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Critical Thinking and the Persistent Story

In my last post, I discussed some of the reasons that I think we have probably passed the point of “peak literacy” in the regions formerly known as the Western world. This drew a very thoughtful response from my good friend and colleague Christopher Cocchiarella at Mindful Media Musing. In that post, he does an excellent job of describing in more detail the various levels of functional literacy and of collecting the statistics to show that shockingly low percentages of the US population exceed “basic” and “intermediate”. In identifying why he feels this is such a problem, however, he makes what I think is an interesting association, writing that “If we don’t have individuals with mathematical knowledge, creative reading and writing skills, critical thinking habits, etc., then we won’t have functioning businesses, governments, or communities.”

My first instinct is to object that, for most of human history, most of the human population lacked “creative reading and writing skills”, while building and maintaining businesses, governments, and communities that functioned as well, and often better, than ours. The Aztecs, for instance (while possessing a kind of mnemonic symbology) lacked a true writing system, which did not prevent them from articulating a theological and philosophical system as sophisticated as those found anywhere else in the world, governing most of central Mexico efficiently for over two centuries, or cultivating the arts with a magnificently rich tradition of theatre and poetry, generated from extensive musical conservatories in flourishing cities like Texcoco, which were themselves adorned with stone temples carefully aligned to the stars and served by sanitation systems the likes of which Europe would not equal until some four centuries after the fall of Tenochtitlan. The Incans lacked any kind of writing system altogether, and yet maintained an effective bureaucracy across hundreds of miles of the world’s most impassable terrain, fitted masonry with a precision unduplicated by any modern tools short of laser cutting, and performed successful brain surgery.

Writing, then, appears to be an adornment of higher culture, and not a prerequisite for it. Equally as astonishing as the number of places in which sophisticated civilizations have arisen in its entire absence, are the number of cases in which a writing system was developed, but used only for receipts, property markers, and/or divination for centuries. The runes were used for such purposes in Scandinavia for hundreds of years without giving rise to any body of written literature as we understand it. The same is true of the ogham in Ireland. Even societies which developed writing, then, often perceived it to be of no real advantage to them beyond a small number of tasks that fall squarely within the province of “basic” functional literacy. There are a variety of interesting reasons societies might take this view, and without rehearsing them all here I will refer you, dear reader, to an interesting analysis of Plato’s criticism of the art of writing as a nuisance to society.

One could certainly object to the historical examples I have given on the basis that the society we live in is much larger in scale than the ones mentioned, and dependent on more complex technical processes for its maintenance. One could even, perhaps, riposte Plato on the grounds that modern communications technology ends around some of his objections (as the author of Apartment 46, in fact, attempts to do). What is harder to do is to formulate a basis for the claim, more often assumed than repeated in modern discourse, that advanced reading and writing skills are a concomitant of “critical thinking habits”, or other important cognitive skills. Whether or not our society places greater demands on societal communication and coordination than those placed on the Aztecs or the runic Norse, there simply aren’t higher levels of critical thinking or cognitive ability to be achieved than those at which they had already arrived; the deepest thinkers among them were already operating at peak human capacity in this regard.

There appears to me, then, to be no positive correlation between literacy, functional or otherwise, and the cognitive skills we undoubtedly wish to see developed in our students and citizens. It does appear to me, however, that there may be several negative ones. Plato has already covered the issue of the atrophy of memory (which, as those familiar with the medieval ars memoria will recognize, has implications much deeper than simply impairing information recall), as well as the growing superficiality of the society’s understanding of what constitutes knowledge (as the category itself becomes truncated to what is transmissible as text). A point which Plato does not touch upon, however, but which is highly relevant to our society, is information overload.

I pass you for a moment, dear reader, to the American journalist Albert Nock, writing in 1934:

I spent some time last year in Portugal, where the status of literacy and the conditions of the book-market are about what they were in Mr. Jefferson’s America. One saw very little “popular literature” on sale, but an astonishingly large assortment of the better kind. I made my observations at the right moment, apparently, because, like all good modern republicans, the Portuguese have lately become infected with Mr. Jefferson’s ideas about literacy, and are trying to have everybody taught to read and write; and it interested me to see that they are setting about this quite in our own incurious, hand-over-head fashion, without betraying the faintest notion that anything like a natural law may be a factor in the situation.

