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June 05, 2005



Unfortunately it's a growing problem of the time. With all the information available to us through different media in even more varying forms, childrens' attention spans have considerably shortened. The internet generation want information served in "Happy Meal" format. No, not just fast food --- they want the Happy meal. Packed without the need for you to decide what you want nor what is important.

It's not their fault that it is this way. The educational system all throughout the world has steadily increased academic expectations from students without *ever* attaining the focus on developing critical thinking instead. In mathematics, for example, I have seen highschool syllabi that contained calculus and complex numbers. I finished with a degree in Physics, and only towards my graduation did I fully realize that *only* bonafide Physicists and engineers, along with a few businessmen and IT professionals, ever need to understand calculus and complex numbers. And they are taught in educational institutions that merely want to parade their school as having an "advanced" curriculum or having "high standards" of education.

This burden, along with eternally present distractions (TV, internet, video games, whatever...) significantly shortens the attention span of students, leading them to want the happy meal format of things. Problem solving and analysis has become a process of "teach sample problem" -> "teach preformatted solution" -> "test problem" -> "copy of preformatted solution."

Eventually this attitude of seeking the summary format of things and going straight to the final answer can be traced to the emphasis teachers give to "correct answers" in the first place. Students grow up scared of making mistakes, fearing punishment from or disappointment of their parents, or ridicule from their teacher and/or peers. They want to go straight to the answer because the end has become more important than the means.

In the end, "the means," which is genuine critical thinking, is sacrificed and its value lost to the need to give the correct answer at all times.


Among the great pleasures I have discovered in this soggy country of yours, torn, are the numerous bookshops that stand right next to each other, where the books are not covered in plastic. I could not understand why anyone would not want to take full advantage of this wonder. Then I got to know my (mostly younger) classmates a little better and understood why.

For group presentations, they keep requesting me to prepare "bullet points" of the more difficult readings so that they won't have to wade through them. How does one prepare "bullet points" of, say, Habermasian texts? It took twenty years to translate the guy's works into English, I tell them. But they don't hesitate to spend long hours to prepare the Power Point slides of the "bullet points". So it's not laziness, really, it's some strange aversion to text.

I don't get it and I think it's a terrible affliction I'm glad I've escaped. I love watching films, I watch some TV and I surf the Internet constantly. For a while I played Civilization and SIM City seriously. There ARE all sorts of things to learn from these media but reading is fundamental. If this march to illiteracy continues, we're all done for.


Jon -- Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Broadly I agree with everything you say, except that your argument that the point of education is critical thinking (which I agree with) seems slightly at odds with your earlier observation that there is no point in studying calculus because only physicists need it. Isn't it worth learning for its own sake? I learned calculus at school (back in the Middle Ages) and feel an immeasurably superior human being as a result. Well, perhaps not and perhaps I have misunderstood your point anyway. Tell me!

I completely agree with what you say about "teach sample problem" -> "teach preformatted solution" -> "test problem" -> "copy of preformatted solution." But wasn't it ever thus? I know when I went to school in the exam-obsessed British system, critical thinking was the furthest from most teachers' minds (far behind those grades). And that word "teacher" is the key to the whole thing, I think. At every level of my education, I've been blessed with one (and you really need only one) person who really opened the doors of perception for me. Individual teachers can make a huge, life-altering, difference, even in a flawed system. It really is the most important job in the world. And yet how much are they paid here, 7,000 pesos a month? Jesus wept.

By the way, I like your blog. I tried to leave a comment on it but you've got that infuriating Blogger "log in" for comments. I wish someone would tell them to get rid of it, what's the point of it? I tried a couple of times this evening and was rejected each time). That's happened to me before (with your site and others on blogger) -- and each time I've given up in frustration. Try Halo -- see caffeine sparks. OK, rant over.


Carla -- Good! I hoped you would comment. And please tell me, aren't you just appalled at the bad spelling and general illiteracy in Britain? I know that people who tell me that British English is so much superior to American English are trying to be nice, but they have obviously never seen a sign saying "appologys for the dely. the next tran will arive shortlie". Anyway, since there is nothing I like more than lambasting the lax standards of the younger generation, I'll dive right in.

