Learning through Language: Education and Electronic Media


Grove City, PA. You have thirty minutes before your next responsibility, and you can choose between watching television, logging onto the Internet, or reading an article in the Atlantic. Which do you choose, and why? You would probably like to think the answer has something to do with the content: The Internet (or television) is more interesting than Atlantic, or closer to your own perspective on life. But the real answer is probably neurological: you may not have the capacity to read a sustained argument or analysis for thirty minutes. You can observe a minute-and-a-half video on YouTube, or a thirty-second bite on televised news, but you may not be able to read serious, nuanced, sustained reasoning.

Your brain has been shaped; not by Big Brother, not by your parents, not by the public school system. It has been shaped, neurologically, by electronic, image-based media. Just as important, your brain may not have been shaped by frequent exposure to sustained and nuanced reasoning. Neuroscientists such as Susan Greenfield and Daniel J. Levitin have empirically substantiated what media ecologists such as Marshall MacLuhan, Walter Ong, and Neil Postman had observed non-empirically: that the brain is not a static, but a dynamic, reality; its properties have a certain plasticity to them, that are shaped by many things (including, obviously, mood-altering drugs such as Ritalin, Paxil, or Prozac).

Media ecologists had observed this before and had suggested that what they called the “sensoria” (the five senses plus the two properties of the brain: rationality and imagination) were plastic/flexible, shaped by what they experienced. Listen to complex music many times, and you can “hear” things in it you could not before. Taste many different wines, and you begin to taste things you could not taste before. Read a substantial amount of a given author’s work, and you conform your sensibilities to the author’s diction and can “hear” things you could not before. Second and third novels by Cormac McCarthy are easier to read than the first; the hundredth reading of Robert Frost is much easier than the first, as your sensibilities adjust to a poet who has learned “in singing not to sing.” Read sustained, nuanced argumentation, and you can comprehend it as you could not before. What was once commonly referred to, somewhat unscientifically, as a “cultivated sensibility” can now be spoken of as a neuro-biological reality.

What we call the “brain” is a complex electronic, biological, and chemical organism that “grows” or “develops” in certain ways. Susan Greenfield recalled a Harvard experiment in which three groups of adults were tested over a brief period of time (five days). One group was placed in a room with a piano, and given instruction in it, and actually played certain exercises. A second group was placed in a similar room with no instructions, and they did not play the piano. A third group was placed in a similar room and were instructed to imagine playing the piano. Brain scans after the test revealed no change for the second group, yet profound structural (empirically verifiable) changes in the brains of the first and third groups. Physically playing a piano altered the brain’s structures, and even imagining playing the piano altered the brain’s structures.

Results such as these are profoundly unsettling (at least for those capable of being profoundly unsettled). That to which I give my attention alters me; and that to which I call the attention of others alters them. As G.K. Beale has discussed, perhaps the Psalmist was savvier about technologies and attentiveness than we would have imagined; as he engaged in his anti-idol polemic, he appears to have observed that what we make, in some sense, makes us: “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them” (Psa. 115:4-8).

On a common-sense level, many had observed this phenomenon before: media ecologists and educators have long observed that the brain is like a muscle, something that can be developed. It is not, that is, like a Tupperware container, into which we put information; rather, it is a living organism like a muscle, that not only can be developed, but always is developed, in one way or another. The brain, after all, is no less material than other organs; why should we expect it to be different?

Educators and their students, therefore, should recognize that the effect of academic courses is only partly determined by their content; they are also determined by their conduct. The medium, in some senses, is the message. Educators are not merely pouring information into a bucket, nor are we merely Pavlovs training dogs in a particular method (though we do both of those things); we are just as importantly, perhaps more importantly, shaping the kinds of humans students will ultimately become and the kinds of brains they will ultimately have. We are analogous to the physical trainers that some people employ to get them into physical shape. Such trainers, although involved in a commercial transaction, do not merely “sell” a product. Their relation is not merely transactional; it is transformational. The clients hire such professionals to make them miserable, to make them do many repetitions of difficult, challenging physical routines, in order to become more fit, physically. Educators (the good ones, anyway) do a similar thing. We make our students momentarily miserable because we stretch them, we push them, to become more fit, mentally and socially. We help them develop certain less-developed human capacities, such as attention-span, rationality, imagination, and linguistic competence.