What is this “natural law” to which Mr. Nock alludes? It is a form of Gresham’s Law, which essentially states that if two different transactional commodities are established as having the same de jure value, then the one possessing greater de facto value will disappear from circulation—i.e. “bad money drives out good”. Nock’s insight was that this occurs with cultural commodities as well:

The development of the gramophone and the radio has encouraged the notion that by keeping a great deal of poor music in circulation one creates a larger demand for good music and helps a taste for good music to prevail. But we are discovering that things do not go that way; and the reason is that a “natural law” is moving them in a direction exactly opposite.

In precisely the same way, the expansion of literacy to a large portion of the population has flooded our literary markets with low-value consumer output designed to satiate the most basic of demands at the most profitable price with the highest possible product turnover. This was true even when literacy rates were still relatively low; Cervantes’ Don Quixote is a scathing indictment of the incipient beginnings of this “popular literature” at the beginning of the modern period, and any seventeenth-century romance Cervantes had at hand to criticize would be found a literary masterpiece when examined next to Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey.

This, of course, is not to say that great works of literature have not been produced over the last four hundred years; they certainly have. It is to suggest that they have been a small fraction of the overall output, but it is even more to point out that, from The Epic of Gilgamesh to The Little Prince, we now have some six thousand years of enduring masterpieces amounting to vastly more literature than any human being could hope to read in a lifetime, and yet we continue to produce more than 2.2 million new books every year. The result is that the canon of great literature is diluted to a smaller and smaller fraction of available printed material and is significantly less promoted by publishers than untested new titles with higher profit margins. Vast and priceless portions of the cultural heritage of humanity never manage to fight their way through this torrent to get into our young (and old) readers’ hands.

The resulting problem, however, is not simply that my students are reading The Hunger Games instead of the The Tale of Genji. The problem is that they are reading The Hunger Games instead of reading Anne of Green Gables for a second time. Through most of history, most people were exposed to a relatively small number of stories repeatedly throughout their lives. The same stories from Scripture, the same folk tales, the same traditional ballads would be returned to, in varying forms (from books, to tellings by the fire, to dramatic performances, to depictions in stained glass), many thousands of times through the course of an individual’s life, perpetually revisited in light of new experiences, new stages of personal growth, and new understandings of the world. It was this persistent engagement with stories that became deeply internalized (*pauses for quick nod to Plato on the importance of memory*) that produced real growth in understanding and what we now call “critical thinking”. Cursory acquaintance with large numbers of stories visited once, or even twice, only to be discarded in favor of some new release does not achieve this same end.

Thus we fall victim, as a society, to a kind of “literacy inflation”, in which the overall value of the skill of reading decreases as it is extended to more and more people, both because the skill is less rare in purely economic terms, but more importantly because its democratization gives rise to an industry of cheap mass-produced literature that crowds more substantive offerings out of the marketplace and inhibits re-exposure to time-tested material, thus decreasing the actual value both of the reading and of what is being read. At the heart of our educational system, in English classrooms where curricula are now designed around whatever YA titles the big publishing houses are pushing that year, we have created the literary equivalent of a food desert, and begging our children to read by stuffing them full of whatever drivel they are willing to consume has put us in the position of a mother so desperate to get a fussy toddler to eat anything at all that she lets Twinkies pass for dinner. Mindless escapism does not cease to be escapism just because we print it on a page instead of projecting it on a screen.

There is tremendous value in reading, but it is value which, today as in all prior ages, only a minority are really willing or able to capitalize upon. For the majority of our students, and of the population as a whole, “basic” and “intermediate” functional literacy suffice for their purposes, and the attempt to raise their level further, whether by simple coercion or by pablum incentive, probably does more harm than good. If we are interested in seeing them develop real critical thinking skills and real gains in cognitive ability, let us stop forcing their noses back down into mostly second-rate books and instead find ways to get them out into nature, to get them out onto a worksite, or just to get them out into the marketplace, interacting with real people in real situations. If the learning to be done in those settings was good enough for Aztec poets and Incan brain surgeons, I dare say it is good enough for most of us.

