What’s wrong with SparkNotes? I’ve always joked with my English students that SparkNotes will make them shallow, but I’ve never articulated to them (or myself) exactly why. There are obvious objections–students should do their own work, develop their reading abilities, etc. Still: is it really so bad to check something like SparkNotes? After all, it can provide a quick answer about a literary symbol that sounds pretty good and might earn you an A on that essay (if you re-word SparkNotes’ phrasing, of course).
The more I observe, though, the more I am convinced that the SparkNotes approach fundamentally contradicts and damages our human intellects.
Because you’ve always had it, your intellect might be something you take for granted. But you shouldn’t. The human intellect is a power unique among all things in heaven and on earth.
Saint Thomas Aquinas, responding to Plato and building upon the work of Aristotle and Saint Augustine, famously argues that there is nothing in the mind which was not first in the senses. This means we come to understand the natures of things — concepts and principles — by observing specific examples. You have never seen tree, for instance — you have seen many specific kinds of trees. You have never seen man, either — you have seen specific people. Yet you know what tree and man mean. From specific instances, you come to understand the principle or concept of tree and man such that you can recognize that a Bonsai is a type of tree without anyone telling you and you can recognize that a Sherpa wearing clothes you’ve never seen before is nevertheless a human being like you.
This is how we obtain knowledge: we abstract invisible, spiritual concepts from concrete sense experiences. This is a humble state: we begin, quite literally, in the very dust beneath our feet. Yet we possess intellects which can transcend the material world and apprehend eternal truths. Our unique nature has some profound implications. Because we are not merely material bodies, no one with a broken body or a damaged chromosome should despair or be discounted. And we may not despise creation or our bodies; these are the means by which we discover truth.
This human mode of knowing depends profoundly upon the imagination. Imagination is the power by which we capture sense experiences so that our intellects may contemplate them and draw out concepts and principles. SparkNotes weakens your intellect by starving your imagination.
SparkNotes encourages you to circumvent reading and jump straight to the concepts or “answers.” Reading a story should be a kind of sense experience. As you read, you imagine the sensations that the author describes. You color in the world of the story; you fill in the faces; you start to hear the voices of its characters. When you are asked to draw meaning from the story, you have experiences from the story in your imagination for your intellect to contemplate.
But by jumping straight to concepts (clicking on a SparkNotes theme page), you miss this sense experience. If you don’t read, you won’t have anything solid in your imagination for your intellect to ponder, and so your thought about a work will lack a firm foundation. Without roots in the world of the story, your analysis will necessarily remain shallow. You will only weakly grasp the most important ideas and struggle to apply them to your own life. It’s not easy to work through a story. It’s not easy to contemplate symbols and themes. SparkNotes can be a tempting quick-fix and even rewarding when it comes to grades. But consider that it was not for good grades and easy answers that you were fearfully and wonderfully made.
The worst part about the SparkNotes approach is that it’s habit-forming. The more you let others do your thinking for you in English class, the more you’ll let others do your thinking for you all the time. The more you trust a website to tell you what things mean in English class, the more you’ll trust a website to tell you what things mean in the rest of your life. If you let yourself be spoon-fed shallow ideas and don’t nourish your imagination, it will shrivel and starve your intellect.
I almost despair, at times, when I see how many students feel they must check SparkNotes for answers. But I find hope in the conviction that, in the end, those shallows cannot satisfy. God has given you an intellect uniquely made to perceive truths which are deeper and ponder mysteries which are infinitely more profound. He is calling you at all times towards the beatific vision in heaven, where you will contemplate God Himself for eternity.