A representative of Christian Leadership Ministries and staff member of Campus Crusade for Christ, Dr. Geri Forsberg is the author of Critical Thinking in an Image World. Forsberg's work focuses on the influence of media on culture, and she has written extensively on the public's loss of critical thinking in an image-dominated world. Forsberg received an M.A. from the International School of Theology and New York University and a Ph.D. from New York University.
Today's college students are faced with an entirely new set of challenges which derive from living in a technological age.
To begin with, they have to learn a new language--the language of computers. If they already have a working knowledge of computers, they need to constantly keep up with changes in the computer industry in order to stay current. They must also deal with achieving balance between time with media and time with their academic courses. Learning how to evaluate media and technology poses another challenge.
Most young adults know media have an influence on them, but few know how to evaluate and critically assess the programs they are exposed to. Students also have to adjust to an entirely new pace of life, unlike any previously known. Technology seems to provide some solutions to problems, but at the same time it also creates many new problems. For instance, television and computers are affecting students' reading abilities. Jeremy Rifkin in his book, Time Wars (Harper and Row, 1970), discusses this problem.
With reading, the child has to take time to reflect on the story. He has to move into the character and plot and then periodically remove himself in order to think about what has taken place and how that has affected what is currently going on and what is likely to emerge. Book reading requires moments of active engagement woven together with reflective pauses. Computers, however, require constant engagement. The child's mind is never allowed to stray from the immediate action unfolding on the screen. One thirteen- year-old put it this way: 'In a computer you're actually there doing it, instead of reading about something that's happening.'
Both television and computers provide different ways of accessing and processing information. As students become accustomed to these new forms of communication, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to learn from the older form of communication--books.
Technology is also affecting our students' abilities to attend lengthy lectures. Television provides information in short, quick, flashy, entertaining segments. Students expect teachers to provide information in that same manner. As one student exclaimed, "Atari cartridges are neat! They come on and tell you what to do. They make it simple. Teachers talk slower than Atari, sometimes they make me angry. I think, 'Come on, I want to go back to Atari. It tells me things faster than you do.'" After having grown used to other information delivery systems, students have a difficult time processing classroom lectures.
Students are also having difficulty reasoning and writing in traditional ways. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that our entire way of reasoning is changing as we move into an image-dominated environment.
As university professors and administrators, it is important for us to be aware of how technology is influencing, shaping, and changing our students. If it is taking away qualities essential for their educational development, we have a responsibility to help compensate for that which has been lost.
For many reasons, I believe professors with a Judeo-Christian foundation are in a unique position to meet the needs of students living in a technological age. The following are six reasons why I believe this.
To begin with, students today need a moral and ethical foundation for evaluating information and making decisions. The computer, television, email, and fax machine bring students fragmented bits and pieces of information which are trivial, manipulative, almost always profit- oriented, and have little coherent basis for understanding.
The mass media provoke people to lust after material goods, sexual pleasure, and self- gratification. Living in the midst of this media- oriented world, students need a moral and ethical foundation that will provide them with a basis for making decisions about what is right and what is wrong, what is appropriate and what is inappropriate, what is significant and what is insignificant.
The Bible provides us with a strong moral and ethical framework for evaluating all experience. It provides us with an historical perspective on the past, present, and future and provides a core set of values and beliefs that enable us to integrate knowledge with behavior. In a highly mobile, fast-paced, quickly changing, hedonistic culture, students need a strong moral foundation which cannot be shaken. God's Word provides such a foundation, and Christian professors can make that foundation known to their students. Through the principles we teach, the Biblical values we hold, and the way we live our lives, we can provide students with a solid moral foundation for life.
Second, students living in a technological age need a clear understanding of reality. Television and computers draw students into a world of fantasy, illusion, and "virtual reality"; it has become increasingly difficult to differentiate between that which is real and that which is contrived. Understanding the nature of reality in a technological society becomes very complex. However, understanding how reality relates to perception, cognition, and symbolization, can help students better understand the world in which they live.
Through both God's written Word and His Word made visible in creation, the Judeo-Christian professor has a comprehensive foundation for understanding reality. Principles inherent in the natural world, God's created universe, can provide all students with a consistent standard for evaluating information and knowledge. For instance, the elements of the natural world are changing, unique, and yet interrelated. However, in our language we simplify reality and categorize it so that we neglect change, ignore the unique, and fail to express the complexity of relationships. Therefore, an understanding of how language, television, and other technologies relate to reality is very important.
By teaching students how to evaluate the way language or television corresponds to reality, we will be helping our students understand the importance of truth, accuracy and verification. Of course, both the nature of reality and the nature of truth are subjects of controversy in the post-modern world-view.
