Inhale a book, exhale wisdom

My students snicker when I tell them to smell books.

The ones who think I can’t tell that they have been surfing the Web instead of typing notes turn from their screens and look at me as if I had grown a third eye.

“Yes,” I say, “go to the library shelves. Pull out an old book and smell it.”

This is not something they can Google, as they often do when I present information outside of their comfort zones.

At any university library you’ll see students gathered around computers. Should they venture up to the stacks they can now bring capped drinks. But even with such inducements — as well as lax enforcements of food policies — most students still cannot be bothered to investigate these venerable documents, some 100 years old.

Today’s students think knowledge comes at the keyboard, from sites such as Wikipedia. I learned at a recent teaching workshop on Millennials that a common complaint seen on evaluations is “the teacher acted like she knew more than the students.”

But this trend parallels the loss of respect for books, which represent the shoulders of giants on whom we stand looking backward at the wisdom that came before us, to paraphrase Edmund Burke. The teacher, who has studied the books — solid and unchanged by random strokes of the keyboard — should offer a repository of wisdom. But current pedagogy encourages teachers to be “facilitators” who stand aside while children learn from peers in groups. Workshops on using digital media, and even cellphones, in the classroom add to the demise of the book — and to the demise of the idea of authority and lasting values.

Boomers’ intentions may have been good, but we need to look at the drawbacks of the absence of authority and the flood of indiscriminate information coming over the screen.

After having been put into groups to creatively incorporate math, writing and science to solve starvation and global warming, and after having been exposed to stories about peers overcoming problems of prejudice, dysfunction and addiction, it is no wonder that young people have no faith in the wisdom of the elders. Exasperated, they abandon intellectual pursuits. Studies show that young adults have become more narcissistic. They display higher levels of depression and sociopathy.

They are also less curious about the world.

It’s not that I’m a Luddite advocating the end of technology. My day begins with a scanning of Web sites and blogs. I am grateful for the fact we have alternatives to the views of a Walter Cronkite.

But I’ve found digitally savvy, but unguided, students reluctant to venture outside of their comfort zones. They go directly to those like Jon Stewart, who provides a ready-made cynical interpretation. It’s no wonder: Cynicism is a product of the helplessness that children feel when left on their own.

Books offer a way through the digital maze. The physical book, with its various editions, and textual edits by scholars, represents a heritage of learning.

The physical act of holding books, of turning pages, of smelling them, connects us to those in the past. We learn how to contemplate. We develop inner lives. Books demand quiet and offer intellectual challenges, and often, comfort. I remember many a happy hour spent with Hugh Lofting, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Astrid Lindgren.

Education initiatives on the state and federal level call for increased reliance on technology. But students will have time aplenty to browse and communicate electronically on their own. Education, rather, should provide them with the ability to distinguish between the wise and the trivial. That’s why books are so important.

Mary Grabar, a writer, lives in Stone Mountain.