Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Thrill of the Hunt

"What are you doing?!" my 5th grade teacher, wide-eyed, startled me as she asked the question.

"I am reading," I answered, a little perplexed. I expected outbursts like that for throwing things in class, stealing something from someone's desk, walking around when we were supposed to be seated -- that kind of thing.

"That is an encyclopedia!" she shouted at me. "Nobody reads encyclopedias. They are for research only!"

"But I finished my research," I said slowly. "I'm just reading until we are all through."

She took the encyclopedia, World Book volume "M," and returned it to the shelf, shaking her head at me.  It was a dilemma I had felt many times. I would be looking up, say, "Llamas" for a report in class, but I would slow down as I passed things like "Lincoln," including the town in Nebraska, or "Limburger cheese," and I would wonder why people ate it if it smelled as bad as the cartoons made it appear to smell. We never had time for all that added knowledge, but sometimes I would detour from a search for class just to satisfy an inquisitive mind.  Did you know that, if all the blood vessels in one human body could be stretched into one continuous blood vessel, it would reach from New York to Sydney, Australia, and back five times? I learned that while I was looking for something else. 

Those World Books were treasuries of information to me, even though they were generic blue, worn at the edges, and some of them still said Truman was president. But that old information was still good, because human bodies don't change that much, including how long the circulatory system is. I never understood why they were "forbidden fruit" to my 5th grade teacher.

Years later, I would  be living on the coast of South America with my wife and three home-schooled sons, and acquire some generic red World Books from the Carter administration. I set them out in the open where my sons could soak up the information in them. In the years we served in Ecuador, most of which did not include even dial-up internet, my sons and I probably each read through the entire set. I learned early that, if you teach a child to read, most of the rest of the education is automatic, and nothing gave me the satisfaction of seeing my 9-year-old son, curled up with a volume of World Book, absorbing the pages of info, and then, later telling me about it. My daughter, as she learned to read, also began that great search.

On one furlough in the States, I was overjoyed to find an entire unabridged encyclopedia on CD, and imagined how great that would be. I was disappointed to find, after installing it, that it merely complies with the questions you ask, that it narrows your search to that item, and that "browsing" is not a function of an electronic encyclopedia. When they went online, I found that they were even worse. I grieved when the printed version of Encyclopaedia Britannica went out of print, because, as a teacher, I have used the online edition, and sent my students to it. It has more information than the print version ever did, but it is a caged animal, and lacks the luster and wild spirit that the printed version had.

It is a basic truth of human experience: Some of our greatest discoveries occur while we are looking for something else. Some of the greatest inventions and scientific discoveries emerged totally by accident.

I am guilty: I use Google, Wikipedia, and other search engines to find info, attribute quotes, and spike rumors. But having said that, I miss the days when I had to work to get the info. The joy of research was in the hunt. Today's information gathering is like shooting fish in a barrel, or hunting game that is in a cage. There is no thrill to it. I can find important information in just a few seconds, and there is nothing else nearby to distract me. Some hunters say they like to hunt because they don't like the "taste of captivity" in store-bought meat. As I think about it, I realize that there was always a "wild" taste to the info that I had to pursue through a forest of information.

Doing a research paper, when I was in high school, involved, among other things, using a multi-volume Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature, usually found in the local and the school library, that could direct you to published magazine and journal articles that featured your subject. You found your item, and then prayed that the librarian had that specific magazine, volume number, and current issue. Then, you carefully copied that precious info onto a note card, a gem of information that you would footnote later.

If someone had told me, when I was sixteen years old, researching the history and function of the Electoral College, and trying to determine if it was beneficial or not, that some day, I would be able to do all of this from a "smart phone" in my pants pocket, I would have longed for such a miracle. But looking back, I wish that young people today could know the thrill of finding information after a strong, stimulating hunt.

Card catalogues in libraries, reference resources on those shelves of books that you could not take home, atlases, city directories, dictionaries, encyclopedias -- they all worked together for me, and the result was something of great value, not only because of the content, but because of the investment that I had made in it.

And that's the problem today. Research is cheap. As a high school teacher for ten years, I would have students ask me questions, and, teacher that I was, I would not just give a straight answer. I wanted them to know why the answer was what it was, to make them arrive at it, so the next time they had a similar question and there was no teacher there to give it, or they were in the middle of a standardized state test, they could figure it out for themselves. Most of the time, the students would turn away, say "forget it," or start a conversation with some other student as soon as they heard the words from me that they wanted.

I had to learn that the students were not being rude. They are members of the "smart phone" culture, and are conditioned to that form of information gathering. That phone is a little educated slave that stays in our pockets until we need it. When we want to know something, from "Where is the nearest Starbuck's?" to "Which president served two separate terms?" we just have to fetch it out of its little prison, ask the question, get an immediate answer, and then throw it back in its own dungeon.

No joy of research. No enticements to branch out to related knowledge, or even learning something on the way simply because another idea happened to start with the same few letters. We learn only what we want, when we want, with a minimum of distraction. And we only get facts, without enough substance to weave them into something that enhances our lives.

I would love to start a school where students had to attend for at least a semester. There would be no computers, but every classroom would have a set of World Books, some dictionaries and thesauruses and atlases, and the library would have only a card catalogue.

In an era of information convenience, we are starving ourselves, and depriving our kids of the "Thrill of the Hunt."