Creativity usually isn’t concocting something totally new. Mostly it is combining two or more pre-existing things never joined before–or never in quiet this way. Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups is an example to chew on. Or consider the printing press–five hundred years ago it was a delightful combination of books and a wine press. And that’s still a good combo.* Today, we have a name for such inventions–mashups.
Books are often mashups as well. Rick Warren once said that what is in Purpose-Driven Life is what he read in other books–but he put it in a 40-day, church-program package that hadn’t been done quite like that before. A reference book is a mashup. Our Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture is a very creative and successful example. In academia a course itself will be a mashup of all kinds of resources, a reading list or study list of books, articles, videos, exercises, case studies, experiments and so forth–not to mention lectures.
Technology is making some of this even easier these days for professors. They take a few journals articles here, several chapter excerpts there, some of the professor’s own lecture notes, a blog post or two, some charts and tables–and the students have their text. So enterprising organizations are asking for permission to use pieces of our books for just such purposes–and we are cooperating, of course.
The advantages for the professor (and the students) are obvious. They get exactly what they want–not too much and not too little. They don’t have to use multiple books. They can use just one. And with short attention spans fostered by quantum-paced media, smaller bits of text could be the way to go.
With all the good, usually there are hidden disadvantages, unintended consequences. That could be the case here too. One, ironically, may be the continued reduction in the ability of students to think. We would expect that one key goal of education is to enhance the ability of students to reflect and follow logical arguments, but mashups may have the opposite effect. With short pieces and excerpts mashed together, where is the need to follow a sustained argument of even two hundred pages?
If this should happen, mashups wouldn’t be the sole cause of the demise of thinking. We’ve been going down this path for decades. In 1858 Illinois farmers followed hours-long arguments between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas over slavery. Compare those to the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960. But compare those to the stay-on-message, repeat the same sound bites of the Obama-McCain debates of 2008.
In 1982 USA Today started publishing a newspaper with only brief articles, with only one in each issue that would ever be continued on another page. It was decried at the time but now most other newspapers follow its example–if they exist at all.
Now we hear news in ever-briefer pieces and Twitter our lives–as long as it is no more than 140 characters. No wonder we are an ADD culture! No wonder the news makes us dumb. What Neil Postman described in Amusing Ourselves to Death has only become more true since it was first published in 1985.
So mashups aren’t the problem. In many ways they are a solution to problems like astonishingly overpriced textbooks–and texts that don’t exactly fit the professors’ or the students’ needs. Mashups may just be a symptom. If teachers still want students to learn how to think, however, they may need something different.
*Thanks to Dave Zimmerman for these examples.