Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Hey, Kids -- Leave That Noam Alone!

This article turned up on the Noam Chomsky page on Facebook today (multiple ironies there), featuring a charming episode of "Ain't It Awful."
"I get a ton of correspondence, mostly email," Chomsky said. "I’ll often get questions from high school students saying, ‘I have to write a paper Thursday on the French Revolution,’ or whatever it may be. I tell them, ‘Well here’s somebody you could look up. And the next question routinely comes back, ‘How can I find it on the internet.’ And sometimes these come from prep schools - places with good libraries, educated students[,] privileged students, I say, ‘Well walk across the street to the school library and look it up.'"
I love Chomsky, but he must surely know that this isn't a product of the Internet.   Long before the Internet, writers I know were complaining about students who wrote to them asking them to do their research for them.  Writing in about 1981, for example, the science-fiction writer and professor of English Joanna Russ recalled:
Years ago a very young (junior-high-school age) woman asked me to send her copies of all my work and the answers to three pages of questions about it for a paper her teacher had suggested; I wrote her, explaining that writers hadn't the time to fill such requests and referred her to her teacher, who ought to be teaching her how to do research.  Her older sister then wrote me, stating that she was going to expose me in Ms., that because of my bad behavior her sister, who had hoped to be a writer, had given up all such ambitions. *
So such demands have nothing to do with the Internet, computers, or social media.  And to be fair, Chomsky admits:
But, as laughable as it is, who in America hasn't felt that way before?

“I’m not offering this as a critique of the internet, but there’s a lot of factors involved," Chomsky explained.
So why bring it up in the context of a discussion of social media and the Internet?  Alternet certainly packaged Chomsky's remarks as a "critique of the Internet" -- disseminated on the Internet, no less.

I think this kind of behavior has more to do with adolescence, and probably with the very privilege Chomsky refers to.  Of course privileged kids expect someone else to do their work for them!  What else are other people for?  But it also has something to do with a capability that language and human consciousness give us: to construct fantasies about people we've never met, so that we believe we know them and they know us.  It's also a product of writing and literacy.  If your encounter with stories and ideas takes place in face-to-face interactions, it's true that you are being addressed (though not individually) by the storyteller or the preacher.  People often feel that a written text speaks to them personally and individually, and may write to the author expressing that belief.  (Or they want a celebrity in sports or show business to grant them a wish.)  That's as much an illusion as thinking that a distant professor will do your homework for you.

* In Russ, Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans and Perverts (Firebrand Books, 1985), p. 53.