The Thinking 
Housewife
 

More on the Post-literate Society

February 6, 2010

 

THOMAS F. BERTONNEAU takes up where he left off in his recent essay on the decline of literacy. He writes that “contemporary college students reject books and disdain reading:”       bigstockphoto_Red_flower_6588759[1]

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 [Walter] Ong. Subordinate clauses, consequentiality, and logical analysis—these things arouse his suspicion and hostility.  

Hostility, not mere indifference, is the appropriate term. Unfortunately for many students, the written word is the basis of all higher education.

Bertonneau writes:

Students deprived of a genuinely literate education fall back by default into a kind of orality. But these same students, bombarded by a steady stream of wordless images, also exhibit the symptoms of what one might call language-less-ness. Their orality thus qualifies as less than a full or intact orality. They are neither fully literate nor fully oral. They are mutely image-oriented, as [Jacques] Ellul describes that condition.

This stultification affects student cognition in areas outside the realm of the written text. My previous article addressed whether college students are, as some claim, image-culture keen. I suggested that students make sense of serious movies only about as well as they make sense of novels and non-fiction arguments—that is to say, poorly. In an essay to follow this one, I will detail my attempt, in a “popular culture” course, to jolt students out of their image-dominated mental passivity and provoke them to take an interest in the subtlety and freedom of vaudeville, music hall, and classic English-language film.

            – Comments –

Jake Jacobsen writes:

I have to wonder how much of this phenomenon is driven by the fact that far too many people are attending institutions of higher drinking these days. I am a fairly high IQ individual who opted to work in a blue collar field (hospitality – started as a dishwasher ended as a chef) because, to be perfectly honest, school bored me and I enjoyed the sheer physicality of kitchen work and as I moved up through the ranks and began to work in more high end joints I was able to flex my mental muscles more when my job duties began to include menu planning and such.

My question would be this: fifty years ago how many of these people would have attended college? So have the students/the people changed or has the situation changed? I have a feeling that the primary change here is the number of people attending who shouldn’t be, not a drop in student quality.

I’m a Big fan of the blog so keep up the great work!

Laura writes:

Thank you! 

Obviously many people attend college who wouldn’t go in an earlier age. However, if you talk to college professors who have worked at the same institutions teaching the same type of students for more than 20 years, you will find they are almost unanimous in the observation that there has been a significant downturn in literacy, writing ability and attention span. Institutions that were selective in the past, and still are selective, cannot get by today without writing centers where students receive assistance with reading and writing. One reason why the SAT writing test was inaugurated was the sense of a widespread crisis in writing and thinking abilities. In addition to Bertonneau, people such as Mark Bauerlien, a professor at Emory University and author of The Dumbest Generation, and Patrick Allit, a history professor and author of I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student, have documented this trend. 

I wish we could say this was all just hand-wringing. It seems to be a real phenomenon, even reflected in the relatively small number of young people who read newspapers. The idea that they have merely switched to equally challenging texts on the Internet doesn’t appear to be true. 

The more money spent on schooling in general – from kindergarten through college – the stupider the American population seems to get. Basic literacy as measured by the Adult Literacy Survey was 96 percent for whites in 1940 and 80 percent for blacks. In 2000, it was 83 percent for whites and 60 percent for blacks. 

It costs a hell of a lot to produce a population that can’t think. I have to laugh when people tell me we can no longer afford the traditional family. Here we are spending a massive portion of our economic output on institutions that are essentially glorified day care and busywork.  The family, even more than the university, is the best institution ever invented by man for safeguarding the life of the mind.

Jake writes:

That is very scary. I do recall reading an article or book a couple of decades ago detailing just how comprehensive the ‘little red schoolhouse’ education was compared the modern one and I guess after covering illegal immigration for years I’m always a little touchy when people suggest negative things about Americans i.e. “Jobs Americans Won’t Do!”

Laura writes:

You’re right to be skeptical of this talk of dumbing down. Academics and intellectuals do tend to dream of a paradise on earth where everyone is reading the classics for fun. Such a thing is not possible, but America once knew much higher levels of comprehension of the written word. As Neil Postman pointed out in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death,  think of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which were intellectually challenging all-day affairs. Schools have gone along with this downward slide in comprehension instead of resisting it and holding on to high standards. They would have to turn away and flunk many students if they did keep those standards.

Thomas Bertonneau writes:

Jake Jacobsen writes: “I have to wonder how much of this phenomenon is driven by the fact that far too many people are attending institutions of higher drinking these days. I am a fairly high IQ individual who opted to work in a blue collar field (hospitality – started as a dishwasher ended as a chef) because, to be perfectly honest, school bored me and I enjoyed the sheer physicality of kitchen work and as I moved up through the ranks and began to work in more high end joints I was able to flex my mental muscles more when my job duties began to include menu planning and such.” 

A good deal of what I observe and report probably has something to do with the fact that contemporary state universities and similar institutions admit many, many students who are not really prepared for college, are not really interested in the subject-matter, and who would do better apprenticing in a profession. But Laura Wood is right when she says that even the elite schools now have remedial programs. (They had them already at UCLA twenty-five years ago when I began my graduate studies; but they were heavily politicized and, in my opinion, simply fixed the students in their marginal achievement, which radical theory actually valorized as “authentic.” Incidentally, Mark Bauerlein, whose book Laura mentions, was my office-mate for several semesters when I was a teaching fellow in English.) What alarms me is that the stultified literacy that I remark seems to have leapt across the frontier from those who go to college because “that’s what everyone else is doing” to those who “really want to be there.” 

Jacobsen asks, “Fifty years ago how many of these people would have attended college?” 

I answer with another, somewhat different question: How many high-school graduates from fifty or seventy-five years ago could read at a level far beyond that of the typical undergraduate of today? If my parents and grandparents, none of whom went to college, suggest an answer, that answer is – quite a few! 

I offer my thanks to all who have taken the time to read my article.

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