I was recently directed to yet another complaint about the decline of literacy, the corrosive intellect-leaching power of digital technology, and our collective guilt for letting Western civilization subside into a mire of tweets, blogs, and gaming.
iPhones Have Consequences, by Sally Thomas, is a witty, engaging essay on the subject, supported by memorable anecdotes. I believe it delves deeper into the question than most such efforts, and it’s well worth reading.
I feel I must address her argument that the present college generation is dumber than we forty-somethings, seeing as I’ve argued exactly the opposite. It’s my view that the forty-somethings are the dumbest generation currently on offer, and the so-called “twixters” or “tweens” are more curious than we, and have read more and thought about more than we had at their age.
Besides her own experience, Sally Thomas draws on evidence from Mark Bauerlein’s book (The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeapordizes Our Future; or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30). Bauerlein, a professor at Emory, insists that the 18- to 24-year-olds are doing far less reading — well, literary reading anyway — than their elders did, and that the time they spend reading blogs, Facebooking, and playing games would be better spent reading great literature, working math problems, and listening to classical music.
Hard to argue with that — and in fairness, that’s not all Bauerlein has to say. He also accuses us middle-aged adults of failing in our duty to act as mentors, and to lead self-involved adolescents to appreciate the wealth of culture they have unwittingly inherited.
That’s fine, too, as far as it goes. I would only add that Bauerlein makes an error in emphasis. Despite his cited studies, which resemble alarmist reports that recur in every generation,1 there’s no compelling evidence that prior generations of youth spent their time much more wisely than the present one. So if there’s a problem here, we adults should look closely at ourselves and what we can change about our own behavior, instead of gesturing frantically at vaguely described social forces.
“Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30”? Sorry. We need to get a grip.
That’s my main point. Here’s another.
Fear of literacy
Sally Thomas wishes to convince us that “e-literacy is merely newspeak for illiteracy.” One theme she develops in the essay is the supposed indifference to the cultural wealth preserved online, such as Plato’s dialogue on the death of Socrates. Instead, young people are on Facebook chatting about ephemeral feelings, or playing games in which they pretend
to be werewolves who deliver bowls of pain to each other, or … pioneers on the Oregon Trail who eat each other.… The Crito is out there, too, among the werewolves and the cannibals, but Socrates sits in his prison in vain: The youth of Athens are busy finding out what breakfast food is preferred by boy bands such as the Jonas Brothers.
New ways of communicating, from cave paintings to “new media,” have always had the potential to disrupt, confuse, and frighten. Much the same can be said of new technologies (saddle, canoe, bicycle, monorail) for getting from place to place.
We humans are especially anxious while we first work out how we’ll choose to use the new tools socially, that is, in relation to other humans. At first we treated the automobile like a familiar carriage, the television like a stage, and the World Wide Web kinda sorta like a magazine. This kept the new tools within bounds, for just a little while.
The speed with which we adopt new tools has certainly picked up in the last century or two. But nothing else about what we are experiencing is new. Plato warned that writing and literacy would ruin the Greeks’ capacity to reason, to remember, and to discern truth.2
Plato may have been right. But notice that he made his complaint in writing. The new medium.
We are our parents
If digital devices are absorbing a growing chunk of young people’s time and attention, it must be admitted that not all of that time is spent passively absorbing “content,” or exchanging idle chit-chat. How soon we forget our own misspent youth, when most of us vegetated in front of the tube for hours at a time. Or monopolized the telephone for long conversations in which nothing memorable was ever said. Or retreated into the private aural space between a pair of headphones, where no one else could follow.
What did our parents have to say about it? Almost exactly what we have to say about young people with their digital devices and Myspace accounts (or whatever has succeeded Myspace).
And how did we respond? With about as much wit and intelligence as the college student quoted, with shock and dismay, by Bauerlein:
My dad is still into the whole book thing. He has not realized that the Internet kind of took the place of that.
Uh-huh. And how many of the statements that you made at age 20 would you be willing to back up today? The digital alarmists generally fail to consider that young people’s infatuation with their iPod touches will pass away as they mature. And most of them will mature, whether we manage to help them or not.
Blame, blame, blame
In the end, Bauerlein seems to lead his reader to a conclusion I can support: Our culture could and should do more to encourage young people to venture beyond the dazzling vortex of the ego, into the adult world of shared concerns, responsibilities, and things greater than the individual self.
“It is the nature of adolescents,” Thomas quotes him, “to believe that authentic reality begins with themselves, and that what long preceded them is irrelevant.” According to Bauerlein, we are in trouble because our culture, instead of challenging adolescent self-absorption, encourages and rewards it.
