Monday, July 28, 2008

Are you sure you're reading this?

An article in the NYTimes asks what seems to have become a perennial question: "Are we really reading when we're online?" I'm willing to believe that we are- after all, I just read Ovid's Metamorphoses online and enjoyed it greatly. But then I will frequently encounter the advice that we should not be posting anything longer than five paragraphs on the Internet because net users think that reading anything beyond that length is akin to reading War and Peace in the original Russian.

Many young people are internet addicts and their lack of reading ability can be alarming. Every few semesters we will give our students an assignment that consists of reading a five page article and answering a short essay question that amounts to "What does this thing say anyway?" We give them a few days to finish the assignment and make it worth five percent of their final course grade: in other words, it's an easy A. The punchline though is that generally about 60-70% of them fail miserably. If there is a horse mentioned in the second paragraph, they think it's an article about horses. Often they think the writer is making the opposite argument from the one they are actually making. And sometimes the answers seem to come from outer space. We are teaching college freshmen, so we hope things improve by the time they graduate.

According to employers (whose opinion, one can be assured, is valued more than educators), they aren't improving by the time they get a college degree. American corporations spend a small fortune in remedial education every year for their newly-hired college grads, who apparently still aren't able to read proficiently. Employers tend not to be as tolerant as we are when their hires can't read a report because they think that "reading is gay". And so, we educators get asked, rightly, what the problem is here.

The problem, again, is that a sizeable proportion of young people are internet addicts who don't read books. There seem to be three common responses to this problem:

1. Some say that they have a different, but no less valid knowledge set. Their generation knows about the Internet and we old farts know about books, extended concentration, and coherent arguments. Using Facebook is another form of intelligence, etc. etc.

2. Others say that all of human life is doomed because of this insidious and irreversible trend.

3. And some say that children have always struck adults as being ignorant, but they all grow out of it eventually.

None of these arguments are entirely persuasive for me. The first one would be more convincing if I hadn't already found these wizard-like net skills to be really easy to pick up. Okay, so I can download songs, read fan fiction, maintain a Facebook page, and design websites too. But I can also do things that are now considered breathtakingly brilliant, like read a five page article and know what the hell it was saying. So, I'm not intimidated by the "digital natives", and contrary to popular belief, I tend to feel a lot smarter being around them, as opposed to dumber because of their brilliance in sending text messages.

The second argument is not convincing either. America is not the axis upon which all human life pivots, so American kids not reading is not a universal crisis. Furthermore, when I went to school, it semeed that there were perhaps 5-10% at best of my classmates who weren't idiots. And, now that I instruct as a TA, I find that there are still about 5-10% of the students who are bright and curious. The rest aren't really idiots; they're just intellectually lazy. I suspect that this will always be the case and that their numbers will fluctuate over time, as opposed to forever declining. Besides, the bulk of them might well decide one day that their stultified, insipid, hyper-bourgeois lifestyle isn't particularly fulfilling. Stranger things have happened.

The last argument is hopeful, but let's be honest- not a lot of non-reading adolescents grow up to become book-reading adults. I would imagine that the kids, like the girl profiled in the article, who are online reading fan fiction, will be avid readers of all sorts of fiction as adults. But, let's be honest, the kids who are sending text messages and updating their Facebook eight hours a day probably won't be hanging out in the book store in ten years time.

But, who knows? Clearly, reading is declining in the United States not because people are getting stupider so much as lazier and more easily self-satisfied. They feel no urge to make the effort. So, I would imagine that one of those two things will change. And, if not, it's frankly no skin off my ass. I might worry about offending them in writing some of this, but hey, they all tuned out when they saw how many paragraphs this post is anyway!


Holly said...

Hmm, one thing conspicuously missing from this conversation, and I think it's a direct result of the American value/lip service about egalitarian society, is that academia used to be elite. That 5-10% of intellectually active folks were the ones who went to university. Now any and everyone goes to university, even folks who are working in trades that used to be passed on with generational legacy. (Mining, farming, and the hospitality industries are some that come to mind immediately.) And also people who finish school and then go back to working at the mall or wherever, without any appreciable change in lifestyle, except maybe now their expectations are much higher than before, AND they have a shitload of credit debt.

The internet use model of "alternate education" (??) is more in line with the egalitarian notion, simply because as you point out, it's not that friggin' hard. That means anyone can have it. It's somehow supposed to be a valid replacement for the canon because you don't have to make an effort to get on top of it.

The intellectually active will be so, even if there's another Dark Ages, and the intellectually lazy will be so, even if we finally get direct physical implants for knowledge. The internet didn't create that schism, but I think the capitalistic metamorphosis of the higher education system really underscores it.

And, yeah, I read the whole thing, and I know it's not about the horse in the 2nd paragraph. Where's my cookie?!

Rufus said...

Ah, but knowledge is your cookie.

(Now you see why our students feel ripped off)

Holly said...

The great thing about knowledge and the ability to read with comprehension is that I can now make my own cookies, from increasingly more complex recipes.

And not share them with the stupid kids.