The Buzz

Can Twitter and Facebook Make Good Thinkers of America’s Next Leaders?

Recently, James Carafano wrote a thought-provoking article based on the premise that American leadership has lost the ability to think deeply and well. This is not an uncommon refrain, nor is the solution he proposes — improved education — but, in elucidating his point, he makes the following argument:

Next, the quality of the education matters. Here both form and content have to be addressed. It might be “deeply unfashionable,” writes Molly Worthen, but emails, Facebook, blog posts, videos and PowerPoint slides aren’t good tools for teaching deep thinking. Daniel Levitin comes to the same conclusion in his book. Deep thinking is stimulated by prolonged attention to a subject that requires activities such as reading books; listening to live, interactive lectures; and experiencing Socratic teaching. If school officials are not building programs around these time-consuming, contemplative and challenging activities, they are just delivering diplomas.

He’s right, of course, but hidden in his truth is a deeply problematic issue regarding “emails, Facebook, [and] blog posts.” Most fundamentally, he misframes the issue as it regards these media, describing an implicit expectation that deep thought and deep learning must come from a single experience and that these activities are not meaningfully additive to the reading of books, interactive engagement, Socratic teaching, etc. And in this regard, he is simply wrong. So, what is the value of these electronic media to those looking to develop deep knowledge?

A Word on Definitions

To begin, and to make sure we’re all on the same argumentative page, what do we mean by social networking? The dictionary defines it as “the development of social and professional contacts; the sharing of information and services among people with a common interest.” Like many definitions, this doesn’t necessarily clear things up, not least because under this definition prolific and brilliant correspondents such as Thomas More and Desiderius Erasmus were a social network. While this is accurate, it also isn’t the focus of the contemporary conversation; one suspects Carafano would read with interest their correspondence and view that reading as deep thinking. These legacy networks all still exist, but there are new technologies that facilitate the creation of new (or if not entirely new then at least new in scale) networks. So, what we’re talking about here are the new, technologically-enabled forms of social networks and social media. But “social media” isn’t much better as a terminology, since the same objections apply. More and Erasmus interacted in a social network via the available social media of letters.

So, without trying to create a precise definition of the technologies and forums involved, let’s include in the model outlets such as Twitter, Facebook, blogs, communities of practice (consider the Military Writers Guild as a fine new example), and other online publications with relatively low cost of entry (e.g., The Strategy Bridge, War Council, The Constant Strategist, The Complex Systems Channel, etc.). The line blurs with more traditional forms based in an online medium (look to and War on the Rocks as examples), and gets really fuzzy when we consider traditional media with an online presence (e.g., the Air & Space Power Journal, the MOR Journal, etc.). These are all in the mix, but it’s really the first category that’s of most interest here.

With a definition like this in hand, we have at least three three broad and enduring reasons for social networking that belie the implications in Carafano’s claim.

Lifelong Learning

Carafano would likely agree, based on the quote above, the value of an educational experience is multiplied by active, daily engagement with those around us (professors and fellow students), since for any given concept we are almost certain to hear alternative views and questions we never thought to ask, increasing our understanding of it. These alternatives can be found without that engagement (e.g., by actively seeking and reading competing visions of a given topic), but the costs associated with this sort of study are high and the human proclivities for cognitive biases present a non-trivial barrier. When each member of the group is exploring the possibilities in their own way and informed by their own background and biases, we distribute the effort in and increase the likelihood of finding constructive gems.