Peak Literacy

I was recently invited to interview for a gig answering questions via live chat for fifty cents a minute. What struck me about this was that I was contacted in my capacity as a scholar of world religions and, indeed, my interview included me responding to a number of prompts such as “What caused the Sunni/Shiite split?” Who, I wondered, is paying something, perhaps, on the order of a dollar a minute to ask these kinds of questions? I could see spending that money to ask a medical professional if your problem warrants seeing a doctor (who will charge you much more), or a legal professional if you should involve an attorney (who will also charge you much more) in your case. This would be prudent fact finding. I could also see the independently wealthy and idly curious taking a moment at a bus stop to ask things like “What makes storm clouds so dark?” or “Who invented windshield wipers?” but nobody idly wonders about Islamic history at bus stops—at least, nobody who isn’t the kind of person you would be interviewing to be on the answering end of such a service anyway.

The answer to my idle wondering, I figured, is probably students—students getting way too much money at college from mommy and daddy and having been sent there with a tragic deficit in functional literacy. I described these students at high school in my last post, utterly dependent on a search engine to answer a question for them, and ultimately unable to determine for themselves if the answer they have received is even relevant. The collapse of functional literacy had been an anecdotal observation on my part; here, in this interview, was somebody whose market research had suggested it would be an enduring business opportunity.

I don’t wish to be misunderstood. Basic literacy—the ability to decode letters for their sounds and determine what word is represented—will probably remain at the 99+% mark in the “first world” for many, many years to come. Functional literacy is something deeper—the ability to really understand what you have read, to parse the argument an author is making, to relate its constituent parts to your own pre-existing knowledge, to rework the ideas offered in light of your own reasoning and respond to them effectively. Basic literacy is about whether you know what words have been written; functional literacy is about whether you understand why they have been written, and can give an informed opinion about whether they could, or should, be written differently.

It is this skill that my high schoolers lack, and that some portion of the users of this new app apparently lack as well. All of which prompted me to wonder, have we passed the point of peak literacy? Will this skill ever return to the broadly distributed societal levels we saw between the late 19th century and the two World Wars? There are a few reasons that I think the answer may well be no.

  1. Outsourcing and Automation of Intellectual LaborBroad-based literacy is a necessity of societies where large amounts of intellectual labor have to be performed by significant swathes of the population. By this I don’t just mean classically “thinking professions”, but demanding intellectual tasks more broadly. With the advent of industrialization came a need for ordinary people to routinely consult timetables, for example, which were novel in a society where most people had formerly approximated times of day based on the position of the sun. The displacement of huge numbers of people from the countryside to the societies in an age before the telephone prompted a massive surge in letter writing (most modern postal systems come from this time) and also led, in conjunction with the expansion of business interests  to a level of international operations never before achieved on such a scale, to the development of modern mass media news services, which informed people in the country as to the happenings in the cities their relatives had gone to, and people in the cities as to what was happening in the colonies that their businesses depended on. Many more examples could show how processing large volumes of written information in a variety of forms became a task repeated, on large scales and small, by ordinary people dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of times per day.

    What networked computer systems have done is to automate and outsource a large number of these processes. An app on your phone spits your train’s departure time out when you speak into it. There is no longer a need for you to consult or decode the whole timetable. News aggregators sift reams of newspapers to bring the narrow selection of things you are interested in. Consequently, you no longer skim the same diversity of information trying to find what you want. Computers now do much of the information sorting and retrieval that the ordinary person’s brain was once taxed for.

  2. The Growth of MultimediaJamaica’s literacy rate is still below 90%, despite nearly a century of determined government efforts to increase it. Why? Because the government’s literacy program had extremely unfortunate timing, pushing a predominately oral culture to become literate at the very same moment that the radio was introduced. Once upon a time, in villages all over the island, the one literate person in town would go out into the square on a Saturday morning and read the paper to everyone. Suddenly, in the 1920s and 1930s, the radio put a designated reader in homes all over the island. the incentive to read did not disappear, but it was greatly reduced.

