Last month it was announced that examiners of Britain’s national English test for 14-year-olds had been “ordered not to penalize incorrect spelling in a key writing paper.” On a related theme, in his column today Randy David, sociology professor at UP, explained that the generally positive response to an introductory course on sociology included a request for “more visual aids”. Coincidentally, Belinda Aquino, professor of political science at the University of Hawaii, touched on a similar theme in her column on the same page:
One of my complaints as a teacher all these years is that students don't read anymore, generally speaking. If they do … the material they are asked to read is "too difficult." Or they cannot fully comprehend what they are reading. When I ask for some feedback about a particular reading, they can barely articulate an adequate response. The paradox is, most core textbooks being used in today's colleges and universities are illustrated with colorful pictures and study guides to improve students' understanding of their reading assignments… Since students don't read as much anymore, they also don't write well. The two go together. Students in this generation tend to talk or write in fragments, not complete sentences. Have reading and writing gone out of style? Or is this a reflection of the wider world's declining ability to read and write?
Anyone who knows what an old fogey I am will appreciate the profound depression that descended on me when I read these comments. During a lonely childhood in Africa and a Scottish boarding school only marginally less oppressive than the Soviet gulag, books (as in no pictures) have always been absolutely central to my life. It makes me sad that kids of today are being brought up in a world where looking at “visual aids” and “colourful pictures” is considered as valid as figuring out a textual argument.
I do have plenty of friends who don’t read much of course, and I have to admit they don’t seem too damaged by the lack of books in their lives. Many of them are way smarter than I am. Still although I accept Steven Johnson’s argument that some of the more sophisticated computer games sharpen certain cognitive skills, I don't see how it can be denied that the written word is still the most effective way of conveying conceptual ideas and nuances of meaning. A world reliant on “visual aids” is a world of crude and dangerous inductive thinking. To find out just where that can lead us, here is a scary observation by Richard Clarke:
From the interactions I did have with Bush it was clear that the critique of him as a dumb, lazy rich kid was somewhat off the mark. When he focused, he asked the kind of questions that revealed a results-oriented mind, but he looked for the simple solution, the bumper sticker description of the problem. Once he had that, he could put energy behind a drive to achieve his goal. The problem was that many of the important issues, like terrorism, like Iraq, were laced with important subtlety and nuance. These issues need analysis and Bush and his inner circle had no real interest in complicated analyses; on the issues that they cared about, they already knew the answers. Bush was informed by talking with a small set of senior advisors. Early on we were told that “the President is not a big reader” and goes to bed by 10:00. Richard A. Clarke, Against all Enemies (p. 243), emphasis added
Postscript: Though I like Professor Aquino's columns a lot, I have to say she did come up with the fogeyest comment of the week: "This is another thing with students these days-they never read newspapers, even their own college newspapers or newsletters, which their classmates edit or write for. Their ears are plugged to some video device undoubtedly listening to some rap or rock music. And, of course, the ubiquitous cell phone has become some kind of oversized metal earring. The young are so self-absorbed." Yeah! Go Belinda!