We're Wired from Brain to Toe, So Why Aren't We Illiterate Yet?

mediaThe first rule of belonging to the media technology naysayer’s club is simple: argue fervently and frequently–whenever you can, really–that Western culture is a mere generation away from illiteracy.  When pressed to explain the argument, members must appeal to the second rule: emphasize that it’s just a matter of time before the results of our reckless drift into shallowness come to pass.  When pressed to explain that argument, mandatory adherence to the third rule kicks in: repeat rules one and two. 

For as long as the naysayers’ illiteracy argument has been going, it’s amazing any of us can read the dollar menu at McDonald’s.  Of course, when they use the word “illiterate” they mean something less, well, literal than most of us.  Illiteracy in this context implies verbal devolution — a thinning of our mental capacity to digest and create elucidated complexity.  When once we dined on Tolstoy, now we munch on Tweets. So goes the argument.

Turns out, it’s wrong. Actually it’s been wrong for a few millennia, starting when Socrates predicted that we were all screwed when the oral tradition gave way to the written word.  Now it’s just more wrong, with research on top.  Well, back up for a second…it’s wrong for another reason, too, namely that we were never all feasting on the Canon buffet. That’s a faux literati fabrication, an elitist bugaboo. Enjoyment of literature has always been a moving target — hence, the Canon’s very center of gravity–Shakespeare–wrote plays for the barely literate rabble. Terrific irony.

Back to my first point, the naysayers’ argument has turned out to be wrong in the court of science as well as history, a tough twofer to overcome.  I was reminded of this while going over some of evolutionary psychologist Nigel Barber’s essays and research, like this short piece he wrote in his Psychology Today blog a few months ago.  Barber points out that research on whether TV is detrimental to the intelligence of children depends almost entirely on where they live, in a socioeconomic sense. For kids in more affluent families, television can be a distraction that detracts from rich verbal interaction. Excessive TV for these kids (more than three hours a day) eats into talk time with the folks and homework, so grades tend to decrease.  But, Barber continues…

Results for children of impoverished parents are altogether different. The more TV they watch, the better their grades. If parents are not stimulating, then the kids do better watching the idiot box than conversing with their parents, sad to say. Incidentally, it is not just a stereotype that poor homes are intellectually impoverishing. Observational research has shown that parents on welfare spend far less time talking to their children than working class, or professional parents, resulting in an impoverished vocabulary.

So, for many kids TV isn’t a mere distraction — it’s a tutor.  And if grades are an accurate measure of intellectual progress, we can even say that without TV, these kids would be a fair bit denser, with fewer academic and post-academic options available to them. 

Barber discusses another study, the Progress in International Reading Literacy (2001), that further extends the argument.

Countries in which a larger proportion of children watched TV every day had higher reading achievement scores, which implies that they have higher IQ scores (as these two are very highly correlated). Daily access to computers provided similar benefits. What is more, use of these electronic media fully explained why children in affluent countries do better in school.

Another reminder that the naysayers are wrong (doubly wrong, that is) came to me while I was reading an excellent Clive Thompson essay in the August issue of Wired on an airplane last week.  Thompson discusses the Stanford Study of Writing, a massive, five-year research project crafted to scrutinize college students’ prose.  Here’s Thompson:

Andrea Lunsford is a professor of writing and rhetoric at Stanford University, where she has organized a mammoth project called the Stanford Study of Writing to scrutinize college students’ prose. From 2001 to 2006, she collected 14,672 student writing samples—everything from in-class assignments, formal essays, and journal entries to emails, blog posts, and chat sessions. Her conclusions are stirring.

The first thing she found is that young people today write far more than any generation before them. That’s because so much socializing takes place online, and it almost always involves text. Of all the writing that the Stanford students did, a stunning 38 percent of it took place out of the classroom—life writing, as Lunsford calls it. Those Twitter updates and lists of 25 things about yourself add up.

It’s almost hard to remember how big a paradigm shift this is. 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.

These findings suggest the exact opposite of the naysayers’ second favorite argument (the first one is that we’re losing the ability to read), that we’re losing the ability to write.  Or, more accurately, to write anything beyond word chunkets needed to get random points across on social networks.  Wrong. 

The fact that students today almost always write for an audience (something virtually no one in my generation did) gives them a different sense of what constitutes good writing. In interviews, they defined good prose as something that had an effect on the world. For them, writing is about persuading and organizing and debating, even if it’s over something as quotidian as what movie to go see. The Stanford students were almost always less enthusiastic about their in-class writing because it had no audience but the professor: It didn’t serve any purpose other than to get them a grade. As for those texting short-forms and smileys defiling serious academic writing? Another myth. When Lunsford examined the work of first-year students, she didn’t find a single example of texting speak in an academic paper.

And this, I think, gets to the heart of why, no matter how many more millennia it chugs along, the naysayers’ argument will continue to be wrong: it fails to recognize the adaptive nature of communication, which in turn is tied to the adaptive nature of our plastic brains.  It starts with a basically reasonable premise–that excessive use of any media technology is potentially bad (most of us agree on that)–and needlessly tethers it to an outlook that denies a crucial aspect of our nature: we change.

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