UNC-Chapel Hill Redeems Itself

Usually, around this time of year, the Pope Center publishes an article criticizing some of the uninspired, politically biased, and often wrenchingly painful books that our state’s universities pick for all of their incoming freshmen to read.

Thankfully, there is some positive news this year. UNC-Chapel Hill and Lenoir-Rhyne University have made a bold break from the general trend of whiny, dull books that subtly or not so subtly promote left-wing causes. These two schools have selected The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, a troubling but enlightening book warning about the effects the Internet is having on our brains.

At the end of this article are other book selections I have found for universities across North Carolina, but The Shallows deserves a closer look.

The book is a great leap forward from the book I read as an incoming freshman at UNC back in 2006. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, was, from what I remember, a story about the sad, aimless, and ultimately pointless flailings of a twenty-something Indian immigrant, with occasional nudity. I may be either a prude or a barbarian for not appreciating it, but in either case I didn’t.

The Shallows, by contrast, asks readers to think deeply about thinking deeply, which is increasingly difficult. Mr. Carr’s bestseller weaves together personal anecdotes, technological history, and the findings of psychological research to tell a compelling story about how the machines we’ve made are remaking us. Though it is a fairly quick read, its message is serious:  our growing use of the Internet is making our minds more easily distracted, letting us learn a lot superficially but keeping us from being as thoughtful, imaginative, and even empathetic as we used to be.

The book is based on the premise that our minds can change dramatically over time, even when we’re older—a phenomenon that psychologists refer to as “plasticity.” The idea is generally accepted nowadays, but has not always enjoyed wide acceptance. Early psychologists (with the notable exception of Freud) for the most part rejected the idea of plasticity in adult brains, believing that the brain was largely set in its ways after childhood.

In the late 1960s that began to change, starting with the pioneering work of Michael Merzenich at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who found that monkeys’ sensory perception could set itself right after being surgically scrambled. Now scientists largely agree that the adult mind can change dramatically, in ways both good and bad.

According to Carr, the media through which we absorb information also changes the way we think. The proliferation of written documents, for example—first in scrolls around the time of Plato, then in books especially after Gutenberg’s printing press—has made us deeper thinkers.  Book reading changes our mental habits because it “chronically understimulates the senses,” in the words of author Steven Johnson (as quoted by Carr). This “understimulation” is useful for thinking deeply since it enables the movement of ideas from one’s shallow and short-term “working memory” into the deeper, long-term memory. “By allowing us to filter out distractions, to quiet the problem-solving functions of the frontal lobes, deep reading becomes a form of deep thinking,” writes Carr.

One suspects that, if asked, Carr would attribute the rise of Western civilization, at least partially, to the psychological impact of book learning, although he doesn’t explicitly make the connection in the book. He traces the development and proliferation of printing presses (Gutenberg’s press was assembled around 1439), which coincided roughly with the rise of Western Europe from a cultural backwater to the dominant world power. Carr does say that the increase in the number of books led to increased literacy, which led to even more books—a “virtuous cycle,” he calls it—something that those of us who value the great works of the Western tradition can appreciate.

Now, the Internet is changing our brains back, making our brains attuned to distraction like pre-literate man and less able to focus long enough to gain value from reading long tracts. Carr concedes that there are many benefits to the Internet—the access to information is staggering—and even some psychological benefits, such as improvements in certain types of fast-paced problem-solving. But by making us more easily distracted, we are losing something vital: the tendency and ability to sit and think. In other words, the Internet is eroding what John Henry Newman termed the “philosophical habit of mind,” something colleges and universities have long sought to cultivate.

The veracity of Carr’s claims is difficult to determine for someone not well versed in the psychological literature; the New York Times’s Jonah Lehrer contended that he didn’t give enough credit to the cognitive benefits of the Internet. But Carr seems right to me. After all, Internet companies like Google and Facebook make billions of dollars every year by keeping us distracted, and they are investing ever more billions into getting us to stay that way. Moreover, in my own life, now that web surfing has become a daily part of my job, I have noticed a greater difficulty in staying put and reading a book.

Since the book has come out, as if to prove Carr’s point, Facebook has added a “ticker” feature, giving the user a constant stream of status updates in addition to the main “newsfeed” stream of updates, so that while you work you can now be distracted even from your distractions.

