Teaching in a World of Information Overload

Bernard Bull The Lutheran Educator Leave a Comment

In “Social Media and the Loss of Embodied Communication,” Dr. Read Mercer Schuchardt wrote:

With so much to care about, one of the primary frustrations of students today is that adults keep telling them that they need to stop being apathetic and care more. This is a profound misdiagnosis of the problem. It is not that the digital natives lack concern; it is that they can’t care more—it is simply impossible for one person to care about every single issue and remain sane.

This quote comes as part of the author’s broader point about the way overconsumption in the digital world can lead toward desensitization, a direct result of being overloaded by so much information that a survival response kicks in, one that leaves us emotionally numb to the world around us. We have all experienced this in one way or another. Have you ever been so overwhelmed by the number of tasks to carry out in a day that you stopped caring altogether? You might have even spoken (or thought) the mantra of the digital age, “Whatever!” Read Schuchardt claims that this may be what is happening with many young people when we see evidence of apathy and challenge them to care more in an age where we learn about more world crises, needs, and problems in a single day than any one person could address in a dozen lifetimes. The author suggests that this apathy is a mechanism for surviving in a world that daily bombards us with so many major issues that we are left unable to act or to feel much of anything.

It is one thing to know and be concerned about the challenges of life, family, and community; but how does one manage to respond to learning about the challenges of the entire world?  What are we to do with this much information? According to Schuchardt, part of the answer is found in becoming more selective and deliberate about one’s digital diet. There is more information than any person can learn, so we will need to find ways to prioritize and be selective about what we place on our plate from the global smorgasbord of news and information.

One warning in The Information Diet is that we should take care to consume more than just what we prefer or that with which we agree. In other words, we should consume enough diversity that we do not simply feed ourselves ideas that affirm our existing convictions about the world without learning about ideas that might challenge us. This may be helpful advice, but it does not equip us to address the immediate challenge of deciding what to consume and what to ignore.

Another option is to rely upon a few trusted sources, and yet this leaves us at the mercy of those few sources. This is a method that served many people well for decades in the form of the daily newspaper, but it also resulted in their often getting only one side of a story. It may be that certain important events never made it to the local paper, so most people never heard about them. The same can be true about watching the evening news on TV.

Lee Siegel, in Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob, suggests that the daily newspaper often gets replaced with the “Daily Me,” a collection of online news sources that are selected by the individual. If I want to know about sports and theater, it is possible for me to stay highly informed about those two issues on a global scale while remaining largely oblivious to most any other local, national, or global news. This type of hyperindividualism brings with it the risk of losing any sense of shared vocabulary with a broader community.

There is no easy solution to this challenge of desensitization through information overload. We live in this world, and we must decide what warrants our attention and what does not. One way or another, intentional or not, we make these choices on a daily basis. So what do we do? One potential option is devote time to study of the timeless “news,” learning about the nature and needs of people, communities, and the world. History, philosophy, literature, and theology provide us with insights into such topics. As we develop a foundation in these areas, we may find it easier to consume the daily news of the day and to handle the overwhelming influx of information. We seek to stay informed while using moderation, but we find ourselves able to categorize this news using the foundational knowledge that comes from understanding historical, philosophical, and theological context.

Then we move on to the question of how we will spend our time and energy. How do we act upon our knowledge from the past and the headlines? Where do we devote our energy? I will conclude by sharing one or two ways of responding to the question. I invite you to share others in the comment area.

“Think globally, act locally.” Many debate the origin of the phrase, but I first learned about it as I read the writings by and about Jacques Ellul in the 1990s. Some credit him as the originator, while others challenge this claim, tracing it back to the early twentieth century. Whatever the case, the phrase suggests maintaining awareness of the global issues of the day, but in ordinary circumstances, devoting the majority of one’s energy to acting upon that knowledge by making positive and informed contributions on a local level. It challenges us to make local decisions that contribute, in at least small ways, to global issues. There are many schools of thought and groups that use this phrase to mean different things. I do not advocate any one of them, but simply offer the quote as a way of considering the value of devoting much of our daily energy to meeting the needs on a local level (in our families, churches, neighborhoods, and the broader community).

Consider your vocation(s). There is a rich body of literature that explores the concept of vocation, or calling, and as a Lutheran, I embrace a particular understanding of the term, one that is explained well in Gustaf Wingren’s Luther on Vocation, Gene Veith’s God at Work, and Veith and Moerbe’s Family Vocation. It is the idea that God works through individuals, using their distinct talents and stations in life as they meet the needs others. “The whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Galatians 5:14). From this perspective, perhaps the answer to making sense of how to spend our time is found in loving one’s neighbor where one is at the moment. If you are a student, discover what it means to love your neighbor as a student. If you are a husband, wife, brother, sister, or parent, love the neighbors within your home. If you are a teacher, love the little neighbors in your classroom and their parents. This perspective helps us to naturally sift through the overwhelming body of knowledge available to us, prioritizing that which allows us to love our neighbors in our vocations.

We don’t need to know everything. Instead, we focus on what will help us as we seek to live out our vocations. However, even as we think about something like the vocation of teacher, there is far more teacher information out there than we can possibly consume. In fact, we could spend so much time collecting information about teaching that we fail to spend much time actually teaching. For this, it seems that simply practicing moderation in one’s consumption is appropriate, combined with the cultivation of wisdom rather than the simple collection of information.

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