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article imageOp-Ed: Literacy and generations of change

By Paul Wallis     Jul 28, 2008 in World
Electronic media vs. literacy is a subject in which the arguments have never really resolved anything. TV was considered the enemy of literacy, once. During the Golden Age of TV, book sales boomed. Now the Internet is responsible for the world's woes.
The Net, ironically, involves a lot more physical reading, if not necessarily quality content reading. What’s at issue are the values, and the arguments have now become more vague than ever.
The New York Times:
As teenagers’ scores on standardized reading tests have declined or stagnated, some argue that the hours spent prowling the Internet are the enemy of reading — diminishing literacy, wrecking attention spans and destroying a precious common culture that exists only through the reading of books.
But others say the Internet has created a new kind of reading, one that schools and society should not discount. The Web inspires a teenager like Nadia, who might otherwise spend most of her leisure time watching television, to read and write.
Why is it that teenagers, being hit with puberty, peer groups, youth culture, adolescent growth, the weird world of education, and the oncoming threat of higher education, are expected to become avid readers?
Is it a case of “Oh, good, you’ve got five seconds to yourself, read this”? How is that better than throwing a tabloid newspaper at them, and calling it "reading"? Is any old extraneous thing, however irrelevant, OK, if it's called "literature"?
People being driven into a state of terminal time management crisis are hardly likely to become enthusiastic readers. If they’re not interested, why not?
The pro-Web faction in the debate about literacy are sure that the Web is the salvation of literacy. That’s not totally baseless as an idea, because the Web is very much based on exploring and getting information. Which is more than can be said for compulsorily slogging through the verbal mud of some book which has been forced upon you for reasons you don’t understand, or want to understand.
…In fact, some literacy experts say that online reading skills will help children fare better when they begin looking for digital-age jobs.
Some Web evangelists say children should be evaluated for their proficiency on the Internet just as they are tested on their print reading comprehension. Starting next year, some countries will participate in new international assessments of digital literacy, but the United States, for now, will not.
The worry is that the Internet effectively does away with structures which are common in print media. Instead of a straight line of narrative, the internet produces a series of sources, producing a compounded mass.
That argument’s not all old-fogy logic. Some things need a structure to make sense. Some forms of reason don’t work too well if you don’t know what the premise was, or the answer gets stuck in the middle of the question. It doesn’t necessarily follow that the internet reader will get something wrong, purely on the basis of lack of structure. But the chances of fragmenting information are increased. That would, naturally, be a worry for educators.
The value of internet reading is the issue in question. The National Endowment for the Arts doesn’t seem in any doubt about it:
“Whatever the benefits of newer electronic media,” Dana Gioia, the chairman of the N.E.A., wrote in the report’s introduction, “they provide no measurable substitute for the intellectual and personal development initiated and sustained by frequent reading.”
Which, reading it as it is written, means that there’s no measurable substitute… appalling expression… for an unspecified state of intellectual and personal development caused by reading.
Who are the illiterates, again?
I have to defend one point made by the NEA, however much I wish they’d hire a professional writer to make their points.
What is meant by intellectual and personal development is the crux. Visual media don’t stimulate visualization, which is an intellectual process. They inhibit it, channeling it.
When you look at an image, like a screen, or even a painting, you get information, and a lot of it, whether you want it or not. That doesn’t help thinking. It tends to produce a sort of white noise, while your brain filters out the garbage and retains what it needs.
You may have to become an expert at filtering out garbage. Intellectual development, however, is far more complex, particularly for younger people whose brains are still wiring themselves up. Exposure to ideas, and learning how to operate with ideas, is vital. Exposure to great slobbering mounds of extraneous crap is the exact opposite.
That doesn’t make these kids dumb. It does mean they’re running an obstacle course, trying to develop. Some things just do not simplify. Dumbing Down On Principle has been the most effective proof of that fact.
Try writing a symphony with someone hitting you on the head with a hammer, and you’ll get the idea. Use of words, which can have multiple contexts, isn’t greatly helped by sledgehammer media working on SEO keywords and lowest common denominator communication parameters isn’t much of an asset to mental development, either.
Take a word at random: “Blue”. There are millions of shades of blue, any number of contexts, (add a noun) any number of possible functions (add a verb) and you get a concept. Whole frames of references are built like that, and so is the information conveyed. Intellectual development is that basic, and it starts from birth. Not knowing how to do that is just plain dangerous, to anyone.
The New York Times article is four pages long, there’s a lot of points, and I’m not a professional regurgitator. There are set positions, with the print media acolytes citing their stone tablets, and the web aficionados doing a sort of polyphonic blog on their side.
Some views seem reactionary:
Nicholas Carr sounded a similar note in “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in the current issue of the Atlantic magazine. Warning that the Web was changing the way he — and others — think, he suggested that the effects of Internet reading extended beyond the falling test scores of adolescence. “What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation,” he wrote, confessing that he now found it difficult to read long books.
Well, some of my books are over 300 pages, so I guess I’ll never be accused of making people stupid. Seems unfair, really…
There’s the painfully obvious:
The simplest argument for why children should read in their leisure time is that it makes them better readers. According to federal statistics, students who say they read for fun once a day score significantly higher on reading tests than those who say they never do.
Er… Duh… y’don’t say…
There’s the painfully obscure:
One early study showed that giving home Internet access to low-income students appeared to improve standardized reading test scores and school grades. “These were kids who would typically not be reading in their free time,” said Linda A. Jackson, a psychology professor at Michigan State who led the research. “Once they’re on the Internet, they’re reading.”
So having had little or no access previously, access makes a difference. Hm. Uncanny, isn’t it?
There’s even a shy statement to the effect that it was very important for people with bachelor’s degrees to read. Neurologically, there’s a possibility that reading on the net may hardwire the brain differently. Someone says that the only form of reading which related to higher academic achievement was frequent novel reading, so Danielle Steele and Mills and Boon are safe, for now.
The more you see of this article, the more you will see that the arguments are coming from both research and mindsets, and the twain have yet to mesh very convincingly, one way or another. There are holes in some arguments you could quite literally put a library in, with some spare space left over.
Rarely mentioned are the various failings of the literary media and its presumably innocent accomplices to make reading interesting.
The given point here is that reading must be terrific. Thou shalt not criticize the vast tonnages of dreck produced and described as "literature" on a daily basis.
Despite the killjoy efforts of Reading At Gunpoint, espoused by those who insist that generation after generation read things which may bore them to tears, reading is now voluntary.
The self proclaimed Literati, usually pedants who also appear to be getting dumber by the generation, are another problem. I defy anyone who’s ever read a book and enjoyed it to sit through the staggeringly dull analyses of it. Even Catch 22 could be turned into a mausoleum with a bit of help from these Goyaesque ghouls
I found one bit of encouragement in the debate. One of the kids who was reading on the net, in preference to books, was making up her own twists to plots.
There are professional novelists to whom a plot twist would interfere with their macros, their incomes, and probably their sex lives.
I don’t buy any theory based on the idea that the literary material is itself somehow beyond reproach. Literature can do more than any other medium in promoting human thought. But it has to compete, and it has to beat, the other media.
Let's get this straight: Literature isn't an excuse for self righteousness, it's a medium. It's also not a reason to submerge kids in the bleatings of the Literati, or their commensal cretins.
It's an art form, not a sheep, and it should act like an art form.
If you can’t do that, get out of the bloody way and let those who can do so take on the new media.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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