Fog of Post-literacy

Thomas Bertonneau, a literature professor, discusses how students are writing.

In the 1980s, he said, it was obvious when the students hadn’t read. But, he also said, they used “competent language.” Then reading was ubiquitous; now it is rare.

In the main, however, students used competent language. They completed their sentences in grammar not too defective, and they deployed vocabulary more or less at an adult level. And in those days one still saw students actually reading books, even if they were not the books assigned in their classes. I recall a moment when it seemed that every frat-boy on campus was lugging around the paperback of The World According to Garp. (I don’t know why.)

As inexplicable as the Garp enthusiasm was, it stands out in contrast with the situation today. Reading is no longer a casual activity for students, and there appears to be a correlation between the dominant student attitude to reading and the level of student competence in writing.

Adults know what propels the descent: proliferating electronic media, video games, an ideologically inspired de-emphasis of rigorous learning at all levels of education, and a pervasive attitude of entitlement that students now absorb into their deficient souls the way babies drink nourishment from a mother’s breast. Flashing lights and three-minute “rap” songs stultify cognitive development. MTV, that bastion of the youth audience, nowadays specializes less in the music video than in the “reality show,” with its endless, formless palaver among “twenty-somethings” confined in a house.

It is a fascinating article. He asks students to list the last ten books they have read. Nowadays the list is blank.

What a scary thought.

He quotes from some of his students papers and discusses them in his second essay on the topic.

The answer is that written language, including orthography, makes little or no impression on a large percentage of students because these students are, in fact, operating with oral mental habits rather than literate ones. Many students no longer bother even so much as to press the Spell-check button before printing off a paper. This points, once again, to a failure of the K-12 phase of education to inculcate basic intellectual habits or even basic bourgeois attentiveness in these students. Many a critic has complained that the supervisors of K-12 nationwide have long since deemphasized rigorous literacy training in favor of unstructured oral “expression” and mediated visual demonstration. Not spelling a word correctly when the word is before one’s very eyes is, I would argue, a non-trivial error suggestive of a profound alteration of the mental state away from literacy.

As the daughter of a recent massive stroke victim, his third article caught my attention immediately.

Some writing specialists excuse bad writing on the hopeful supposition that a gap exists between cognition and expression—similar to the way a stroke victim can have a complex thought, but cannot properly verbalize it. That is, students who write badly nevertheless know what they want to say, or what they have read, as well as anyone else. I have concluded that no evidence supports this postulate. Having no other means to discern cognition than through its expression, one must take as a given that expression is cognition.

Defective writing, unlike the stroke victim’s aphasia, reveals more than mere awkwardness of expression; it reveals the confusions that becloud both the act of reading and the subsequent attempt at a mental sorting out of the narrative. The individual who cannot see things clearly cannot think about them clearly. Likewise those who cannot make sense of stories, which represent cause and effect in the human world, will have difficulty making sense of the actual human world, to which stories refer.

It is worse than grammatical errors and factual misunderstanding. It is, he says, an inability to deal with the world.

The world soon to be dominated by such people (their world is already rapidly consolidating itself around us) will be awkward and ham-fisted; it will respond slowly and in all likelihood badly to the complicated problems that will impose their contingency on it. Petulance will characterize it universally: people who find it hard to think straight or to sort out complexities will balk at doing so and become adept at finding reasons for ignoring urgent social, moral, and political challenges.

…I think I would enjoy his survey of literature course, though it sounds far more rigorous than anything I had outside of graduate school.

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