As professors with a biblically-based world view, we can address the arguments of those who believe reality or objective truth exist only in the mind, or not at all; and we can do it at both a philosophical and a practical level. Philosophically, we can stress the importance of understanding the correspondence between abstract theories and concrete experience. Practically, we can offer internships, practica, business- educational cooperative experiences, overseas courses, and other opportunities for students to learn from first-hand experience. The more our students learn about the real world, the more they will be prepared to encounter it when they leave the university.
Third, students living in a technological age need authentic, caring, personal relationships. Modern technologies enable people to communicate with others they don't even know and who are hundreds and thousands of miles away. Through the Internet and other means, students can develop "virtual friends." The development of deep, meaningful interpersonal relationships is becoming increasingly difficult for everyone in this fast-paced technological society.
There are many ways Christian professors can help to meet some of the social needs of students. Instead of viewing the classroom as solely a place to transmit information, the classroom needs to be viewed as a place for the development of the whole person. Students can be developed through dialogue, discussion, role-playing, small group interaction and problem-solving opportunities. Relationships can be developed by spending time with students in many settings. For example, I take students on field trips, join them for coffee and discussion in the cafeteria, have them over to my home, and take them on cross-cultural field experiences. All of these activities provide times to build friendships and model relationship-building.
More importantly, students need a lasting relationship with a person who will love them unconditionally, who will give them guidance and direction, and who will give them the strength they need to go through life. Only Jesus Christ can provide them with that kind of relationship. Christian professors can introduce their students to Jesus Christ. By communicating one's personal testimony, utilizing texts written by Christian scholars, critiquing secular theories from a Biblical perspective, and integrating Biblical principles into lectures, the Christian professor can have a profound impact on the lives of students.
Fourth, students living in a technological age need an understanding of what is meaningful, purposeful, and significant. The structure of the media focuses our attention at the surface. Daily, media project images which are given priority over substance: entertainment is more important than education; speed is more significant than deep thought and analysis; and, an appearance on a television talk show is more important than preserving one's self-respect and dignity.
Traditionally, students have been idealistic--promoting world peace, equality for all, and universal freedom. Today's student tends to be more pragmatic, attending to those things which pay off, provide immediate gratification, and give material benefits. Students today need professors who value the life of the mind, artistic beauty, creative excellence, and spiritual insight.
The Bible makes it very clear that human beings have been created by God for a specific purpose. In the book of Romans, the Apostle Paul exhorts his listeners to "offer yourselves as a living sacrifice to God, dedicated to His service . . . Do not conform to the standards of this world, but let God transform you . . . Then you will be able to know the will of God--what is good . . . pleasing . . . and perfect." (Romans 12:1,2)
Students, today, need an understanding of God's standards and God's eternal perspective. Christian professors know the importance of living life with a higher calling, and they daily have opportunities to communicate God's Word.
Fifth, students living in a technological age need the ability to think critically in all areas of life. In the 21st century, education will not be focused on teaching students how to memorize information as much as on how to critically assess it. In this age, the need to memorize information decreases drastically because volumes of it can be called forth instantly with the touch of a button. The rapid influx of new information makes memorization seem absurd. Therefore, developing our students' critical assessment skills becomes vitally important. To accomplish this, we need to be convinced of the importance of God's Word, history, scientific inquiry and discovery, the pursuit of truth, and the freedom of speech, all of which are being attacked in our post- modern university and in society in general.
As Christian professors we have the opportunity to engage in a great battle of ideas and teach our students how to engage in the same battle. We can teach them how to trace the history of ideas, examine the assumptions and presuppositions underlying ideas, search for facts to substantiate conclusions, develop logically relevant arguments, and express their ideas with clarity.
As I speak to various groups in the local community, I try to take students with me so that they can observe how I communicate ideas. Then, I work to open up opportunities for students to speak to various groups. The more students are encouraged to communicate their knowledge to others, the more they will analyze, synthesize, and integrate what they are learning into their own perspectives. The educational experience can then truly become a life-changing experience.
Finally, students living in a technological age need hope, vision, and direction for their future.
Generation X students, as they are now labeled, are to a great extent people living in despair. They worry about finding jobs when they graduate, they worry about the growing national debt they will inherit, they worry about being consumed or replaced by technology.
Global technologies, a world economy, and the shift in loyalties from the nation-state to the world have left generation X students feeling powerless and insecure regarding their place in society.
I believe Christian professors can help to give this new generation of students hope, vision, and direction for their future. In order to do that, we must be careful that we ourselves do not fall into despair as we observe the condition of the world about us. We need to keep renewing our own vision from God's Word. We need to encourage and build up each other in our faith. And we need to think about and create new avenues of work for the next generation. It is a challenging task but one I believe Christian professors are uniquely equipped to handle.