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You Are What You Read (2012 Fall Commencement Address, Saturday Afternoon)

  • Date: 12/15/2012
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • As you finish this chapter of your life, allow me to offer you one final University of Akron lesson.

    Avoid junk food.

    A little now and then may be okay, but you cannot stay healthy for long if junk food is all you consume.

    I am sure many of you heard something similar from your parents not so long ago. Those who made it their duty to provide proper nutrition for the development and growth of your body were talking about food. On behalf of those who made it their duty to provide proper nutrition for the development and growth of your mind, I am referring to information.

    While you were enrolled here, we provided you with a substantial diet of facts, theories, analysis and other elements to develop your critical thinking and strengthen your knowledge base.  To succeed and graduate, you had no choice but to consume these intellectual “peas and carrots.”

    But you didn’t fool anyone; we knew you were sneaking junk food on the side. As I walk through the Student Union and the commons, and glance over the shoulders of students at their laptops, it isn’t Shakespeare or Newton I am seeing on the screens. It looks a lot more like Facebook, YouTube or Tosh.0. And those are just the ones I am willing to mention in front of your families.

    But now you are heading into that great wide world, where you are free to fill your minds with whatever you please. You leave here with minds that are lean and robust, supple and strong, swift and agile. Don’t let them atrophy in the mesmerizing glow of a smart phone or tablet, or grow fat and lazy from a sugary diet of tweets, posts and filtered feeds.

    You know the expression, you are what you eat? It is equally true that you are what you read.

    It was not so long ago that you could scan the titles on a person’s bookshelf to take a fairly accurate measure of that person. Now perhaps you need to peek at their e-reader menu, or the history of their web browser, but even those do not quite compare.

    Bookshelves reveal so much about a person: not only which books they read, but what kind, and how often. Is there a predominance of a certain type, or a healthy blend of fiction and non-fiction? Are the spines cracked and the covers battered from use, or are these merely pristine showpieces, arrayed for appearances sake? And which – which volumes were awarded the Place of Supreme Honor: center shelf, eye level?

    I understand that the explosion in computing power and communication over the last few decades has yielded an exponential growth of information.  One estimate is that, every day, American homes consume 3.6 zettabytes of data.[i]  How many ones and zeros is that? Stay with me on this: If a gigabyte is a billion bytes, and a terabyte is a trillion bytes, and a petabyte is a million billion bytes, then a zettabyte must be . . . a prodigious amount of information.

    All the more reason why you must learn how to discern what is sizzle and what is steak. Students long before you tried to use information overload as an excuse for poor mental diets. Anne Blair, the author of “Too Much to Know,” says that thanks to Johann Guttenberg, people in the 1500s began scrambling for solutions to the unprecedented dilemma of having . . . too many books.[ii] And before them, first-century Romans students held their heads in dismay at news that Pliny the Elder had compiled a 38-volume Natural History that boasted more than 20,000 facts.[iii]

    So do not be intimidated by this century’s all-you-dare-eat buffet of data. Ample resources exist, and more will be created, to help you separate the good from the bad. You must learn for yourself how to convert raw information into useful knowledge. Blair suggests that, “All that stuff you get from a Google search is information…Knowledge is specific to a person. It is information that has been filtered by a person’s interests and integrated into his or her understanding.”[iv]

    What you choose to filter and integrate into your understanding comprises your knowledge, and your knowledge makes up a considerable percentage of who you are.

    Of course, a healthy mental diet is varied and comes from many sources. If your reading habits are frivolous, try something a bit more substantial like the Wall Street Journal or The Economist. If, on the other hand, you are the serious type who limits your reading to technical journals, studies and industry news, make some time to read some of the classics – there is a reason why Great Literature is called “great.”

    In fact, recent research suggests that when you truly lose yourself in the world of a fictional character, the experience can influence your own behavior.[v] In a process labeled “experience-taking,” readers who bonded with a protagonist tended to temporarily match their own attitudes and behavior with those of the character. Atticus Fitch in “To Kill A Mockingbird,” may inspire integrity and conviction. Celie Johnson, the heroine of “The Color Purple,” may transfer some of her indomitable spirit to readers.

    And, if you are of a mind to follow politics and current events, consider a balanced diet of essays and columns by rational, cerebral men and women from both sides of the issues. Challenges to your way of thinking will strengthen your mind, whereas confirmation bias only stunts your intellect, and makes it brittle.

    Finally, as you feed your mind, be sure to exercise it as well. Use the critical thinking skills you have developed at this university to test and prove new information before you dignify it as knowledge. Learn to distinguish fact from fiction and knowledge from opinion. Opinions are like noses, everyone has one and is only too eager to stick it in your business.

    After all, there is much wisdom in the ancient Japanese proverb: “If you believe everything you read – it is better not to read.”[vi]

    [i] Popova, Maria. (Jan. 23, 2012) “A Healthy Information Diet: The Case for Conscious Consumption.” The Atlantic http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/01/a-healthy-information-diet-the-case-for-conscious-consumption/251634/

    [ii]Blair, Ann. “The History of Information.” Thebrowser.com. http://thebrowser.com/interviews/ann-blair-on-history-information

    [iii] Ibid

    [iv] Ibid

    [v] Carroll, Linda. “You Are What You Read, Study Suggests.” Dec. 3, 2012. NBCNews.com http://bodyodd.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/05/13/11665205-you-are-what-you-read-study-suggests?lite

  • Topic Category: Reading as a habit
  • Tags: reading information knowledge
  • Filed in:

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