Extended attention-span (often called “executive attention”) is a critical component of a well-developed mind. Some of the mental challenges or tasks we face are nuanced and complex. Such challenges require our ability to concentrate our mental powers for an extended period of time. If parents are considering how to rear a given child, for instance, the matter is complex. What are the fiscal considerations, the social considerations, the personality considerations? What are the logistical considerations, such as transportation to and from school? Frequently, we are faced with such complex matters, matters where the answers to some aspects of the problem differ from the answers to other aspects, and we must weigh the varying pros and cons before reaching a decision.

Similarly, many of the social challenges we face require an extended attention span. Sometimes an individual we know is facing some difficulty and doesn’t quite know how to describe the difficulty, or even whether she wishes to share the difficulty with another person. We must read through both the spoken language and the body language, in such circumstances, to permit the individual to disclose as much as she wishes, before then deciding whether to offer counsel, or merely friendship and support. This is a demanding task, mentally, and requires patient, extended attention. As Simone Weil observed:

Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention…

The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: “What are you going through?” It is a recognition that the sufferer exists, not only as a unit in a collection, or a specimen from the social category labeled “unfortunate,” but as a man, exactly like us, who was one day stamped with a special mark by affliction. For this reason it is not enough, but it is indispensable, to know how to look at him in a certain way.

This way of looking is first of all attentive.

I suppose there are educators who do not consider the social development of their students to be any part of their responsibility. This strikes me as an odd viewpoint, especially since the very people who resist a transformational understanding of education are precisely those who talk about preparing students for “the real world,” a real world, I might suggest, that is often populated by humans. Other educators recognize the social component of education, if not its fundamentally social essence. Encyclopedia Britannica, for instance, recognizes this essentially social nature of education: “Education can be viewed as the transmission of the values and accumulated knowledge of a society. In this sense, it is equivalent to what social scientists term socialization or enculturation. Children…are born without culture. Education is designed to guide them in learning a culture, molding their behaviour in the ways of adulthood, and guiding them toward their eventual role in society.”

Very few, if any, electronic media develop extended attention span (the exception may be the auditory “book on tape” in its various permutations, though it does not work for me). At a commonsense level, people such as Neil Postman have observed this for years. When televised news, for instance, covers an event in twenty or thirty seconds, then switches gears entirely to another event, punctuated by the occasional cluster of non-related commercial “messages,” the mind literally is not permitted to concentrate on any one thing for an extended period. Empirical research is now suggesting that this commonsense observation is correct. In “Early Television Exposure and Subsequent Attentional Problems in Children,” Christakis, Zimmerman, et al. correlated television with attentional disorders in young children. Continued exposure to “sound bite” media shape the neurology (and almost certainly the sensibilities) to attempt to process non-contextual bits of information without perceiving their cultural, intellectual, or historical context, each of which is necessary for that information to have any humane meaning.

The same problem occurs with various forms of Internet-surfing. MIT’s Ted Selker told the BBC that “Our attention span gets affected by the way we do things… If we spend our time flitting from one thing to another on the web, we can get into a habit of not concentrating.” Pam Briggs, of Nottingham, told the BBC: “E-mails are very seductive… You can’t leave them alone when your computer beeps to tell you have a new message, even though you are working on quite an important task.” University of Virginia Professor Mark Edmundson has asked his students: “How many places were you simultaneously yesterday — at the most?” He found that they are often in six or seven “places” at the same time (most of them digital places, since only the Almighty has achieved actual ubiquity to date). Speaking with friends while possibly watching a movie, music in the background, cellphone on and text-messaging others, Insta-ing those absent, his students are almost never in a single social “space” at a single time. They are perpetual, habitual, multi-taskers; which means they almost never concentrate. And, of course, because they rarely concentrate, their powers of concentration (and attentive love) are comparatively under-developed.

It need hardly be observed that PowerPoint slides do not cultivate extended concentration. They sail by, one after another at the presenter’s pace, and we glance at each without concentrating on any. Further, because of the meager amount of information that can be successfully put on each slide, even if the slide is left on the screen for several minutes, it neither requires nor rewards concentration, because there is not much to it. It would be difficult to cram even a short poem, say a 14-line sonnet, onto a PowerPoint slide. PowerPoint works best with graphs, images, and bullet-points. Bullet points almost never have finite verbs in them; they literally predicate nothing. One cannot, therefore, reason/argue with a bullet-point. One fairly passively observes a bullet-point, but one does not argue with it, because the bullet-point so rarely makes a propositional claim (nor does an image or a graph). PowerPoint, at its best, can present information, but it cannot tell us what to think or do about such information, as Edward Tufte’s The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within attests, It cannot demonstrate that the information is important, nor can it easily place the information in an intellectual, cultural, or historical context. Its format tends to de-contextualize. Note then, that a tool that may be growing in popularity in the classroom is unsuited to much of what a classroom is about: Rational argument, contextualization, and assessment. Further, the ethereal, fleeting character of each individual slide disrupts concentration on any one idea or thought and thereby precludes the cultivation of an extended attention span.

