Revisiting “E-Literacy.”

As much as I hate to admit it, there are some who would disagree with my take on the sad state of affairs in the world of American education. Indeed, there are a great many people — some of whom write books and many others who teach in that world — who insist that things couldn’t be better. They love the kids and they love the way things are going. They explain away the wealth of data that show that the kids are not learning anything with the claim that the tests are simply archaic and don’t register the intellectual skills the kids in the millennial generation are acquiring with their electronic toys. Indeed, many of them think the schools themselves are archaic and the kids are learning what they really need to know to get along in tomorrow’s world OUTSIDE of school, with those toys. While there are those of us who would insist that the toys are rotting the kids’ brains (as I have said in an earlier blog), there are a great many people who defend the toys and insist that the kids will save the world with the digital facility and e-literacy they are acquiring with those very toys.

In fact, in 2005 Randy Bomer of the National Council of Teachers of English (!) attacked as too narrow a study called the American Diploma Project that was designed to help design curricula that would assist young people become better prepared for work in a changing world. Bomer defended the use of electronic toys and applauded the proficiency with which the kids use the toys, insisting that their critics are out-of-the-loop idiots. He remarked that today’s high school graduate (who may not be a-literate, as they say) is e-literate, he or she

“can synthesize information from multiple information and technical sources. . . .[they can] analyze the setting, plot, theme, characterization, and narration of classic and contemporary short stories and novels. . . .They are inventing new forms of literature.”

High praise indeed. And a breath of fresh air for those who find the constant criticism of America’s schools unsettling. We always like to hear those things that make us feel better about the way things are and allow us to dismiss the nay-sayers with a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, however, it’s a pile of rubbish.

One must wonder what this new “viewer literacy” really amounts to — if it can be called “literacy” at all. And the claims Bomer makes are outlandish — given that every test devised (and one must agree that tests don’t always tell the whole story) reflect the inability of these young people to understand the printed word or work with figures. How can such people be said to be able to “analyze the setting, plot, theme, characterization, and narration of classic and contemporary short stories and novels.”? Especially when they don’t even read comics or cereal boxes — as the students themselves defiantly tell investigators (reading is “too analogue”). They take great pride in the fact that they don’t read and generally regard reading as a waste of time — though they will spend more than three hours a day, on average, watching television (while they send text messages and check their Facebook page) and never think for a moment that it is a waste of time.

But, in the end it is all about thinking, which requires both synthesis and analysis. Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation, has made a study of e-literacy. He quotes his critics who defend it on the grounds that e-literacy

“is not just knowing how to download music, program an iPod, create a virtual profile, and comment on a blog. It’s a general deployment capacity, a particular mental flexibility. E-literacy accommodates hypermedia because e-literates possess hyperalertness. Multitasking entails a special cognitive attitude toward the world, not the orientation that enables slow concentration on one thing, but a lightsome, itinerant awareness of numerous and dissimilar inputs.”

So say its defenders who go on to insist that

“The things that have traditionally been done — you know, reflection and thinking and all that stuff — are in some ways too slow for the future. . . .Is there a way to do these things faster?”

But, jargon and wishful thinking aside, thought does take time, much as we might hate to admit it. And faster is not necessarily better. The fact that the kids show remarkable dexterity and quickness with their toys — one claim is that they can read four books at once (!) — is praiseworthy on some level. But when we are told that this dexterity will (or should) replace the traditional way of knowing and thinking about the world we must pause. The kids feel out of place in schoolrooms. I get that. But we know enough about them to realize that this is a statement about their narcissism, not about the schools, and many would consider it a condition that needs to be addressed and remedied so these kids can make their way in the real world where things are not always to our liking and problems need to be thought through and solutions found by careful, and slow, reflection and the consideration of possible outcomes in dialogue with other thinkers. If computers can help speed up that process, perhaps this is a good thing. Defenders of video games contend that they encourage “collateral learning,” and how to “make the right decision” and do it quickly. But there is no hard evidence that these toys teach anything that can in all seriousness be called “thinking.”

