For those not familiar with Karen Armstrong, she is (as she mentions in the article) a former nun who has written a number of good historical books on the Abrahamic religions. She has recently written a memoir, which is of interest to us because of her post-cultic (in this case the Catholic Church) reflections. Some of these are outlined here. Anyone interested in commenting on this article should post HERE in the "Letters from Readers" forum. I have highlighted some statements that I think are insightful or that resonate with me personally.
Are our powers of reflection atrophying in the electronic age?
Creativity cannot be hurried
Karen Armstrong -- Saturday April 24, 2004 -- The Guardian
The government has indicated that in five years' time, students will probably take their national tests and GCSE and A-level exams on screen at a computer, and get their results within seven to 10 working days. No examination system is perfect, and in matters of the mind there is a natural tendency to resist new technology. Socrates opposed the introduction of writing, believing that it would ruin memory and oral tradition. Nevertheless, this method of instant assessment raises questions about the way we acquire and evaluate knowledge in the electronic age.
Socrates had a point. Nobody would be without writing, which has wondrously altered the way we think, but our mnemonic powers have certainly declined. Before the advent of literacy, Buddhist monks memorised entire scriptures; Brahmin priests could chant huge portions of the Rig Veda with perfect intonation long after its archaic language had become incomprehensible; and bards effortlessly recited massive epics. Today most of us are incapable of such feats, and our memories are likely to deteriorate still further now that so much information is available at the click of a mouse.
Nobody would be without either writing or computers, but the undoubted advance that they represent is also a loss. Poems memorised in youth become an intimate part of our interior world, and our relationship to knowledge changes when it is a living presence in our minds. In an interview last week, Sir Michael Atiyah, the winner of the prestigious Abel prize for mathematics, explained that he often writes nothing at all in the course of a hard day's work, and that in maths there are few facts to master. "I just think ... and think." He lives with his ideas, carrying them wherever he goes - on a train, a bus, even while asleep - for days, weeks and years, making apparently little discernible progress, but waiting confidently for what he calls "vision".
The proposed e-assessment of schoolchildren will almost certainly be faster and more flexible. But speed and efficiency are not everything. Some kinds of insight only emerge after a long period of patient attention. Poets and writers insist that the creative process cannot be hurried. Keats called it negative capability, "when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason". At a time when knowledge is almost instantaneously achieved and habitually geared to productivity, many would find this apparent passivity alien.
Use it or lose it. Our contemplative faculties may now be atrophying in the same way as our memories, and this bodes ill for our creativity. Not only are certain kinds of thinking impossible at top speed, they also require solitude and silence, which are difficult to achieve in a world where, to quote Philip Larkin, "all virtue is social" and where people increasingly find it hard to take a country walk without a mobile phone.
Even if we are not original thinkers, we need a degree of negative capability to understand certain disciplines. I am convinced that one of the reasons why people have problems with religion today is that they assess it rationally, and expect to comprehend its insights immediately. But theology is - or should be - poetry, an attempt to express the inexpressible. Just as it is difficult to read a Rilke sonnet at a rowdy party, religious discourse requires a degree of silent attention; if you try to extort its meaning prematurely, it will remain opaque.
Religion is essentially an art form, designed to give us intimations of transcendence. As in mathematics, there are few facts: in most of the great traditions, metaphysics is largely irrelevant - religion is not about submitting to a set of creedal propositions, it is about behaving differently. But during the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, western people started to regard religious dogma as empirical fact and to insist on an orthodoxy that consequently seemed incredible.
This was my own experience. For years after I left the convent where I had spent seven years as a young nun, Christian doctrines seemed self-evidently absurd, because I did not approach them with negative capability but with the same logical, discursive reflection that I employed in some of my secular studies. I had also found the long struggle to submit to official doctrine mentally paralysing; we damage our minds if we habitually deflect them from their natural bias towards truth. My mind had seized up and it took about 12 years to unlock it. No wonder Confucius, Buddha and the Koran had little time for theological conformity.
After a series of career disasters, I ended up in religious broadcasting. My approach was still entirely sceptical and secular. I had to amass information at breakneck speed to keep one step ahead of the production team, ransacking sacred texts to advance my thesis of the moment. It was only after my television career collapsed, and I was forced - initially against my inclinations - to write full time, that my attitude towards religion changed.
Working alone, day after day, I was no longer engaged in witty banter with my director about the absurdity of a Kabbalistic myth or the hopeless irrationality of a Christian doctrine. There was now no busy cerebral filter between the texts and myself. At first I resented the silence, but I gradually discovered that the enveloping quiet became a positive element, almost a presence, that somehow orchestrated theological notions, revealing an unexpected resonance. I was no longer using the ideas I was encountering as fodder for my next television interview, but learning to live with them for years at a time and to listen to the deeper meaning that lay ineffably beyond them.
What works in theology, poetry and mathematics must also be effective in other fields; this patient waiting upon truth is as characteristic of the human mind and as necessary to human existence as swift, aggressive ratiocination. In our pragmatic, technological age, we may not be sufficiently aware of the need to train children to wait for long, apparently unproductive periods before achieving insight, and to feel comfortable in silence. In a slower, quieter time, negative capability probably came more naturally, but we may have to make a special effort to cultivate what Wordsworth called "wise passiveness".
The A-level fiasco of 2003 revealed the inadequacy of the current examination system, and some on-line testing may be a partial solution. But too many "tick box" questions could lead to an over-simplified conception of knowledge, and timed essays written at high speed on a computer could encourage sloppy, ill-disciplined prose. In our complex world, we need to counter the culture of the soundbite and the instant opinion, and teach children that some truths are not instantly accessible. If we do not, we will deprive them of an important creative capacity. The assessment of students should test their powers of reflection and their appreciation of complexity as well as their factual and technical skills.
Karen Armstrong is the author of The Spiral Staircase: A Memoir, recently published by HarperCollins