Five Recent Articles on Literacy

It seems that as technology becomes an ever-increasing mainstay in more areas of our lives, the effect on our already-faltering literacy has been similarly stark, and it becomes a continually obsessive interest of written commentary.  Or maybe I’ve just been paying more attention over time. 

Here are a few things that seem especially relevant from recent weeks, which have caught my eye:

Thomas Spence, writing in the Wall Street Journal, about fixing the huge gap in literacy between girls and boys:

The appearance of the boy-girl literacy gap happens to coincide with the proliferation of video games and other electronic forms of entertainment over the last decade or two. Boys spend far more time “plugged in” than girls do. Could the reading gap have more to do with competition for boys’ attention than with their supposed inability to focus on anything other than outhouse humor?

Dr. Robert Weis, a psychology professor at Denison University, confirmed this suspicion in a randomized controlled trial of the effect of video games on academic ability. Boys with video games at home, he found, spend more time playing them than reading, and their academic performance suffers substantially. Hard to believe, isn’t it, but Science has spoken.

Lindsay Johns, in Prospect Magazine, on why black students should be taught the Western Canon, as opposed to focusing on “diversity literature:”

Dead white men, the pillars of the western canon, remain supremely relevant to black people in the 21st century, because their concerns are universal. At its best, the canon elucidates the eternal truths at the heart of the human condition. It addresses our common humanity, irrespective of our melanin quotient. Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens—all male, all very white and all undeniably very dead. But would anyone be so foolish as to deny their enduring importance? Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, Boccacio’s Decameron or Pico’s Oration On The Dignity of Man are as germane to black people as they are to white. There is no apartheid in the philosophical musings of Cicero, no racial segregation in the cosmic grandeur of Dante and no ethnic oppression in the amorous sonnets of Shakespeare. These works can, if given the chance, speak as much to Leroy in Peckham or Shaniqua in the South Bronx as they can to Quentin in the home counties.

[Incidentally, in my experience, multicultural books aren’t promoted by actual minorities as much as they are by white teachers who are trying to “help” minorities.]

Carlin Romano, in The Chronicle of High Education, bemoans the detrimental effect on college reading assignments and literary scholarship by having a generation of students now entirely raised on digital technology:

The signs of readerly surrender pop up everywhere. Princeton student Isia Jasiewicz, reviewing a book for Newsweek this summer as an intern, admits in her last paragraph that she bothered to read only the first 10 pages. Linda Nilson, director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness at Clemson University, posts a piece titled, “Getting Students to Do the Reading” on the Web site of the National Education Association, advising: “Look for readings with graphics and pictures that reinforce the text, and pare down the required pages to the essentials. The less reading assigned, the more likely students will do it.”

Destructive cultural trends lurk behind the decline of readerly ambition and student stamina. One is the expanding cultural bias in all writerly media toward clipped, hit-friendly brevity—no longer the soul of wit, but metric-driven pith in lieu of wit. Everywhere they turn, but particularly in mainstream, sophisticated venues—where middle-aged fogies desperately seek to stay ahead of the tech curve—young people hear, through the apotheosis of tweets, blog posts, Facebook updates, and sound bites as the core of communication, that short is always smarter and better than long, even though most everyone knows it’s usually dumber and worse.

And Patrick Kingsley, in the British periodical The Guardian, on a “slow reading” revolt against the onslaught of computer-fostered illiteracy:

What’s more, Seeley argues, Bayard’s literary bluffing merely obscures a bigger problem: the erosion of our powers of concentration, as highlighted by Carr’s book. Seeley notes that after a conversation with some of her students, she discovered that “most can’t concentrate on reading a text for more than 30 seconds or a minute at a time. We’re being trained away from slow reading by new technology.” But unlike Bath Spa’s Greg Garrard, she does not want to cut down on the amount of reading she sets her classes. “It’s my responsibility to challenge my students,” says Seeley. “I don’t just want to throw in the towel.”

All of this gloom and doom makes me even more grateful for one of my favorite bits of news from this summer, a report about a 76-year-old man who spent the nine years after his retirement memorizing every word of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, all 60,000 of them.  It takes him three days to recite the whole thing, which he can still do.  He can even pick up in the middle if given a couple of random lines to start from. 

There was no special reason for the project.  He just felt like doing it.

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