In the end a human being, or a group of human beings, must carefully consider what the computer spews out and determine which of several alternatives is the best course of action. Whether games will help people acquire the necessary skills remains to be seen. The “right decision” taught by the electronic game may simply prove to be the one that directs the drones to kill the most people. But the kids themselves will become adults who are expected to play a role in this democracy. Electronic toys cannot make moral judgments or judge which of two or three political candidates will do the best job. E-literacy won’t get them there. A-literacy is required: the ability to read and understand what they read, write coherent sentences that can be readily understood by others, and speak persuasively in order to help others grasp the claims they are determined to make. And people need to judge of better or worse, whether they like to admit it or not.

In the end, we may well admire the skills these kids show with multiple electronic toys, and even their ability to learn new ways to do things that take their elders seemingly forever. But we should hesitate to admit that this way of doing things will prove superior at the end of the day — especially since we really don’t know where e-literacy will take us. And as a general rule, we should not allow the kids to tell us how to design educational curriculum: they have no idea where they are going: their toys may indeed be taking these kids down an intellectual blind alley. In any event, given the addiction that has already been attributed to so many of them, we will have to depend on the toys themselves to pave the way to a new tomorrow: the kids will simply be doing what their toys tell them to do. I prefer to take the path well-travelled. At least I have a pretty good idea where the traps and pitfalls might be found and I can use the wisdom of past generations as a guide.

Communicating

I post here a piece I wrote many years ago and which seems to be even more relevant today as we swim in a sea of gibberish and tweets and the elections are about to begin. I have updated it a bit.

Once upon a time, long ago, after humans had freed themselves from the primeval ooze and struggled to stand upright, they gradually invented language in order to communicate with one another. Initially, it was through pictures and gestures, but eventually they developed an alphabet and put words together. All of this was in order to communicate their ideas and feelings to one another, to make clear what they had in mind.

It was thought for many years that language was the one thing that separated humans from other animal species. But then it was discovered by people like Wolfgang Köhler that chimpanzees could communicate with one another and it was later learned that they could even teach one another the language. Then we learned that other animal species also have communication skills and even something similar to language. This was about the time when humans were losing their own use of language. Coincidence? Probably. But in the event, humans discovered their vocabularies shrinking and their ability to grasp such things as compound sentences slipping away. It was about the time when they started playing with electronic gadgets designed to increase their ability to contact other people and, presumably, to communicate with them. Coincidence? Almost certainly.

But, it turns out, the idea is no longer to use language to communicate with one another. Language is now for self-expression. We use it to tell others how we feel or, at best, to order pizza. We discovered that we don’t need a rich vocabulary or complicated sentences. We can use images and gestures. Just like our ancestors. 😜

The problem is, of course, that language is necessary for thought and as language becomes impoverished so also does our ability to think. This is demonstrated, if we require a demonstration, by the alarming number of people who support Donald Trump. Obviously, these people have lost the ability to think. I haven’t been listening at doorways, but I would wager they can’t speak, either. The problem is that language was initiated in order to make it possible for us to communicate with one another. And this means that a fairly sophisticated vocabulary along with the rules of grammar and usage are also necessary if we are to tell each other what’s on our mind and find out what is going on in theirs. The point was wonderfully made by John Barth in his novel The End of The Road in which the hero, Jake Horner, is dealing with a reluctant student in his basic College English class. The student insists that because language came before grammar we don’t need grammar. After a lengthy Socratic exchange between Jake and the student, Horner concludes as follows:

“. . .if we want our sentences to be intelligible to very many people, we have to go along with the convention [the rules of grammar]. . . You’re free to break the rules, but not if you are after intelligibility. If you do want intelligibility, then [you must master the rules].”

But, it would appear that a great many of us are like the student in this exchange: we don’t want to obey the rules of grammar because ultimately we are not really interested in communicating, in intelligibility. Language is simply a device we employ to express ourselves. Period.

In a word, we as a species regress. And as we regress we are surrounded by a growing number of problems that require careful thought and imagination. This at a time when thought and imagination have become impoverished by “advances” in technology and the growing influence of the entertainment industry whose motto is: take it down to the lowest level in order to attract the largest audience. Educators have followed suit, lowering expectations and providing their students with electronic toys. Coincidence? Perhaps. But a bit unnerving none the less.

