The Gustavian Weekly

Are we smarter than Shakespeare? | The Gustavian Weekly

By Kevin Matuseski Staff Columnist | October 30, 2009 | Opinion

Since Google didn’t exist back in Shakespeare’s day, where would young William turn if he didn’t know something? I mean, what did he do when he was reading Ovid and didn’t know the definition of a word? He didn’t have Microsoft’s right-click option when he needed a synonym to make his word-choice interesting, and there were no electronic library archives to find articles written by thousands of scholarly thinkers. So why do we still read the classics if, technically, we should know more than their authors?

I recently watched an interesting video by a school administrator, Karl Fisch. In this video, Fisch said there are over 540,000 words in the English language, more than five times as many as in Shakespeare’s day. But I wonder how my vocabulary compares to Shakespeare’s; I’m sure his would have trumped mine. Perhaps we believe that since our computers can store all of our information for us, our brains don’t have to. One day the sole purpose of our brains could be to manage computers!

Despite our superior access to information, we still read Shakespeare because he leaves us with ideas that cannot be obtained from our world’s technological innovations. These ideas lay the foundation for intellectual thought and fuel the creative theories used to ponder life’s difficult questions. I believe we have convenient access to more knowledge than Shakespeare, but I do not think we take advantage of that information.

We could really thrive if we added to our information repertoire instead of replacing it. Fisch claims that a laptop computer will soon exceed the human brain’s computational abilities. This technologically-run society could lead to some issues though. If computers think for us, why would we have to think at all? I am legitimately scared that technology will replace teachers, books and intellectual thought, but I am also afraid that if I don’t jump on the technology bandwagon, society is going to leave me in the dust. So what do I do?

We have the capabilities to know unlimited amounts of information. However, if we keep acquiring new knowledge while forgetting about the solid foundations we have received from Shakespeare and other great writers, we will lose as much knowledge as we gain. Therefore, I propose we keep learning from Shakespeare, but maybe spice up our learning with some technology. Otherwise, our children could grow up in an age that only uses the Great Books as stepstools to the cookie jar.

Computers are great learning devices and we need to take advantage of the age’s innovations. However, we need to keep learning from the classics as well. We can’t let computers think for us; we need to make them think with us. I am not bad-mouthing technology for wiping out intellectual thought or belittling Shakespeare because he never “Skyped” with Anne Hutchinson. Instead, I am calling for joined forces, innovation fighting alongside foundational thought.

We are bombarded with information, but either we don’t use the right information or we don’t use the information right. For example, Fisch claims that a single issue of today’s New York Times contains more information than a person came across in a lifetime in the 18th century. Doesmore information make us happier? Perhaps innovation is like a drug that makes us think we need when, in reality, we are missing what really matters.

Maybe we need to slow down and think about the information we have obtained instead of always striving for more. Henry David Thoreau once said, “As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness.”

Thoreau understood how our minds can thrive when they are not overloaded with new information. It is much harder to be creative when your mind is clouded with sensory stimuli. Creativity is what keeps the world moving, and it is what helps brainstorm brilliant answers to difficult questions. Without some time to stop, think and thoroughly process acquired information, we won’t progress; instead, we will merely change.

Many of Shakespeare’s themes portrayed emotion. Often books do not have definitive answers, and that’s what makes them great. Can Google tell us what love is? Books can portray life; we can feel what the characters feel, and, in the end, we can decide what we think of the book. If we combine intellectual ideas we receive from authors with the information of the computer age, we can stay superior to computers.

So the question still stands: are we smarter than Shakespeare? My answer … we can be.