He laments the findings of a Time cover story about the so-called “twixters,” in which
not one … mentions an idea that stirs them, a book that influenced them, a class that inspired them, or a mentor who guides them. Nobody ties maturity to formal or informal learning, reading or studying, novels or ideas or paintings or histories or syllogisms. For all the talk about life concerns and finding a calling, none of them regard[s] history, literature, art, civics, philosophy, or politics a helpful undertaking.
Bauerlein’s list of concerns is focused tightly on academia. Admittedly I’m getting his argument at second hand. But from what I’ve read and seen, it appears that he has little insight to offer into how and why this deplorable condition might have arisen. Mainly he points blame at his own generation (and mine) for shirking the responsibility of mentorship, but has no convincing analysis of what motivates us to slack off.
We could all use a periodic reminder of our responsibilites. Still, to hear him tell it (as in the following video clip), his colleagues in academia are failing to guide and train the rising generation because they are more concerned with appearing relevant and coolly irreverent than with strengthening young intellects. Period.
What to do about it
It is difficult to instruct children because of their natural inattention; the true mode, of course, is to make our modes interesting to them.
— attrib. John Locke (1632-1704) — no, not that John Locke
In adults’ rush to condemn digital media and the young people who use them, we should pause to consider and compare the harmful effects that other media had on our own growth and characters. As I’ve said before, video was for us (in the ’70s and ’80s) a mystic oracle, steeping us in sensory data, lulling us into a mental state more quiescent than sleep, and about as open to backtalk as the Politburo. Now, on YouTube for instance, it’s a two-way street, and viewers can readily become kibbitzers, or even directors.
Young people are, it’s true, naive and inexperienced with their own language. So how were we different? One significant distinction is that the current generation is constantly communicating through tiny snips of text sent over the air. Texting is not writing, in the sense that academics and authors mean by the word. But it is a form of communication that young people are comfortable with, part of the reality that is already intensely relevant to them. If we care about training them to think and to write, we should build on this foundation instead of wishing that it would go away.
For one thing, it won’t go away. By saying this, I am not succumbing to the forces of cultural entropy, nor am I falling for the fake innovation of an online university marketing campaign. I’m facing the present we live in.
For another thing: Bringing text messaging into the classroom, and situating it within the entire human experience with written language, is a good way to attain some of the goals we say we want to attain when teaching.
So I reject the pessimism of the digital alarmists. I detect more than a trace of reaction in it, with its appeals to Western civilization, tradition, and reverence. The alarmists seem to demand respect for their seniority and the canon they revere; they are less willing to give respect. They begrudge the necessity of efforts to, in Locke’s words, make their modes interesting to naturally inattentive minds.
What’s more, they too often caricature teachers who strive to engage student concerns by lumping them with others who use vapid classroom pacification practices that masquerade under innovative-sounding jargon. I suppose the alarmists find the pacifiers relatively easy to understand, as both are more or less terrified of permitting students to exercise their minds in unpredictable ways. It’s threatening to the dignity of a teacher. Yet this is what we must do if we choose to live up to all our curricular lip service to critical thinking. Teaching your subject for the elite 5 percent or fewer who already love your subject is a cop-out and a betrayal.
Sally Thomas fondly recalls the English teacher who “used to say, ‘My dears, you are not stupid. You are merely ignorant. And do you know why you are ignorant?… You are ignorant because you watch the idiot machine.’” This is charming in its way, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough.
Students come to school, and to college, ignorant because they have not used their minds in the unnatural ways that critical thinking demands. The only way they will learn to do it is by reading and exercising, by analogy with the way that diet and physical exercise develop physical fitness. This is not easy. The only sure way to motivate students to go through this process is to present them (as Ken Bain puts it) with “intriguing, beautiful, or important problems,” to treat them decently, and to take their learning as seriously as one’s own career goals.3
It’s only a blog post, so I’ll stop here before launching further into the subject of teaching. You know where the comments go.
1 We Americans excel at scaring ourselves with our own ignorance. For a history of alarmist reports about how little young Americans know about American history, see Gary B. Nash, et al., eds., History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past (Vintage Books, 2000). ↩
2 Psychologist Al Cheyne makes this point in more detail in Will the Internet Rot Your Mind? ↩
3 Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do (Harvard University Press, 2004), quote on p. 18. Be warned: This is an excellent book with an insipid cover by a designer who clearly didn’t get the point. So ignore the cover. When there’s a reprint, the press should replace it. ↩