Learning in a Distracted Age
Is knowledge the most difficult Christian discipline for us today?
As I examine the list of “qualities” that Saint Peter lists in 2 Peter 1:5-7, I can’t help but wonder if “knowledge” might not be the most difficult of the qualities to come by in our digital era. After all, there are so many things to distract us today between the internet, streaming television, social media, podcasts, and the like; so much so that many of us may struggle to even pick up a book (let alone to finish one). We do, alas, live in a distracted age.
I am, of course, not the first person to suggest that modern life is making us less-knowledgeable. Documentaries like The Social Dilemma have raised concerns about the dangers of social media, warning us about how addicting it can be and how it curtails our attention spans. Authors like Alan Jacobs have written at length about how our thinking is shaped primarily by our social impulses rather than actual learning; a reality that must be overcome if we are to grow in knowledge and virtue.
As Jacobs writes in his book, How To Think, “Human beings are not built to be indifferent to the waves and pulses of their social world. For most of us the question is whether we have even the slightest reluctance to drift along with the flow.”
The social impulses and distractions of the digital era are, however, only one half of the equation which leads me to believe that knowledge is harder than ever to come by. The other half is the over-saturation of information itself. This is a danger to true knowledge because it leads many of us to see ourselves as being well-versed on topics that we don’t really know all that much about. As T.S. Eliot once asked, "Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” Certainly, the Google search has made us content to receive as little information as possible while considering ourselves to be ‘in the know.’
All of these concerns bring us to an important point that needs to be made regarding what Peter is saying in these verses we are studying; namely that each of the qualities listed by Peter are, in his words, “supplemental” to one another. They are like vitamins which all work together to support our overall spiritual health: virtue supplements faith, knowledge supplements virtue, self-control supplements knowledge, and so on. Peter is saying that we must have knowledge in order to be faithful and virtuous people, but also that we must possess self-control if we are to be knowledgeable. In other words, Peter is calling us to become disciplined learners.
But how might we become disciplined learners in such a distracted age? Let me suggest these three strategies:
The psychologist Daniel Kahneman once wrote that “little can be achieved without a considerable investment of effort.” In other words, Kahneman is telling us that we cannot expect to achieve much at a fast-pace. If we are to be disciplined learners, we will need to practice self-control in the form of slowing down because gaining true knowledge takes time and effort.
There are so many things competing for our attention in the digital era. If we are to become disciplined learners, then we will need to learn how to limit some of these distractions. Whether that means getting off of social media, canceling Netflix, or placing time limits on how we interact with these platforms, we will need to discern how to limit our distractions.
One of the greatest barriers to true knowledge today is the arrogance that comes from having access to so much information. We read a WebMD article and think we know more than doctors. We read an article about the environment and think we know more than ecologists. We watch a movie like the Da Vinci Code and think we know more than biblical scholars and theologians. But if we want to become disciplined learners, we will need to overcome this arrogant impulse in order to do the real work of learning.
As Peter is stressing in our passage, being a disciplined learner is crucial to our Christian formation. We are, after all, people who look to the Bible to discern God’s will and to guide our lives. Yet, it takes a lot of time, study, and reflection to be able to read the Bible well, to begin to understand what it really says and means, and to start putting it into practice. If we are unwilling to become disciplined learners, then we will always struggle to understand what the Scriptures mean. As hard as it is in our distracted age, we must strive to become disciplined learners in order to follow God faithfully.
Adam Smith is a Ministry Associate in Washington D.C.