; questioning technology is part of questioning contemporary realities.
The revolution fostered by information technologies in the past two plus decades has hypnotized our societies, and this hypnosis is central to the current crisis of our educational institutions.
It is increasingly clear, drawing on the work of authors such as James Gleick, Nicholas Carr, Sven Birkerts, Maryanne Wolf, and many others, that the neurological, intellectual, and social outcomes generated by analog (book/print) and digital forms of literacy are starkly divergent. The dimensions of the reading mind are very different than those of the digitized mind - and it is becoming an increasingly rare species.
With changes in form come changes expressed via content. And while modern print literacy brought its own brands of alienation and domination, the forms of thought found among the pages of books, and in the book reader's mind, are also those which have underpinned the most ambitious and widely recognized projects of political participation, resistance and social transformation in the modern era. Books have acted as havens and agents of subversive ideas throughout the past century, and while digital technologies may facilitate present social movements, much of their ideational roots can still be found in the era of print literacy.
Additionally, just as various forms of censorship and suppression plaged print resistance (and continue to do so), digital identities and mass data collection have raised new questions regarding the privacy, surveillance, and "legibility" of those who choose to challenge entrenchments of power and authority.
At the heart of these questions, and this project, is the possibility that the digital world and its uncritical absorption by educational regimes may be broadly altering the production of subjectivities and their political manifestations. What Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have called "the mediatized subjectivity" is one which has been pacified by an overabundance of information and stipulated connectivity/consumption, a subject deprived of the reflective processes which render information (and its technologies) a 'living' component of knowledge and resistance.4
We have developed this program and its rationale with the continued support and feedback of our intergenerational community of scholars and students. Our understanding has grown richer and more nuanced through contestation, critique, and ongoing research. For more about our critique of education and the pedagogy of the seminars, go here.
1 McLuhan, Marshall, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967), p. 269.
2 Ibid., p. 272, emphasis in original.
3 Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri, Declaration (New York: Argo Navis Author Services, 2012).
For a more detailed exploration of the rationale behind The Centre on Critical Thinking and its seminar programming, see Dr. James Skelly's paper, "Information Technologies, Reading, and the Future of Higher Education".
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