On the Current Dark Ages

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We are surrounded by light, yet we live in darkness.


With internet access, we all have the opportunity to wander in a global library that dwarfs the collections at any of the schools or universities where we happen to teach. We can pursue our own versions of independent research; listen to lectures by the world’s greatest thinkers; wander the Louvre and the Uffizi; visit Jane Goodall’s research lab in Tanzania; study the devastation in Syria from a drone’s eye view; read reports on the melting in Antarctica; learn more about the history of relations between North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia, and Japan. We can drill down to information at the sub-atomic level and dolly all the way back to take in the view of our troubled, little planet as it appears from the space station.


We can do this, but as we kick off another school year, our students find themselves swimming to class through a pestilent sea of misinformation, foolishness, and principled idiocy. Houston is underwater in a brew of toxic waste, but how much do our students know about the consequences of this disaster? Is any part of their education preparing them to think about multi-variant problems that have no solutions? North Korea has just detonated a hydrogen bomb more powerful than the ones we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What do our students know about nuclear warfare’s past? Is any part of their required curriculum preparing them to think about history as unsettled? In some places, as our students move across the quad, driverless cars pass in the distance. Will any of the classes our students take explore the possibility of a jobless future?


In our writing classrooms, we have the means at our disposal to bridge the gap between what education has traditionally offered students and what kind of thinking it will take to address the most pressing problems of our time. We live in a sloganeering time under a broken political system that is defined by an antagonism towards expertise. We can work against the zeitgeist’s idealization of the simpleton by cultivating the engagement with complexity in our classrooms. We can eschew assignments that require students to argue first and think later. We can slow things down so that our students can practice attentiveness, so that they can begin to see details that are invisible to the distracted, so that they have time to reflect, to rethink, to reimagine.


“I don’t know enough to say.” “I’d need to do some more research before I could hazard an opinion.” When my students start making statements of this kind in class and in their writing, I know that we’re making progress. Real learning begins with the recognition of one’s own ignorance. We help our students most when we help them practice responding to this recognition with curiosity, when we help them to see that “I don’t know” is the beginning of an exploration into what can be known for certain and what can only ever be known in a qualified way.


Next: On the Re-enlightenment.

About the Author
Richard E. Miller has been teaching writing for over 25 years. He has blogged extensively about digital technology, the end of privacy, and the future of higher education on his website www.text2cloud.com. He’s served on the executive committee of CCCC and of the ADE; he’s been on the editorial board of CCC, Studies in Writing and Rhetoric, and Pedagogy (ongoing). He’s an essayist, social media fanatic, sometimes poet, photographer, multimedia composer, graphic novelist (he writes about the misadventures of his alter-ego, Professor Pawn) and memoirist.