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1 October 2016



Twitter is a funny phenomenon.  I am not talking here about Twitter accounts of institutions such as schools, where Twitter can provide a lovely extended intranet that allows shout-outs to individual students for their successes, celebration of collective achievements or simply showcasing of the daily life at a busy school, with the added benefit of enabling prospective parents and pupils to catch a glimpse into what is going on behind the school walls.

I am talking more about the myriads of Twitter accounts of individuals - teachers and other professionals, CEOs of big companies – that are cluttering the internet.  Some interesting tendencies can be observed here.  There are tweets such as:  “What an honour to have dinner with William Shakespeare tonight – an amazing man!”  Do tweets like this really pay homage to Shakespeare’s greatness, as they pretend?  Or are they a covert (and often overt) form of self-aggrandisement?  (“Look, how important I am!  I just had dinner with the greatest playwright of all times!”). 

Another pattern is that of “You scratch my back, I scratch yours.”  In other words:  I follow you, you follow me, so we both look important.  I tag you in my tweet, you tag me in yours. I like your posts, you like mine. In such ways we ensure ongoing networking and never-ending online presence.  It is like a perpetuum mobile, a self-perpetuating vanity fair.  Surely our importance can be measured by the number of our followers? 

And thirdly:  if we quote maxims of great thinkers, we show the world, with a minimum of effort, how intellectual we are. If we quote the latest newspaper articles and tag them, link to them, use their hashtags, or whatever the latest terminology is, we show how current we are and that we have our finger on the pulse.  By doing all of this, we sometimes forget that we are simply rehashing knowledge that is already frighteningly omnipresent and ubiquitous, and that this proliferation is adding little value and even less originality.  It is a hasty and often lazy way of imparting superficially acquired knowledge to make ourselves look profound.  Give me a well-written essay or book any time.

I am writing all of the above a little tongue-in-cheek, of course.  I better confess to this now, before my readers point out the irony to me and accuse me of hypocrisy!  I, too, have Facebook and Twitter buttons on my website, and I get a certain thrill out of seeing the number of ‘likes’ increase.  I am grateful to those who quote me, share my site, comment on it or link to it on their own social networking sites.  It is fun, it connects me to others and it inspires me to craft further essays and blog posts.  But being part of the game does not have to stop us from looking right through it.

If we do take to publishing though, online or otherwise, it is important to add at least something of originality, to let our personality shine through, to make thoughts our own, even where we quote from others.  And for our own education, intellectual improvement and progress, we should not content ourselves with skimming through tweets and LinkedIn posts, sharing and retweeting them or unquestioningly quoting from the web. 

Every teacher knows that nowadays pupils, and even university students, in their academic essays tend to list websites rather than books in their bibliographies, with a reliance on quick-access internet information that neglects the effort of examining proper sources. If we expect our pupils to grapple properly with a subject, fully understand a topic, develop the skills of information literacy and make a proper intellectual effort in their studies, we need to model this as adults: by reading books, by being discerning in judging what we read, what is true and what is worthy of dissemination and by showing courage in giving a voice to our own opinions rather than merely repeating and recycling those of others.

The Roman philosopher Seneca has some astonishingly modern words to say on this in the 33rd letter of his Epistulae Morales, written in the first century AD, where he warns against the dangers of quoting short and snappy maxims of others, often taken out of context, at the expense of engaging properly with the works of our intellectual forebears and formulating our own original thoughts. 

For a man, however, whose progress is definite, to chase after choice extracts and to prop his weakness by the best known and the briefest sayings and to depend upon his memory, is disgraceful; it is time for him to lean on himself. He should make such maxims and not memorize them. (…) "This is what Zeno said." But what have you yourself said? "This is the opinion of Cleanthes." But what is your own opinion? How long shall you march under another man's orders? Take command, and utter some word which posterity will remember.

(Seneca, Epistulae Morales 33/7)

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