When people tell me their children don't read newspapers, I usually say, "Wow, you don't seem like someone who would raise stupid children." This invariably takes them aback, perhaps if for no other reason than it's not the typical hangdog response from newsies of, "I know."
My point to that the people who will tell their children what to do as adults will get factual information, sophisticated analysis, in-depth context and investigative reporting, whether it's delivered online, on dead trees, or through implants in their Botox injections. The people who will rule the world will consume and read journalism. The most gifted of them will also have gained the singular insights into human nature and the world that come from literature and history.
It says something about so many American parents that they are content to raise stupid children into stupid young adults. So I pretty much knew what to expect from a Sunday front page story in the New York Times headlined "Literacy Debate: Online R U really reading."
It makes the essential point early:
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.
...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.
Unfortunately, the 15-year-old girl in the story spends her time reading emails, checking out a social networking site "reading messages or posting updates on her mood," and searching for music videos on YouTube. She also logs onto "a role-playing site where members fashion alternate identities as cutesy cartoon characters." Most of her time, apparently, is spent on sites "reading and commenting on stories written by other users and based on books, television shows or movies."
Well, at least she won't whine about the difficulty of sitting down and actually making tactile communion through the page with Melville or Faulkner.
Fortunately this girl's mother pushes her to read books (memo to mom: take away the PC more). One suspects that is more and more rare in America, where we are no longer citizens but "consumers," and parents both frazzled and indulgent say, what the hell... Can't stop 'em from spending hours on "Grand Theft Auto" or mindless surfing. Real learning is hard. I hated being made to read most of the classics. Thank God I was made to do so. Their lessons, carried like intuitive martial arts moves, have seen me through more workplace challenges than hours of mandatory workshops with consultants.
What will this mean for our future? Will the hyper-stimulation from birth -- not only the Internet, but more noise, chaos and exposure to video violence -- fundamentally rewire humans? Or will it merely bring out old, and perhaps unfortunate, parts of our nature and just present them faster. (E.g., self-indulgence, solipsism, brutality). A reader of literature and history would say the latter.
The Web and all our gadgets are useful tools. This blog is one example of their uses. But all the really smart people I have known read literature for pleasure as teens. To be sure, the boys were more likely to read Dune than Pride and Prejudice. (But how any of us males make it to 25 is a miracle.) Most of them also started reading newspapers early. Nobody can convince me that social networking sites and stories written by one's teenage peers can teach the critical and analytical thinking spawned by great literature, journalism, and history.
It just happens to be the kind of intellectual development necessary for the voters in a representative republic that hopes to survive as such.
Then I wonder about our schools, so many damaged by unending finding cuts, fads from right and left, and increasing segregation by class. Our family was broke, but I went to great public schools, where we were taught by highly skilled and inspiring teachers. Those opportunities have been greatly diminished.
And of course popular discourse -- pushed along by the dumb-down ethos of Gannett and most other newspaper companies -- casts a wide net to catch any hint of elitism. It includes a haughty aversion to words such as the above-used "solipsism," which might actually cause a reader to pause and look it up. That was one of the ways I learned, and still learn, when reading a challenging but compelling work. But never mind. That is elitist, as is literacy in general, a good education, a curiosity about the world and other cultures, and interest in real news, especially international news. Newspaper companies rushed to kill off book reviews -- even though they reinforced reading. Too elitist, you see. (As a corollary, people who raise questions about too much Web time for teens or newspaper dumbing down are dismissed as dinosaurs opposed to all change).
Funny, amassing great wealth and corporate concentration is never "elitism." And it's a sweet coincidence that simplistic "news you can use" and vilification of book-learnin' so perfectly allows a real elite to rule, to torture at will, to enrich themselves off the government.
I suspect, as I started out, that the children who will go on to exercise great power will get a deep and liberal education, even if they, say, use the Internet to enhance their knowledge of Moby Dick (as I just did in re-reading it). But climbing into this (yes) elite will be much more difficult for those of humble and challenged origins. The elite will still need real journalism to make the best decisions (or, to manipulate the plebes while protecting themselves). Given the suicide of the newspaper industry -- I suspect we shall soon see wholesale closings -- this may come from private intelligence consultants and the like. A small intellectual class will somehow survive, too, as well as oddballs who love learning.
But most of society will gradually fall back into a pre-enlightenment age, only with more stuff. To the extent that many people think at all, it will be informed by partial facts, rumors, legends, demagogy and superstition ("sell your house for double what you paid for it in one year!"). The bread and circuses to keep the "consumers" docile will include endless electronic toys and distractions. They may be very clever at certain narrow, technical things. Their Internet education will have perfectly prepared them to be cogs in the wheel, sucking at the Matrix. Thus, the brave new world is really just human society as it existed throughout most of history.
We will have lost -- we have lost, I fear -- the great wave of American literacy that probably crested with the early baby boomers. It encompassed an unprecedented number of people, who not surprisingly usually made the right choices in building a great nation and civilization. These democratically literate people still had time for all sorts of enthusiasms -- but their education had prepared them to be self-governing citizens, and even opened a door to see the most sublime of the human experience.
It's almost enough to make you think there's a conspiracy to destroy America. But readers know that human appetites and folly are enough to do that without any dark planning.
ADDENDUM: Several excellent letters were published concerning the Times piece, including this gem:
Show me the things on the Internet that compare with Sherlock Holmes’s deadly confrontation with Moriarty, the final scene with the titular spider in “Charlotte’s Web,” Winston Smith’s self-betrayal in “1984,” the brilliance of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels, the anger and the love and the sorrow of Harlan Ellison’s stories, the wordy mirth of Rex Stout’s brownstoned Nero Wolfe, Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld series, Tarzan, the Spenser mysteries, Roland of Gilead, Little Bear, Big Max, Martha and George. And that’s just one bookcase.
Show me humanity writ large on the Internet, and I’ll stop having any truck with these heavy, burdensome books.
Until then, please stop encouraging the endorsement of this “greasy kid’s stuff” as anything other than what it was described as in the article: an addiction. And an addiction, by definition, is not beneficial.
Alex Dering, Princeton, N.J., July 27, 2008