The Book of Knowledge in a Digital Universe


The metaphor is nothing less than sending two distant stars into orbits with fantastic precision so that they collide at a precisely defined time and place, and in the brightness that results from the collision, everything is momentarily visible: heaven and hell of things. Milan Rúfus

Literate societies, societies based on the written word, have developed a central metaphor to name the perceived relationship between human beings and their universe: the world as a book that we are meant to read. The ways in which this reading is contucted are many - through fiction, mathematics, cartography, biology, geology, poetry, theology, and myriad other forms - but their basic assumption is the same: that the universe is a coherent system of signs governed by specific laws, and that those signs have a meaning, even if that meaning lies beyond our grasp. And that in order to glimpse that meaning we try to read the book of the world.

Metaphor is an exceptionally powerful means of expression. It is surely no coincidence that the first exploration of metaphor appears in antiquity - in Aristotle's treatises on poetics and rhetoric. Of course, we come across metaphor even today, say in dictionaries, in scholarly commentaries, in fiction, or even in educational standards. The expressive power of metaphor comes first from using old words to capture a new situation or a new idea. It is true that metaphors are not reserved for fiction alone, but are an integral part of our everyday communication.

The historian of reading Alberto Manguel recalls the old metaphor of the world as a book, by which societies based on alphabetic communication expressed their relationship to the known and knowable: the world must be opened like a book, the relevant chapter must be found, a particular section of reality must be delved into and knowledge of it must be gained. What is remarkable about this image, among other things, is that the alphabetical way of 'storing' knowledge is a prerequisite for its proper transmission. Naturally, for example, if an aboriginal chief decided to use smoke signals to communicate his views of the world, he would probably spend all the wood and all the blankets before he formulated his first argument. The medium through which knowledge is transmitted really matters.

The world as a whole and in all its contexts is not sensually accessible to us. How it is constructed and ordered is made accessible to us mainly by scientific methods and concepts. Through communication in school, scientifically validated knowledge about the world is transmitted generationally, including the apparatus by which this knowledge can be acquired and named. School, too, can thus be imagined as a volume of books divided into paragraphs and chapters; educational areas and subjects are then the ways of reading that teach children and young people to understand nature, values, the past and present of human societies, their development and culture. The metaphorical book of knowledge does not have to be only the world. It can also be a school divided into paragraphs on nature or chapters on society.

The weakness of the school-book metaphor is the notion that knowledge should reach its recipients as a neatly written collection of typographically planted, and thus tightly closed, information. In this way, the idea is that of a book whose main task is to serve the reader with ready-made knowledge - which he or she is mainly supposed to memorize and then reproduce with the prospect of a classification reward. In a figurative sense, this is the educational bulimia, which is realised in two phases - the feeding phase and the vomiting phase. The significance of this metaphor is not diminished by the fact that the strong point (or the power point?) of such education is considered to be the digital spoon, which saturates the notebooks and, through them, the memory capacities of the pupils. In short, success in teaching is supposed to be guaranteed by a good memory that can consume as much ready-made knowledge as possible. The peculiar absurdity of the chronic emphasis on memory instruction is compounded by the fact that, in order to master a mother tongue, a person needs to take in approximately one and a half megabytes of information from childhood to the age of eighteen (the cognitive capacities of children and adolescents amount to one thousand bits taken in per day), while the information volume of the 'digital book', which today's children and contemporary adolescents can 'leaf through' virtually anytime, anywhere, is measured in exabytes and zettabytes. Even a digital presentation behind the back of a teacher's lecture, the content of which is supposed to be memorised, simply cannot suffice today. Neither the factual correctness, nor the conceptual balance, nor the expressive detail of the interpretation is nearly enough to guarantee the teacher's success. Indeed, years ago, interpretation of serious competitors entered educational communication - if, for example, linguistically proficient students are interested in the historical circumstances of the ongoing war in Ukraine, they do not really need informationally and time-limited interpretation in school. All they need to do is listen to, for example, Timothy Snyder's current lecture series on the subject (the most recent lecture so far is from last week). Of course, the Yale University lectures on Ukrainian history can be replaced by anything: general and specialized, oral and written, Slovak and foreign-language lectures on a variety of issues in different educational fields and subjects.

Anything said (written) so far is not meant to suggest that teacher explanation has lost its meaning with the advent of the widely available Internet, that we should resign ourselves to one-way explanatory communication in educational situations. Especially not when the interpretation is planned, illustrative, problem-based, and thus elicits interest in a particular chapter in the book of knowledge. Denis Diderot attempted to compile a complete knowledge in book form, and he transferred his efforts into 28 volumes - it is highly likely, therefore, that the French Enlightenment scholar would envy us access to the millions of virtual chapters in which we can now read about everything from archaeology to Zen Buddhism.

So what should be in the school book of knowledge that teachers - the digital immigrants behind the teacher´s desks - should provide to their pupils - the digital natives in the classrooms? How to improve pupils' capacity to understand the world they are to navigate so that they are not lost in adulthood - intellectually, emotionally, values-wise, civically? Is there a more challenging task in the teaching profession - figuring out how to draw particular individuals or even whole groups of students to fiction, mathematics, biology, geography, history, or serious civic issues? In what ways is this task even more challenging when the time-honored instances of education for centuries - schools and libraries - suddenly find themselves face-to-face with a capacitated, incomparable, and communicatively articulated universe of signs, information, explanations, and opinions?

There are no universal or definitive answers to these questions. At least not yet, although it appears that the answers are related to the extent and function of digital tools in education and to the efforts to expertly balance proven didactic practices and new communication technologies. At the outset of our search for answers to questions about education in the new media situation, it is perhaps sufficient to remind ourselves from time to time that, as educational experts, we are developing pupils' abilities to read the book of knowledge; we are not feeders who are supposed to ensure that classroom boarders consume everything that is cooked up for them in the kitchens of the expert committees and then put on a digital plate at school. A much better starting point is the idea of the teacher-reader who, together with his pupils, searches for answers to questions in chapters on mother tongue, physics, German, chemistry or computer science, and the idea of the teacher-astronaut who offers his charges exploratory missions in the galaxies of humanities and natural sciences. And this even at the risk that these journeys of discovery may be unpredictably influenced by the gravitational force hidden in the displays of black mirrors. Or black mirrholes?

Karel Dvořák PhD. - DaCoSiDe expert tasked with the creation of A2/B1-level methodological guidelines and certification tools


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