Thus we discover around us folks whose attention is directed at the toys in their hands — even when they are next to one another — and who find it difficult, if not impossible, to say what they mean or understand what others say to them,. But since language is no longer about communication, since it is now about self-expression, it really doesn’t matter. As long as others know that I am angry, hungry, or sad, that’s really all that matters. If they don’t understand what I am feeling so much the worse for them. It’s all about me. I don’t need language. 🙂

The Canon

The word I have used in my title refers not to the large gun, called a “cannon,” but to a list of sacred works that need to  be protected against the erosion of time. The latter meaning has come to be used to refer to a list of “Great Books” which should be read by all who can read. This list has of late it been called “elitist”  or irrelevant by the multicultural hordes who have taken over the universities and now dictate, in large measure, what the students read — if they read at all.

In 1994 Harold Bloom wrote a large book about the “Western Canon” that included a long list of the books he thought were not necessarily sacred but at any rate ought to be read by anyone who treasures the thoughts of those who have lived before us and who have had important things to say. His book was a best-seller, but has done nothing to quiet those in the academy determined to bring down Western Civilization itself in the name of “justice” and “fairness.”  Those who would defend a list of books written by “dead, white, European males” (as is charged) are a dying breed and students in our colleges and universities now have been turned in the direction of correcting the many wrongs that have occurred in the past, as determined by their professors, and away from the thoughts of great minds. Indeed, the argument is that there are no great minds or, indeed, any such thing as “greatness” itself. We live in a relativistic age in which there is no truth, only opinions or “alternative facts.”

I will print a full disclosure, which will come as no surprise to any who have read more than one or two of my posts: I was educated at a small college in Annapolis, Maryland where we spent four years reading the “hundred Great Books,” as they were then called. We never counted them. We just read them and discussed them in small groups in an attempt to help us think a bit about the most pressing problems exceptional minds worried about in the past and which continue to perplex us today. I am, therefore, a defender of the Canon, I guess, though we never referred to the list of books in that manner. We revered them, of course, but we did not regard them as sacred. We were asked to participate in the “great conversation” with the best minds that had ever set pen to paper.

The multiculturalists who have taken over the colleges and universities intent upon correcting past errors, and who, I strongly suspect, have never read most of the Great Books, insist that those books have brought about the many of the ills that now affect society. They dismiss the books out of hand as simply an attempt by past educators to instill in the minds of the young wrong-headedness, a sort of indoctrination which they will now correct by replacing those wrong ideas with their own. However, as was clear to those of us who read and discussed these books, no two authors in the entire list agreed about much of anything. They were anything but monolithic. Thus reading and discussing the Great Books cannot be viewed as a form of indoctrination because of the sheer variety of the ideas contained in those books. There is no single message. There are thousands of messages and the only way out of the morass is to begin to form ideas of one’s own. One need not be told that the West has a record of injustice if one reads the words of those who have again and again addressed the question: what is justice? One figures it out on one’s own — as one should.

In a word, the Canon should be defended and read in our schools because it contains the best that has been thought and written for thousands of years. It need not contain only the thoughts of those in the Western world who have written; it can be broad enough — indeed it should be broad enough — to include the best that has been thought and written in the East as well. But the selection ought to be carefully made and based on aesthetic criteria and the principle that no single “message” should come through except that what is being read is important and has influenced the minds of those who have gone before us.

Education is not about indoctrination. It is about enabling the young to take possession of their own minds. Education is about freedom, true freedom, and it should not be directed by a handful of instructors who have a not-so-hidden agenda to save the world. It should be directed by the Canon, because the best teachers are the books themselves. And they teach the young how to think — not what to think.

The Dead Horse

I have been kicking this poor, dead horse for more than fifteen years, starting with my book Recalling Education in 2001. But the following protest by English majors at Yale University — of all places — makes me want to take one more kick. I must say, I know how Bernie Sanders feels (and Cassandra). He knows what is wrong with this country and has a pretty good idea how to fix things. But while there are those who follow his lead (and I do wish I had that many followers!) the people who have the power to actually support his efforts, to take him seriously, simply turn away and ignore him altogether. He is spitting against the wind. I know that feeling: kicking a dead horse while spitting into the wind!

In any event, the following snippet on the ‘net drew my attention:

Some Yale University students are demanding changes to the English Department curriculum: specifically, they don’t think it should feature so many English poets who were straight, white, wealthy, and male.

“It is your responsibility as educators to listen to student voices,” the students wrote in a petition to the faculty. “We have spoken. We are speaking. Pay attention.”

