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Our younger daughter (age 12) recently saw a movie called “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.” The plot involves a Victorian-era man played by Sean Connery (swoon, thud) who gathers together some of the most famous characters from literature, including Dorian Gray, Dr. Jekyll, Tom Sawyer, Captain Nemo, etc. on a secret mission to fight a technological madman.
My daughter loved the movie and decided she wanted to read all the books concerning the characters. So far she’s read “The Portrait of Dorian Gray,” “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” We have all the volumes in our personal library of 5,000-plus books, so she can just pick them up as she wishes.
Now let me jump subjects a bit. Occasionally I am in a position to hear a friend’s 11-year-old son read out loud. This boy comes from a stable, intact family and there’s nothing wrong with his intelligence – except he is, for all intents and purposes, illiterate. He can read, but barely; and he has no comprehension of what he’s reading. This puzzled and concerned me for the longest time. How could a kid from such a great family be effectively unable to read? Then it dawned on me: Books are not a part of his life. There are none to be found in his home. He lives in a cyber-world of technological excess.
The reason I’ve been thinking about the contrast between my daughter’s devouring of the classics versus the other child’s functional illiteracy is because I’m currently reading a book called “The Dumbest Generation” by Mark Bauerlein who argues that this generation’s wired-in and connected lifestyle leaves young people unable to think, work, read, or form real (versus cyber) relationships.
Originally these modern technological marvels were hailed as cutting-edge intellectual stimulants for young minds. But this has not turned out to be the case. “If the young have acquired so much digital proficiency, and if digital technology exercises their intellectual faculties so well, then why haven’t knowledge and skill levels increased accordingly?” asks the author. “If the Information Age solicits quicker and savvier literacies, why do so many new entrants into college and work end up in remediation?”
Bauerlein describes the constant and ever-improving technology as “prosthetic,” a chilling term when applied to the minds of children and young adults.
Most of the early and highly anticipated benefits of technology on the intellect of students have turned out to be negative – so much so that some schools are actually disconnecting or discouraging the use of digital media they had encouraged with such high hopes five years before in an effort to “unplug” kids and increase test scores.
The trouble, apparently, is while kids are frighteningly savvy when it comes to all electronic media, those skills do not translate into actual knowledge. They do not retain the material they study. “When the fifth-grade teachers assign a topic, the kids proceed like this: go to Google, type keywords, download three relevant sites, cut and paste passages into a new document, add transitions of their own, print it up, and turn it in. The model is information retrieval, not knowledge formation, and the material passes from Web to homework paper without lodging in the minds of the students.”
Contrast this with the papers I had to write in the 1970s public (yes, public) school system. I was assigned a topic; I went to the library and found several books on the subject; read the books and hand-copied relevant passages; re-wrote the passages in my own words; organized the paper into a cohesive and logical sequence; typed the paper up on a typewriter (remember those?), and turned it in. I still remember several papers I wrote, and it’s been decades.
I know this makes me sound like the classic generation-gap fuddy-duddy, but I find myself shocked that an intact, educated family could lose sight of the fact that their child can’t read. I find myself equally shocked that the family appears unaware of the reasons why. The family’s love affair with technology continues unabated, and they applaud their children’s media intelligence. “Adolescents adept at [technology] advance the collective mind and expand the storehouse of knowledge,” notes Bauerlein, parroting the praise of the technophiles. “They engage in creativity and criticism, dialogue and competition, kindling thought, not deadening it. Why, then, should bibliophiles and traditionalists carp so much?”
Why indeed? This is the quandary in which we find ourselves as we refuse to indulge our children with the latest electronic marvels. What’s wrong with the adolescent obsession with Facebook, texting, iPads, Game Boys and the Internet? The answer becomes clear: because an increase in intelligence and knowledge hasn’t materialized.
In other words, our media-savvy youth are becoming – yes – the dumbest generation. It seems the old-fashioned fuddy-duddy ways of doing things had merit after all.
Bauerlein’s concerns are that the ignorance of our young people will result in the nation sliding into apathy. I will add, do you think it’s all a giant plan? Is this plethora of electronic marvels designed specifically to distract the younger generation from developing an interest in civics or politics or history? I’m not one for conspiracies so I won’t take it that far, but it does make me wonder sometimes.
I have my own concerns. Into what kind of world will our homeschooled, literate girls be launched? Our daughters will be square pegs in round holes. Indifferent to the exploits of Hollywood dribble, unconnected with “friends” through Facebook or Twitter, deprived of cell phones (because they don’t need them) … what kind of freaks will our kids be when they leave for college?
On the other hand, because of her passion for books, our older daughter (15) was invited by our local library to submit a résumé, and she now looks forward to a summer of employment encouraging kids to love reading. Our younger daughter continues to volunteer at our county animal shelter where the director can’t get over her work ethic and enthusiasm. Both girls are getting a solid grounding in civics, history, math, science, writing, and geography – the old-fashioned way.
Whatever freaks our girls turn out to be, they won’t be dumb ones. They’ll be literate ones. If that makes them freakishly different, so be it.