Who amongst the Baby Boomers doesn't remember CliffsNotes® -- those little yellow and black booklets that took up less than a couple of dozen pages "teaching" us everything we thought we needed to know about chemistry, French, algebra or Great Expectations? Remember the sample essays at the back of the booklet that were so difficult not to copy verbatim and hand in as our own? Whatever became of all those little academic crutches? Well, I'm here to tell you that CliffsNotes® is still in business. And what's more, not only do Cliff and the posse have a great user-friendly website; they are more up-to-date, more technically advanced than Windows® 7.
Unbelievably, nowadays, students in need of becoming "expert" on Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, Thoreau's Walden, or Plato's Republic; those wishing to bone up on Calculus, Economics or English Grammar -- need not even go to Borders or Barnes & Noble to purchase the CliffsNotes® version of the work they've been assigned. All they need do is download Shakespeare, Thoreau or Plato via "CliffsNotes® To Go" or CliffsNotesmobile™ to their iphone™ or iPod touch®. If you wish, you can connect with CliffsNotes® through either "Facebook" or "YouTube." Why there's even an audio version of all this that Cliff calls "Cramcasting."
Really something, no?
And yet, despite all the techno injection, regardless of how many megabytes there are in Middlemarch, it's still the same old deception -- glancing at shadows, and declaring them to be the real McCoy. It's still the same old pity: permitting others -- Cliff et al -- to make up our minds for us about what things mean and how we should feel about them. Dickens had a great expression for this: The moral infection of claptrap. (Note: This expression, 'The moral infection of claptrap,' is used by Dickens in describing the pompous Josiah Bounderby in chapter seven of Hard Times. Sorry to report that CliffsNotes® has never seen fit to publish a booklet on this most satiric of novels.)
To a haunting extent, headlines are the "claptrap," the CliffsNotes® of modern discourse. As our lives become ever more complex and societal changes seem to take place at the speed of light, we have increasingly come to rely upon "claptrap," where previously, knowledge born of study and patience would have sufficed. How many know far, far more about the indiscretions of Tiger Woods than the amazingly heroic reform movement in Iran? How many who have never read word one of the recently passed Senate health care bill "know" everything that's wrong with it? How many knowingly" proclaim things like:
- "Global warming is a total fraud,"
- "Since Obama became President, suicides are at an all-time high."
- "The Department of Homeland Security is targeting anyone who believes in limited government as a potential terrorist . . . "
as if they had studied -- and then seriously contemplated -- the subjects upon which they are now declaiming so vociferously. To my way of thinking, this is no different from the student who, having thumbed through the CliffsNotes® version of a novel, essay or foreign language, feels him- or herself to be an expert. But of course, they are not; CliffsNotes®, useful though they may be, cannot replace the real thing -- the actual text. In the same vein, headlines -- especially as provided by the modern molders of opinion -- are far more often based on fiction rather than fact.
In the case of CliffsNotes® and class work, the potential dangers are two-fold:
- That the student will only seem to have learned the text or subject at hand,
- That the student may well commit an act of educational dishonesty by passing off what has been gleaned as their own knowledge.
Perhaps they will pass the test or get a passing grade on the term paper; they will, however, have failed in their primary pursuit; to actually learn enough to be able to employ critical judgment. This does not necessarily bode well for their post-educational career.
In the case of "headlines," rather than CliffsNotes®, the potential danger is even more severe. For in repeating the "headlines" that are broadcast by others; in concluding that these "headlines" contain the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth; people can easily put their trust and confidence in those whose true genius -- or purpose -- is not in teaching, but rather in manipulating. And a society in which a vast number of folks are easily manipulated is a society in which freedom may well one day find itself on the critical list.
"Cramcasting" is simply not the antidote to the "moral infection of claptrap" -- whether it be in school or society.
Sorry Cliff . . .
©2009 Kurt F. Stone