We can all sincerely hope that this will not happen. But what is interesting here is that these students want to determine the curriculum while they obviously have no idea whatever what education is all about. It is certainly not about what the students want; it’s about what they need. Moreover, it is not about information, “Correct” or “Incorrect,” though information is a necessary condition of education — one cannot do without it and, as we are seeing, the uneducated among us are terribly misinformed and don’t know a fact from a lie. But while information is necessary it is not sufficient. One must be able to assimilate and process information, separate fact from fiction, truth from falsity, recognize hyperbole and humor. And that’s where these students — and many faculty in my experience — go wrong. They confuse cultural diversity with intellectual diversity. The latter, like information, is necessary for an education; the former is not.

Surely, it is a good thing to know about diverse cultures and there is no reason whatever that these students should not be introduced to cultures other than their own. But above all else they must be introduced to intellectual diversity, the difference of opinion, preferably among men and women of extraordinary stature, the great minds among us. This kind of diversity is found in the so-called “classics” of Western tradition, which these students choose to ignore. There are no two minds in that tradition that agree with one another about much of anything. For example, Aristotle was Plato’s student and he disagreed with his teacher about every important item in the panoply of human thought — except that thought itself is essential for the human being to achieve his or her full potential.

Our students, especially at prestigious universities like Yale where the leaders of tomorrow will study, need to know about intellectual diversity. They need to learn how to use their minds, to become free and independent thinkers who are not bound by cultural boundaries and who recognize tomfoolery and bloat when they see and hear it. They need to read and discuss the greatest minds that have ever lived. This will not happen if their teachers listen to their pleas (threats?) and throw out such thinkers as the great English poets and writers who have helped form the warp and woof of the civilization we are all struggling to maintain.

Diversity is important. Information is important. But cultural diversity and mere information are not sufficient to guarantee that young minds will take possession of themselves. They are necessary, but they are not sufficient.

As the article goes on to point out,

There’s nothing wrong with providing a greater variety of courses for students, and if students want to read more female and minority authors, the English Department is welcome to oblige. But there’s only so much that can be done. There just aren’t that many early modern writers who were gay or transgender.

Students should feel comfortable challenging the notion that a Shakespeare or a Milton deserves his place in the canon: in fact, that sounds like an excellent subject for a classroom discussion facilitated by a professor. But professors need to actually teach students about these pivotal figures before those discussions can be had.

In a word, we need to know whereof we speak before we turn our backs on great minds. Those minds are the very ones that can free our own.

Diversity

One of the buzzwords on college campuses these days — and for many days past — is the word “diversity.” The word requires the modifier “cultural” but this is seldom used. The modifier is required because what has become of central importance to a great many faculty members in our institutions of higher learning is the notion that their students need to know more about cultures other than their own. This is not a bad thing, but like other movements within the academy (e.g., the political correctness movement) things have gotten a bit out of hand.

In the name of cultural diversity, the evidence suggests that many faculty members have begun to confuse enlightenment with indoctrination. In the interest of revealing to the captive minds that sit before them spellbound they find themselves presenting one or two narrow perspectives which they themselves find comfortable and ignoring or demeaning many others, including the students’ own. There are even cases of instructors belittling students who defend contrary positions and being graded down if they disagree with the instructor and his or her take on the ills of American culture and the beauty of, say, Native American culture. A growing body of evidence suggests that this is more widespread than we would like to believe.

I have no problem with the notion that students need to have their narrow perspectives broadened, that we all need to know more about cultures different from our own. That is a good thing. But the notion that other cultures are ipso facto superior to our own is a claim that requires support. For one thing, it is difficult to generalize in these cases — just what is a culture? Do women comprise a separate and distinct culture — as many would have it — and is it, or any culture for that matter, superior in all respects to the major culture within which the majority of Americans are brought up? Heaven knows there are a great many shortcomings to our materialistic culture, but then there are many shortcomings to other cultures that are sometimes held in higher estimation than they deserve.

But more important than cultural diversity, from my perspective, is the question of intellectual diversity, the clash of different points of view. This clash is what generates questions and is more likely to lead to genuine thought on the part of the students than is a narrow, and even biased, presentation of other cultural perspectives. If one is taught to think then he or she will naturally begin to think about important questions and even want to explore other cultural perspectives. We seem to have put the cart before the horse. And like other movements that begin within the academy (e.g., again, the P.C. movement) the concern over cultural diversity has worked its way down through the grades and into the culture at large. The widespread reaction within this culture to the bigotry exhibited by Donald Trump stems from a growing awareness that other cultures are no less important than our own, that Trump’s take on the Mexicans or the religion of Islam, for example, is abhorrent to anyone with a grain of sense.  This is a good thing. More to the point, however, the tendency to insist that our own convictions on complex issues are the only ones that need to be known has become commonplace. Instead of inviting diverse points of view and the free exchange of ideas, many of us seek out reinforcement of our own ideas and read and watch sources that sink us deeper and deeper within our own world, ignorant of other ways of living and thinking.

