The New York Times reports today that the National Endowment for the Arts reports today (which is a lot of reporting going on today), that reading among the young is dropping at a precipitous rate.
Having spent 8 years teaching at New York University, this is no surprise to me.
My students, though often extremely bright, would for the most part approach reading or writing as I might approach a quadratic equation – it is something I know how to do, if I have to… but would really rather avoid if I can.
The miracle of the technology of calculators, (created when I was in high school – we were no doubt the very last generation to know how to use slide rules), allowed us ultimately to depart from the realm of being forced to learn the intimate structure of maths. Once you could punch in the numbers on a screen, why bother with pencils and papers… really.
This impact of technology on what had once been through native skills (Neil Postman does a wonderful study on how the rise of writing in the earliest days of civilization spelt the death knell of memory), has been with us since time immemorial.
Now, technology begins to impact on reading and writing – skills we once thought fundamental to survival in an advanced culture. Apparently, this is not the case.
While the Average American watches an astonishing 4.5 hours of television a day (and as video comes to the web, we can only expect to see an escalation in this), the average American family purchases but one book a year!
Reading is indeed tangential to our culture now, and it does not take a study by the government to confirm this.
We communicate, instead, in images.
The problem, of course, is that we are still teaching to communicate in words and letters, long after the train has left the station.
What we have done is to create, for all practical purposes, a population that is illiterate in the lingua franca of its own time – video.
We have placed the ‘ability’ to create in this now very fundamental medium, in the hands of a select and elite few.
This is a mistake.
We may bemoan the death of reading and writing, and perhaps properly so. There is an elegance to it. But it would seem to be well on track to join pottery making and painting as the quaint pass-times of the elite and the elderly.
Yet we do our culture no great service when we effectively keep 99% of our creative minds away from the tools of creativity.
Perhaps if we unleashed them, television would get a whole lot better.