Actually, what I want to pick up on from your comment is your reference to other media, such as film and TV. Sometimes you get different media covering the same subject (films of books, news events covered on TV and in newspapers). This allows for a direct comparison, and it seems to me that the printed word wins out overall. Sure, a "film of a book" might come up with a powerful "image" but that is exactly what it is, a representation of something, rather than the thing itself. I mean, really, how many good films of books have you seen? (I have a couple that I might save for a later post, but it really is a handful).

The contrast between TV and newspaper (i.e., not tabloid) coverage of current events is also revealing. Take Abu Ghraib. TV was good at getting across the cheap nastiness of the events, but they were never explained. The next thing we saw was Private Lyndie England in court, so I guess it's her fault ... How can you compare CNN's coverage with Seymour Hersh's articles in the New Yorker? It's like a putting a kindergarden book up against a postgraduate textbook.

I don't blame CNN or the BBC, their limitations are inherent in the medium. The fact is, they just don't have enough words.

Stick Insect Hunter

A picture speaks a thousand words

The lack of reading and writing skills in kids nowadays seems obviously to be bad in our understanding of the world at this moment. Maybe by the time those kids have grown up they will have understood the importance of a clear and commonly understood form of communication and they will practise it. Or maybe they will find something better. It might not be anything easy for us to understand and it might as well be fully visual. Our written language developed from visual characters and it simplified over the years. It just became too hard to draw all the symbols all the time I guess. Somehow it still works in China although they simplified their characters as well. In twenty years from now we might very well all have gadgets we use to communicate to each other purely via transmitted visuals. We don't have to draw them anymore we just record. Maybe technology allows us to go back to a more natural form of communication - visuals. That form of communication might also not necessarily be as clear and governed by universal rules as we know it today, but it might be more than sufficient to communicate whatever you need to communicate in 2020.

I am not sure if a shorter attention span is responsible for the lack of interest in reading and writing.
I think that is a separate development. Maybe those kids just instinctively feel that reading is a skill they might not need anymore by the time they have grown up. Maybe a shorter attention span is a healthy reaction of kids to digest the enormous amount of information that is out there. And maybe in twenty years it is a very desirable skill because much of the other stuff is done by machines or mutated wombats.

Until something obviously bad is happening (like one of those illiterate kids becomes president and starts screwing the whole world,... wait a minute, that's already happening) I think we should be very grateful that we have a chance to watch the very first generation of kids grow up, who have access to unlimited information on a constant basis, everywhere.

Why of all generations should this next one, who has all that access to information never seen before in history, be the first generation that is more stupid and less skilled than the generation before?

PS: Pardon my spelling and grammar


Great points Andy! We needed someone to put the other side. I'm at work right now so cannot reply right away. Later.

By the way, your spelling and grammar would put many native speakers to shame.


Torn-- I thought the mispelling and slips in grammar were just the way natives were being careless with their own language, the same way my Tagalog grammar would not be perfect. Then one time, I casually mentioned to my young(er) classmates that Tagalog verbs are conjugated using infixes. They said they didn't know what I was talking about: they were not taught "conjugation". Now maybe conjugation is not necessary for native speakers but I think there's an advantage to learning the structure of a language, even if it's your own, even if you never have to teach it formally to others.

That's the source of my discomfort about illiteracy and its ills, really: the pernicious impulse to simpify everything, to make things easier and more "exciting" for a TV generation that expects the geopolitics of the day to be summarized in a 5-minute "in-depth" report with interactive maps. Like you say, not everything can be reduced to a couple of pictures and soundbites.

As for films, I disagree with you on that one. I don't think there's a comparison to made. I've seen bad adaptations for sure but there are films I've seen that no books could match, not only because of the imagery but also because of the music, the pithy dialogue, the dancing in it if there's any, maybe even the special effects. I enjoyed The Matrix immensely, for example, and my imagination could not have pictured it like that if there had been a book. But I would be a fool if I tried to understand Baudrillard just by watching it.