It does seem to me that the job of instructors in our schools is to help young people gain possession of their own minds, to become independent thinkers who are also aware of other points of view. The presentation of diverse cultural perspectives, as I say, is not a bad thing. But it should take a back seat to the need of students to have their convictions challenged and their minds opened to new ideas. Cultural diversity is important, but it is not nearly as important as intellectual diversity. That’s what education should be about.

 

TV And The Human Brain

The thing about studies is that they often confirm what common sense tells us. Most people know that watching too much TV will addle the brain. Moreover, there is evidence that TV watching is addictive. As Marie Winn says in her interesting book The Plug-In Drug, “The entry into another world offered by reading includes an easily accessible return ticket. The entry via television does not. In this way television viewing, for those vulnerable to addiction, is more like drinking or taking drugs — once you start it is hard to stop.”

But more serious than its effects on adults, are the effects it has on our children. Parents tell their children over and over “it will turn your brain to mush.”  Studies since as early as 1972 tend to confirm what we all know in our gut: TV has deleterious effects on brain development. It may not turn the brain to mush, but it doesn’t allow the left hemisphere of the brain to develop properly. It is not only addictive, it is stupefying.

Jane Healy wrote the definitive book on the subject, as I see it, when she wrote Endangered Minds. She was very cautious in her conclusions, but her book draws on a number of studies — such as the ones in 1987 involving Positron Emission Tomography (PET scans) that show that “environmental factors can alter neutron pathways during early childhood and long after.” This was startling news at the time as there was considerable disagreement whether environmental factors had any effects whatever on brain development. But the studies show disturbing effects. Children, especially at early ages, need human interaction. They learn language from humans, not from TV and radio. As a New York Times science writer said at the time the studies were conducted, “The words have to come from an attentive, engaged human being. As far as anyone has been able to determine, radio and television do not work.”

The problem with TV, radio, computers, iPhones, iPods, etc. is that they are not human and they do not engage the brains of the users fully. They are essentially passive media and the user simply acts like a receptor, not fully engaged in what is happening. Note how young children stare trance-like at the TV when viewing their programs.  Even highly regarded TV shows like “Sesame Street” engage only a part of the child’s brain and leave the major portions of it untouched. This is critical because there are small “windows” in the child’s brain development and once those windows are closed, it is difficult, if not impossible, to engage that part of the brain later on. In a word, TV (for example) has long-lasting effects. And those effects involve such vital things as language development. As Marie Winn points out in the book referred to above, “… a carefully controlled study designed to explore the relationship between television viewing and the language spoken by preschool children discovered an inverse relationship between viewing time and performance on tests of language development; the children in the study who viewed more television at home demonstrated lower language levels.”

The hampered ability to use language handcuffs the child throughout school and on into later life. Language is essential to thought and more than ever we need people who are not only articulate, but also able to think through the masses of information that overwhelm them each day and separate the nonsense from the essential truth — if there is any. If this is not always apparent it is especially so as elections come around and voters are called upon to make decisions that can affect them and their descendants for years to come.

In a word, parents would be well advised to turn the TV off for several hours at the end of each day and spend time with their kids talking, telling them stories, reading to them, having them read, and having them make up stories themselves. To refer again to Marie Winn’s  book referenced above, “TV Turnoffs organized by schools and libraries throughout the country. . .demonstrated that when competition from the TV is eliminated, children simply and easily turn to reading instead.” Further, I don’t think we should be overly anxious to have the schools incorporate electronic devices into the early years of a child’s education, either. Human contact and human interaction are essential. The more kids use words the more adept they will become and the more active the left hemisphere of their brains will be — and this is essential to their future success.

And as a footnote to this discussion, it would seem that we should look elsewhere than at our teachers when pointing to low test scores and the inability of our kids to do well in math and language. Teachers might do better than they do, perhaps, but it all starts at home.