Closer Readings Commentary

Balancing Technology and the Humanities

Ashley Kim is an intern this summer at EDSITEment. She is a rising senior in the Department of Politics at Princeton University with interests in American politics and political theory. 

Every morning on my commute to the National Endowment for the Humanities, I see the extent to which technology seems to have gained control over the lives of young people. Everyone under thirty is constantly glued to their devices, whether it be reading, texting, surfing the Web, calling a friend, or listening to music.  Young people stand on subway platforms or bus stops not making eye contact, much less having conversations. 

“Unthinking servants”?

Overall, there seems to be less and less opportunity or encouragement for us to unplug the technology and stand free of the cocoon. As a political science major with a strong interest in education policy, I find some reasons to be critical of this state of affairs.

During my internship this summer, I researched the founding of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the independent federal agency that will be fifty years old on September 29. I focused on the agency’s enabling legislation. The “purposes and findings” section serves as a kind of “preamble” to the bill. What really hit me was the following statement in the middle of the preamble:

“Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens. It must therefore foster and support a form of education, and access to the arts and the humanities, designed to make people of all backgrounds and wherever located masters of their technology and not its unthinking servants.”

While I wouldn’t go so far as to argue that we have become “unthinking servants” of technology, I do want to suggest that the digital age encourages a kind of educational experience that falls short of putting us in charge of technology. I want to go on to suggest how we might reestablish a sounder balance.

Information vs insight

Because of the constant stimulation that comes with surfing the Web, students prioritize where and how fast information can be found rather than truly gaining insight from what they read. In fact, I would say that we have almost lost the distinction between information and insight.

Information is data and facts; insight is analysis and interpretation. Information is easy to come by; insight is hard won for most of us. Insight requires reading and rereading serious books, grappling with and digesting their lessons, followed by being able to write or talk about those lessons in our own terms. There may be some people for whom insight is intuitive, but even they need to be able to explain their insights to an audience.

Losing focus online

Moreover, focus, productivity, and time management are becoming more and more difficult to maintain. The growing popularity of online learning programs often removes the opportunities for mentoring of teacher to student, which once was the crux of a good liberal arts education.  Intellectual laziness can result, as research becomes “search” and the first few hits on Google become sufficient for meeting the undemanding requirements of most online projects.

Finally there is a range of valuable social skills and related character traits that can only be developed by working on a project (either by oneself or with others) over a long period, deciding how to present one’s findings, and then successfully presenting them to an audience.

Three ways to restore balance

My work this summer at EDSITEment has helped me to focus on these issues better and has also given me a fresh appreciation of how a few traditional humanities approaches might serve to take students out of their technological cocoon.    

National History Day

This summer, I attended National History Day finals at the University of Maryland where I was amazed to see a college bowl filled with thousands of eager, bright-eyed students. I was surprised to learn that over 600,000 students from all fifty states, as well as international schools in China, Korea, and Indonesia, participated in this yearlong academic completion. During the NEH-sponsored Congressional Breakfast on Capitol Hill, I took a select number of NHD students around to meet their congressional representatives. During this process, I heard how NHD participation had been a transformative experience. Students were challenged in every way by the demands of working on a research project of their own choosing. They learned how to conduct authentic historical research, including in their communities and in the wider world. They learned how to present, and they learned about the prestige that comes with academic achievement. One student said that she finally understood what her mother, a teacher, meant by scholarship.

Book clubs

Book clubs are an old-fashioned, low-tech way for students to engage with reading through discussion and reflection. Book clubs allow for an exposure to new ideas and opinions. They encourage a broader perspective for students who can share in the experience with others who have read the same work. Book clubs foster enthusiasm about the books they are reading. Making predictions, sharing their favorite parts, and arguing about a point of view are all part of the systematic discussion process. Having students discuss books of their own interest during book club meetings is another idea. Because the school curriculum might not list books that students might want to read and discuss (science fiction books, for example), book clubs are good outlets for students to engage in a more personalized and fun conversation that incorporates both critical thinking and discussion.    


Encouraging more debate in the classrooms is a great idea for students to discover their voice, thoughts, opinions, and views on a variety of issues. By understanding that there are always at least two opposing sides to a question, and taking the argument against one’s positions seriously, students learn to strengthen their positions, broaden their perspective, as well as more effectively communicate. Leadership, teamwork, and critical thinking skills are built into the tradition of debate.


When I think about each of these “traditional” alternatives, and look at them in the light of the civic engagement and academic achievement defict,   I see why they have always been part of a liberal education for serious men and women.