Stick, I would not deny the different kind of learning and communicating afforded by different media: images can have a very visceral impact compared to text. However, I have yet to meet anyone, young or old, who can comprehend any sort of topic just by having seen pictures of it.

Maybe younger generations don't "feel" they still need to read or write in the future and may very well be able to cope well without those skills. I don't see that as progress. I don't see how it's an improvement that people "learn" about stuff just by piecing together TV clips and pre-digested summaries from the Internet. There's something to be said about lateral thinking, information mosaics and so forth that new media are supposed to promote. I'm not saying we should shun those. However, reading in general (and reading books in particular) trains us to wrestle with abstract ideas, opposing philosophies, the internal dramas that occur in the minds of authors. The human race would be so much poorer if we let go of those.


Torn - Thank you for the nice words. To be able to comment without logging on in my blog, you have to choose the "Others" option which will turn the username/password fields to a name/url field that doesn't require logging on. Hope you'd be able to post your comment next time :)

I know what you mean in saying my comment was sort of contradictory. My point is that with the information overload the current generation is having, the volume of information they need to "parrot" to their professors becomes extreme, and thus they prefer to keep everything bullet-pointed and paraphrased to shortcuts. Couple that with all the entertainment options they have, and you have kids with impossibly cluttered minds who think that reading through things is a waste of time.

If they don't need it, let it go... it might help free up their mind and encourage them to read on the details of things that they might really really need later on.

Yeah, it's a pity teachers are given meager wages. My mother's a graduate school professor in the college of education in a Manila university, and she often finds great talent (read: the thinker/mentor type teachers) in public school teachers from even the most far-flung of provinces.


Children who master the core skill of reading find it easier in life to write better and to present better arguments and debates (i.e., articulation). This is what I've experienced.

I can understand personally how books became your friends when you were younger. When I was new here and struggling to understand the language, I took refuge in my books too. They were less threatening, and more welcoming.

I also have friends who don't read as much as I do, and yet are heads and shoulders above me in intelligence. Privately I've wondered how they seem to do that, hehe.

On the other hand, I have friends whose core reading group seemed to consist of comics. I didn't have a high opinion of them (the comics, not the friends) back then, but after several illuminating conversations with them, I had to take it back. =)

My professor once said that you could spot a true-blue bookworm if he or she brought along a book to the beach. Hehe.

Personally speaking, I don't mind kids who surf the internet constantly and watch a lot of television, as long as they make reading a regular part of their daily activities too. The problem is, the books they read aren't for their age level. My sister likes reading books that are targeted for six and seven year olds, and she's already 10. I'm trying to make her read more challenging books in the hopes of weaning her away from that.

Thanks for the interesting post.


Great comments from everyone, thanks! It is true, as Andy (stick), says, that we are entering a new age of communications and we may as well come along for the ride. I think even the pro-reading faction has acknowledged that there are some advantages to that. Let’s face it, piling word upon word upon word has not always served us well. I am sure there have been times when Carla was ploughing through Habermas when she might have wished that old Jürgen had explained his theory of constitutional nationalism slightly more concisely.

Carla and Sarah have put the pro-reading position very clearly and I can’t really improve on their comments, except to say that visual arts and reading have always co-existed and I don’t see why, in theory, they cannot continue to do so. To abandon reading would be ignore the whole basis of our civilization, which has been constructed over hundreds of years on a foundation of ideas that can mainly be expressed only in words. I think it would be a terrible mistake to jettison that shared history in favour of the attractions of a digital revolution that is still only a couple of decades old.

The problem is that, as Jon says, there is just so much stuff cluttering people’s minds that it is inevitable that younger people should go for the easier options and those most likely to gain them recognition from their peers. We as a society are to blame for not respecting reading and learning more. The problem is not just young people – the Philippines has quite high levels of literacy, but how many people do you see reading books on the MRT?

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