Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Are We Becoming Illiterate?

The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called The Town I Live In.

A student in my English 101 class today told me she had never checked out a library book before. I was floored. She is a freshman in college and she’s never checked out a library book before. How is this possible? It made me so angry and depressed that I made my next class write for 20 minutes on the following prompt:

Mark Twain wrote, “A person who won't read has no advantage over one who can't read.” What was the last library book you checked out that you were not required to check out? Why do you think people might not check out library books? Is there a problem with this?

Then we talked about reading. Another student acknowledged that she had never checked out a library book, but she had purchased books online, and read e-books on a kindle. Other students reinforced this idea that computer technology has replaced libraries. Another student said, “We’re Americans. We’re lazy as hell.”

On Monday there was a power outage in downtown Fullerton. I was talking to a friend, and he said, “When the power went out, I almost read a book.”

Are we becoming a society of functional illiterates? We know how to read, but we choose not to? I decided to do a little reading on this topic. In his essay “Computers Cannot Teach Children Basic Skills,” David Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale argues that multimedia like the internet has seriously crippled students’ ability to think in a logical and linear fashion. Speaking of hypermedia (like the internet), he says, “Dynamiting documents into disjointed paragraphs is one more expression of the sorry fact that sustained argument is not our style.”

But Andrea Lunsford, a professor of writing at Stanford University, disagrees. She organized a project called the Stanford Study of Writing. From 2001-2006, she collected and studied 14,672 student writing samples. She concluded, “I think we’re in the midst of a literary revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen since Greek civilization.” To borrow a current expression, WTF? She believes that, with the advent of social networking and blogging, students today are reading and writing way more than previous generations, and with a captive audience.

In his article “The New Literacy,” Clive Thompson, a science and technology writer for The New York Times Magazine, writes, “Before the internet came along, most Americans never wrote anything, ever, that wasn’t a school assignment. Unless they got a job that required producing text (like in law, advertising, or media), they’d leave school and virtually never construct a paragraph again.”

Now young people are writing and reading every day, online. Thompson adds, “Of course, good teaching is always going to be crucial, as is the mastering of formal academic prose. But it’s also becoming clear that online media are pushing literacy in cool new directions.”

Okay, maybe today’s students are not illiterate. They are just literate in a different way than previous generations. Ever since I started my blog, I have actually become a more prolific (and perhaps better) writer than when I was just an emo kid scribbling in my journal every day. Having said that, I love going to the library. I go there at least twice a week, just to read. I suppose I try to strike a balance between this new online literacy and good old-fashioned book literacy.

Maybe I’ll take my students on a field trip to the library.


1 comment:

  1. What's going on here? A compromise? Cats and dogs living together?!?!