If The Shallows has a major letdown, it is the lack of strategies for “unplugging” one’s brain from the effects of the Internet. No doubt UNC-Chapel Hill and Lenior-Rhyne students reading the book over the summer will take Carr’s warning and ask, “What can we do?”—only to discover that he doesn’t offer any suggestions.

Carr does mention that he tried “unplugging” from the Internet when he wrote The Shallows, but when he got near the end, the Internet sucked him back in and he was checking email and RSS updates as feverishly as before. In my own experience, I gave up Facebook for the 40 days of Lent, but I’ve now returned to near my former level of distractedness. A few software programs like LeechBlock (for Firefox users) and Anti-Social (for Mac users) have popped up to help keep us from being distracted. They show some promise, although, as far as I can tell, they have yet to gain widespread popularity.

Probably the best advice I’ve received is from Pope Center contributor and business professor Jason Fertig, who says that he only gets on the Internet with a definite checklist of goals to accomplish. This keeps him focused and on task. When he logs off, he says, he has a feeling of accomplishment.

In any event, the Internet is and will likely remain one of the defining features of life for many years for the incoming class of 2016. UNC-Chapel Hill and Lenoir-Rhyne deserve commendation for taking a break from victimhood studies to alert them to the possible downsides of this incredible human achievement.

Other schools’ selections are more mixed. See for yourself:

Appalachian State: Farm City by Novella Carpenter.  The author’s experience “farming” in downtown Oakland, California.

Barton College: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. How the cells of one woman, Henrietta Lacks, came to be mass-produced by the biotech industry.

Belmont Abbey: A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller. After a globe-destroying nuclear war, a group of Catholic monks in the American Southwest try to rebuild civilization.

Catawba College: The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. Surgeon and writer Atul Gawande says using a simple checklist to complete tasks can do more than save time; it can save lives.

Davidson College: Vietnamerica by GB Tran. A comic-type book that follows the author’s family as they fled Vietnam during the fall of Saigon and settled in America.

Duke: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. The story of a 42-year-old pharmacologist whose work brings her to the Brazilian rain forest.

East Carolina University: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. See above.

Elon University: Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. The story of a man who stayed in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina to watch over his business, then got arrested.

Fayetteville State: The Wealth Cure: Putting Money in Its Place by Hill Harper. Teaches readers “how to put money in its place and use wealth-building as a tool for joy and fulfillment.”

Gardner-Webb: Living Stories of the Cherokee, collected and edited by Barbara Duncan (used in a first-year course, not a summer reading assignment). Features seventy-two traditional and contemporary stories from North Carolina Cherokee Indians.

Lenoir-Rhyne University: The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, written by Nicholas Carr. See above.

Mars Hill College: Outcasts United: An American Town, A Refugee Team, and One Woman’s Quest to Make a Difference by Warren St. John.  How the children of refugees in one Georgia town came together through soccer.

Meredith College: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. A memoir recounting growing up first in the American Southwest, then in a West Virginia mining town.

Methodist University: Freshmen have three options: (1) read An Invisible Thread by Laura Schroff and Alex Tresniowski, (2) read both The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, or (3) read The Student Leadership Challenge by James Kouzes and Barry Posner.

NC A&T State University: The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore. The story of two men with the same name who grew up in similar circumstances but whose lives took dramatically different turns.

NC State University: It Happened on the Way to War by Rye Barcott. How Barcott started a nongovernmental organization to help the poor in a slum outside Nairobi, Kenya.

William Peace University: Wine to Water: A Bartender’s Quest to Bring Clean Water to the World by Doc Hendley. The story of a small-town bartender who launched an effort to bring clean water to dying Africans.

Queens University: In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez. How four sisters, the “butterflies,” stood athwart the rule of dictator General Trujillo in the Dominican Republic.

Salem College:  Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward. The story of a poverty-stricken, motherless family in coastal Mississippi as hurricane Katrina barreled through town.

UNC-Chapel Hill: The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. See above.

UNC Greensboro:  Wine to Water: A Bartender’s Quest to Bring Clean Water to the World by Doc Hendley. See above.

UNC Wilmington: Ten Letters: The Stories Americans Tell Their President by Eli Saslow. About the ten letters from average Americans that President Obama reads and responds to once a day.