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February 18, 2010


[II] Literacy Lost

This is the second in a series of articles from the John William Pope Center about the challenges confronting teachers and school systems.  I plan to post the final one tomorrow.

The question I am pondering is . . . what are the implications and what are the solutions or strategies in regards to church and the propagation of the Christian faith?

I’d like to note that I tentatively disagree with some of the conclusions of Ong’s about an oral society.  And I quite strongly disagree with Postman’s notions that a combination of technical inventions and a media culture have “made” people an oral and post-literate people.  I rather think that our education system has so far far far far fallen downwards into the abyss of meaninglessness and incompetence and dysfunction that our children are no longer able to keep up with “new things.”  Now—other educated people of other generations were able to keep up with “new things.”  The printing press was more of an utter transformation, in my opinion, than the computer [ponder that idea for a while].  But the point is that if we spend time—in our current education system—“educating” kids about technology, then we lose on all the other things.  Because our system is so completely woeful and it is so ineffective and ponderous.  We are educating them on things that don’t matter at all, to the neglect of basic things like reading and reason and abstract thinking.  And we don’t even let them have time for an hour of recess—like I had—in which to run around and work off all of my ADD and autism and aspergers and obesity and violence and all the other things that our children now suddenly have. 

With those disagreements noted, Bertonneau’s main point is noted and I heartily agree.

There is much more where the below came from:

Neil Postman recognized that hierarchy. In book after book, Postman celebrated the high level of literacy that persisted in American society right through World War Two, but which entered into a steep and accelerating decline in the second half of the century. The singular title, Amusing Ourselves to Death, with its reference to fatal insouciance, already tells much about its author’s thesis in the mid-1980s, which becomes more prescient and unavoidable with every year. It is that the mass media, the forms of “entertainment culture,” even though they are the invention of literates, sapped literacy from their inception, infantilizing the culture, obliterating custom and tradition, and depriving people of history and ideas.

Postman minces no words: “A great metaphor shift has taken place in America, with the result that the content of much of our public discourse has become dangerous nonsense.” To what “shift” does Postman refer?  He refers to the shift from a “typographic culture,” in which “discourse [is] generally coherent, serious and rational”—to a media culture, dominated by television, in which discourse “has become shriveled and absurd.” Postman’s “typographic culture” is the high literate culture that characterized American civic life in the nineteenth century and that corresponded to what Postman calls the “typographic mind.”

Postman adduces the Lincoln-Douglas debates to indicate the forms of attention of which fully literate people are capable.  He reminds us that these debates, seven in number, were all-day affairs; that the debaters either read from prepared remarks or extemporized on the basis of extensive notes.  They took notes in order to reply to one another.

Although many other things were going on in the debating locales—a carnival-like atmosphere accompanied the main event—most people attended in order to listen to the candidates and evaluate the merits of their contending positions.

The audiences of 1858 could do this largely because their learning was book learning, which inculcates patience and promotes the ability to correlate parts and wholes whether in narrative or argument.  As the professorial conversation alluded to at the beginning of this essay indicates, contemporary college students reject books and disdain reading.  Postman notes that reading imposes radical requirements, some of which are bodily requirements. Thus, to read, one must “remain more or less immobile for a fairly long time.” Of course, “you must also have learned to pay no attention to the shapes of the letters on the page,” but rather “you must see through them… so that you can go directly to the meanings of the words they form.”  Finally, “you are required to assume an attitude of detachment and objectivity.” 

I am not saying that today’s representative college student absolutely cannot do these things; I am saying that he wishes not to and that his disinclination stems from the fact that reading and writing are for him noticeably alien and difficult. His learning is not book learning. He resembles an oral person, as described by Ong. Subordinate clauses, consequentiality, and logical analysis—these things arouse his suspicion and hostility. 

What has made him this way?


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