Gorman Forgets to Wind the Clock

Michael Gorman is blogging (ahem) for Britannica (cough, cough) on the subject of what’s wrong with web 2.0. In two parts, he raises the usual issues: information online is too inclusive, playful, and … digital. Printed texts have authenticity and fixity, whereas texts that are digital may not be what they appear. I’m guessing Gorman hasn’t read Tristram Shandy lately.

One assumption he makes seems really odd to me: “Human beings learn, essentially, in only two ways. They learn from experience—the oldest and earliest type of learning—and they learn from people who know more than they do.” Libraries by his definition only serve the second kind of learning. There is no experiential learning in libraries, only sitting at the feet of authorities absorbing their wisdom (providing you are literate enough to do so, which most Web enthusiasts are not). This seems to position learners as automatically stuck at the most basic level of Perry’s scheme of intellectual and ethical development, received knowledge, whereas ironically the engaged, interactive nature of read/write culture that he criticizes more closely resembles the highest level, constructed knowledge.

But that’s the trouble with diatribes. They either say “this way of doing things is utterly new and revolutionary and it will make everything better” or “this way of doing things is utterly revolutionary and destructive and everything will be worse.” In fact, reading and writing and learning have always been experiential and two-way. It’s just a lot more obvious now. As Michael Oakeshott said in 1959 in “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind” –

We are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation that goes on both in public and within each of ourselves . . .


Education, properly speaking, is an initiation into the skill and partnership of this conversation in which we learn to recognize the voices, to distinguish the proper occasions of utterance, and in which we acquire the intellectual and moral habits appropriate to conversation. And it is this conversation which, in the end, gives place and character to every human activity and utterance.

Author: Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

4 thoughts on “Gorman Forgets to Wind the Clock”

  1. I’m glad you decided to write about this Barbara because quite frankly I’m feeling cynical about this whole “Hey Gorman wrote a blog post – let’s all make a big fuss over of it”. It serves it purpose as fodder for discussion, but I have to say that the email from EB encouraging me to leave a comment and post about it makes the whole thing seem like a contrived gimmick to get publicity for the EB blog. What I found interesting is that virtually all of the other bloggers over at the EB blog have written lots of posts. – many more interesting than what Gorman has to say. Gorman – has just these two (with a third promised). The posts seem intentionally crafted to get a specific reaction as opposed to someone who wants to create an open discussion. I would have just as soon said let’s not even bother to pay attention to it. But I’m glad you did because I enjoyed your thoughtful post.

  2. Well, shoot, I have to add a comment to a post that references Tristram Shandy. You’ve just got to wonder how much fun Sterne would have had with hypertext and Web 2.0.

  3. Sterne and hypertext: /head explodes (though honestly, it’s the humor of Shamela I would love to see applied to this tzimmis)

    Steven, I agree. I received that same email, and so did several other bloggers I know. It was blatant pot-stirring, though it did give me a chance to observe that in skewing its team of experts to a roster that is overwhelmingly straight white men, the EB was undermining its own “why we carefully select only the very best scholars to represent a topic” argument.

  4. It’s his reason that has gone to sleep: he overgeneralizes and his argument (if you can find it) is a straw man. Web 2.0 is just not as great a threat to authenticity, fixity, or authority as he thinks. I noticed he really likes the word authoritative. Can you imagine him in the Milgram experiments?

    I checked his Vita. For someone so into expertise and authority, you’d think he’d have more educational credentials than 2 years at a technical college. Then again, maybe this explains some things.

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