Shortcuts, distractions, & discovery

The book club I attend discussed Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie last week. Flavia de Luce, Bradley’s precocious detective, lives in a rambling house in postwar England. She spends much of her unstructured, unsupervised spare time tinkering in an old chemistry lab.

Flavia lives in a world where  information travels slowly and schedules are not stuffed with activities. She can’t Google to find out what she wants to know; she gleans it through a combination of experiences, experiments, conversations, and observations. And she reads.

At the reference desk, I often field requests for film versions of assigned books. I see students (and anyone else using a computer, myself included) frequently distracted by email, social media, 24/7 “news,” and the temptations of the information superhighway with all of its scenic byways and circuitous routes.

The book club’s consensus was that Flavia represents a childhood free from modern shortcuts and distractions. Which sounded good, in light of my squeamishness at abetting college students in shirking their reading. I frequently urge my teens to turn off the screens, to realize how much time they would have if they focused.

But an essay in the New York Times today gave me pause. Writer Hanif Kureishi lauds the creative benefits of distraction and suggests that drug treatment of children who have trouble focusing is mostly a way to regulate behavior in the interest of conformity and obedience. He considers the “attempted standardization of a human being” to be the real problem.

So, are students who are finding ways around assignments actually creative problem solvers, rather than bluffers? Are they modern-day Flavias, wandering a very different but potentially fruitful and interesting garden path? Will their serendipitous travels in virtual worlds lead to good old-fashioned discovery?