Widespread use of such a presentation tool suggests that its virtue (communicating information) is virtuous; that information is valuable. Yet such an axiom is not axiomatic, and many cultures and educational programs have argued that information exists in the academic arena only as a step towards knowledge, which is a step towards understanding, which is a step towards wisdom, the true goal of education, as writers like Mortimer Adler have highlighted. Very little of what is important to individual or social life is dependent on information, as Neil Postman observed in Germany in 1990:

If children die of starvation in Ethiopia, does it occur because of a lack of information? Does racism in South Africa exist because of a lack of information? If criminals roam the streets of New York City, do they do so because of a lack of information?

Or, let us come down to a more personal level: If you and your spouse are unhappy together, and end your marriage in divorce, will it happen because of a lack of information? If your children misbehave and bring shame to your family, does it happen because of a lack of information? If someone in your family has a mental breakdown, will it happen because of a lack of information? I believe you will have to concede that what ails us, what causes us the most misery and pain – at both cultural and personal levels – has nothing to do with the sort of information made accessible by computers.

“Information Technology” is a fairly new term, a term that expresses a new cultural reality, the ubiquity of electronic tools that exist to exchange information. But the presence of these tools, like the presence of all tools, also expresses a value. The presence of automobiles implies that travel is important; the presence of books implies that learning from those geographically or historically distant is important; the presence of weapons implies that winning wars is important. The widespread presence of “information” technologies overestimates the personal and cultural value of information, and underestimates the value of understanding and wisdom, as it also under-evaluates the intellectual and social value of extended attention. Information will always play a role in learning; and the judicious use of technologies that aid in communicating such information will aid us in that aspect of our educational enterprise. But spreading information is not the distilled essence of education, and the injudicious use of electronic technology will actually inhibit crucial aspects of the educational enterprise. The best educators (and the best educational institutions) will neither embrace nor eschew the electronic technologies that commercial forces wish to prevail in higher education; rather they will assess each one, in light of both its assets and its liabilities, employing those that are superior to other tools, while not employing those that are not. Individuals (and families) face similar choices, to embrace, eschew, or assess digital technologies, cognizant of their tendencies to shape some human capacities at the expense of other human capacities, and to recognize that they constitute different means to different ends. Only as we have some clear sense of what our goals are can we make judicious use of the media that are likely to promote such ends.

Christians, whether educators or laypersons, begin with the plausible assumption that Christianity presents itself with an enormous “bias” towards language and against image; there are 66 canonical books in which the religious use of images is strictly forbidden. It is the only commandment in the decalogue that describes those who violate it as “those who hate Me.” The tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai were written not by Moses, but by the very “the finger of God” (Ex. 31:18; Deut. 9:10). The church began with apostolic proclamation, another linguistic medium with ties to the law and the prophets that had come before, and the church’s Christ is declared to be the “Word” that “became flesh.” While the inscripturated word is complemented with two sacraments, the ratio of page-to-sacrament is extraordinary, and each sacrament, while profound, is also rather simple and otherwise ordinary. The God of the Bible (and his servants) prized language above other available media, and we would do well to respect that choice even as we are awash in image-based media.

NB: Throughout this essay, I use “learning” and “education” interchangeably, unless the context clearly indicates the one over the other. While I have been involved in teaching at the graduate or college level for my entire adult career, I have also been learning about life, the forest, my wife, the Christian faith and life, and many other things. What I say about electronic media is germane both to formal learning and to informal learning, and readers may adjust the insights (if there be any) to their purposes.

Image Credit: Jan Davidszoon de Heem, “Still Life with Books and Violin” (1628).

