wasting bandwidth since 1999

Reading is Doomed! Or Not.

In yesterday’s Post, the opinion page editors set up a debate of sorts between someone who says the decline in reading (and rise of video) is making the country dumber, and someone who claims the trend is not all bad.

First up is a writer Susan Jacoby who says that video is fostering an anti-intellectual force in this country.

Dumbness, to paraphrase the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, has been steadily defined downward for several decades, by a combination of heretofore irresistible forces. These include the triumph of video culture over print culture (and by video, I mean every form of digital media, as well as older electronic ones); a disjunction between Americans’ rising level of formal education and their shaky grasp of basic geography, science and history; and the fusion of anti-rationalism with anti-intellectualism.

On the other side, sort of, is someone who’s probably familiar to anyone in education, Howard Gardner.

He claims that computers and the web are neither destroying literacy nor fostering a “new, vibrant participatory culture of words” as some claim for the online world.

Let me suggest a third possibility: Literacy — or an ensemble of literacies — will continue to thrive, but in forms and formats we can’t yet envision.

In the past 150 years, each new medium of communication — telegraph, telephone, movies, radio, television, the digital computer, the World Wide Web — has introduced its own peculiar mix of written, spoken and graphic languages and evoked a chaotic chorus of criticism and celebration.

Unfortunately, the Post sets this up as two sides of a black-or-white issue when it’s not. To read or not to read? — it’s just not that simple.

Both articles are well worth reading and both writers make excellent points about the state of literacy in the US, and probably elsewhere.

But I think Jacoby is being far too simplistic in blaming technology for the “anti-intellectual” trend in this country. Unfortunately, it’s always been there and probably always will.

We talk a lot about the value of education and reading. However, when it comes to knowledge, research and science, our leaders claim their faith and gut instincts provide better advice.

On the other hand, Gardner’s confidence in society maintaining a robust mix of literacies maybe somewhat misguided.

That intelligent use of the mix will only happen if people learn how and when to effectively use each of the different forms of communication.

Right now, we don’t do that, in schools or elsewhere. The emphasis in our educational system is still almost entirely centered around learning to decode words on a page.

We just assume that people will figure out for themselves how to use those other “spoken and graphic languages”.

But let’s face it. Literacy in the 21st century is so much more than just reading and writing and we need to teach all parts of it.

literacy, dumbness, education


  1. Benjamin Baxter

    America has always been anti-intellectual. Just ask Adlai Stevenson, Democratic presidential nominee of 1952 and 1956. In his second campaign, he was taken down by the pejorative “egghead.”

    It’s only since been the space race that America has had anything but a frontier mentality toward learning.


  2. Scott McLeod

    Tim, this is well said. Thanks for cluing me in to the Gardner quote!

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