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T. David Gordon is a retired author living in Grove City, PA. He was previously Professor of Religion and Greek at Grove City College, where from 1999-2021 he taught courses in Religion, Greek, Humanities, and Media Ecology. Prior to that, he taught for thirteen years at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in S. Hamilton, MA; and for nine years he was pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashua, NH. He is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America. Dr. Gordon has contributed to a number of books and study Bibles (his notes on John’s gospel appear in the New Geneva Study Bible and the Reformation Study Bible), and has published scholarly reviews and articles in journals such as New Testament Studies, The Westminster Theological Journal, Interpretation, and Journal for the Evangelical Theological Society. His popular articles have appeared in periodicals such as Modern Reformation, Tabletalk, Decision, The Ordained Servant, and Lay Leadership. He has written Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers (2009), Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Re-Wrote the Hymnal (2010), and Promise, Law, Faith: Covenant-Historical Reasoning in Galatians (2019). Dr. Gordon is a graduate of Roanoke College (B.L.A.), Westminster Theological Seminary (M.A.R., Th.M.), and Union Theological Seminary in Virginia (Ph.D.). He lives in Grove City, PA, with his wife Dianne. The Gordons have two married daughters and two grandsons. When not doing anything productive, he is likely to be found wandering aimlessly in the forest.


  1. Excellent piece, though I think the last paragraph may be worthy of debate.

    I might even assign this in an upcoming undergrad course where students will be exploring these issues (and also living under strict rules for tech use). It does a great job of laying out some of the ideas I’m most eager to emphasize to the students.

    • Definitely debatable as an over-generalization. Text was far easier to distribute than images when everything was done by hand millennia ago.

  2. Really informative and affirming (of common sense). I read this also with an appreciation of how social-emotional learning impacts children — negatively, when used to condition children to reject gender and sexual norms, and hate their own culture, history, laws, and race (which critical gender and race “theories” very much do. This raises even more questions about how education is to condition children when it becomes postmodernist, pervasively secular, and morally relative. And it does so in the guise of critical thinking…. It should be called instead destructionist.

    I still adore GK Chesterton, Dostoevsky, and Wendell Berry, among many others, for stimulating a part of my thinking that YouTube cannot generally reach (though Thomas Sowell is a genius, and available on YouTube).

    Thanks for this timely and stimulating piece.

  3. A very thoughtful and thought-provoking essay, to be sure. Ironically, it seems a bit too obsequious in terms of taking scientific theory as fact.

    The Harvard experiment cited indirectly in paragraph 4 is quite sloppy:
    “A second group was placed in a similar room with no instructions, and they did not play the piano.”

    Uh, that’s two variable, not one. What if the second group had been given instructions but told not to play the piano until some undefined later time? Would that not also have engaged their imaginative ability to some extent?

    More significant than this undated “evidence” is the salutary quote from Simone Weil reminiscent of Carl Rogers’s therapeutic concept “unconditional positive regard”. An excellent point, Prof. Gordon.

    But all this “brain is destiny” stuff fails to account for whistleblowers, or other people who somehow emerge from conditioning, either by discovering truth or by letting innate morality shine through.

  4. Great article! Your last point about the biblical bias toward language, against image, reminds me of a point made in one of the interviews in “Get Lamp,” the documentary about the origins and recent resurgence of interactive fiction. The speaker — I forget who, I think maybe the poet Robert Pinsky — argued that the most direct pipeline to our inner world is text, that the whole effort to construct immersive worlds via VR goggles, haptic gloves, etc — is unnecessary, probably delusional; none of that will ever be as real as the new worlds that come to us via the right words in the right sequence. I’m Eastern Orthodox myself, and there’s a strong emphasis on drawing man towards God via the totality of his sensoria — the smell of incense, the dance of beeswax candelight, etc — even so, the Liturgy in which these full-body experiences take place is primarily a verbal phenomenon; it’s the poetry that coordinates our movements, our singing, the poetry that gives all the nonverbals meaning. Also, though, the text takes on so many new dimensions when we engage it with our whole body, not just the mind. To go back to education, one observation I have (having been a teacher for about 10 years) is that students don’t have attention for text, because they are disconnected from Creation — they are disconnected from what God himself has spoken into existence, which is the context for making alive what we ourselves, in his image, are trying to speak into existence.

  5. Thank you for this essay, Dr. Gordon. The contrasting of information and wisdom is apt. And, arguing for language and text, rather than image, as the preeminent educators brought to mind the statement attributed to Joseph Conrad, who said of writing, “my job is to help you see.” Language conjures forth thought and images in readers’ minds. But that requires great time, effort, and skill from both speaker and writer, listener and reader — which your essay alludes to when it mentions how much easier Frost is after a hundred readings.

  6. Thank you for this great article, Dr. Gordon. I think it is helpful that you spoke of technology’s draining of the attention span in relation to the social dimension, especially with that Simon Weil quote. Cultivating our executive functions and attention span is not just something that is good for self-improvement, but it is relevant to being able to better love your neighbor.

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