    Those of you who are hip to what the kids are up to these days may have noticed that the blogging of the 1990s and 2000s has been slowly giving way to “vlogging”, with YouTube becoming a place of conversation and exchange of ideas through extended self-recorded discourses on various topics. It has to be remembered that, like the Jamaica of a century ago, all cultures were once purely oral cultures, and remained predominately oral for most of history. That is a natural condition of human society, and where the technology (broadly conceived) of that society permits the continuation of orality, it will remain in that condition. The advent of multimedia recording significantly decreased incentives to read and write (consider how the telephone impacted letter writing, and the phonograph destroyed a formerly widespread capacity to read music). The advent of easy capture and transmission of those recordings has simply intensified this process.

    What about texting? someone will surely exclaim. The kids still do that, don’t they? Yes, yes they do, but it is a format that works in short bursts of information and is primarily engaged in the discussion of correspondingly simple ideas (like most social media… think Twitter). Hence, it does not significantly engage abilities to follow extended arguments or to analyze complex textual structures or forms, which are skills essential to the kind of functional literacy that makes long-form articles, essays, and books accessible to a reader. (Besides, dear questioner, have you ever actually tried to read a text from someone under 30?)

  3. Slipping Educational StandardsSome months back I heard a roundtable discussion on public education reform on NPR, with one guest making a very important point. He noted that the best-performing schools in America by a variety of metrics are private. These vary wildly from one another in pedagogical philosophy, construction of curriculum, location, ethnic and socioeconomic composition of the student body, training and remuneration of teachers, and a thousand other factors, but they have one significant thing in common—they conceive a primary facet of their mission as weeding students out. This sounds horrific to most contemporary people used to the inclusive ideology of the public school system, but even public schools for much of their history viewed it as part of their job to determine when a given student had reached the limit of their academic potential and would be better served by being moved out into some kind of apprenticeship or other opportunity. It was quite common before the Wars for a student to graduate what we now call middle school and take “working papers” to get a job instead of going on to high school. There were certainly sad cases of economic necessity forcing bright and promising students to do this, but it was more often an outlet for kids who didn’t like school and weren’t accomplishing much by being there anyway to go get real-world experience and build a sense of dignity and self-worth making their own way in life, instead of developing the neurotic behaviors of caged animals in some classroom parsing the structure of Shakespearean sonnets. (It is worth noting that not all states even had compulsory education laws until 1918, and that the Supreme Court determined in 1972 that Amish children could not be subjected to compulsory education laws past the eighth grade.)

    This began to change significantly after the Second World War, when a new emphasis was placed on mass mobilization in education as a means of softening the blow of mass demobilization of millions of fighting men. The GED was created to enable many of them, who had not graduated high school, to take an equivalency, and the idea quickly spread that high school graduation (or equivalency) should be universal. This idea, intersecting with social justice movements focused on access for previously excluded populations (beginning with the campaign for school desegregation) fundamentally altered perceptions of the purpose of the school system―a reform reaching its crescendo with the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (now known in a revised form as the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act) originally passed in 1975, which made special education programs mandatory and, in the process, ensconced the principle among educators that their mission was to ensure the ability of all students to remain engaged in the system as long as possible. The mission of a school was thus transformed from sifting students to determine their abilities and potential suitability for various kinds of vocation to ensuring that no one ever fails—an idea now so dominant that it actually named the centerpiece education bill of the last thirty years, No Child Left Behind.

    Once again, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to anything in education. These changes have enabled the participation of many students who had been wrongly excluded and who have greatly benefited from their inclusion. Nonetheless, this basic shift in educational philosophy, undertaken with a totalizing lack of nuance, has demonstrably eroded the standards of public education, to the point that it is now a truism that our high school graduates could not pass the eighth grade exit examinations once taken by those “drop-outs” (who did not so think of themselves and were not so stigmatized at the time) who once took working papers and left the system. It is this change in conceptualizing the mission of our schools that permits my functionally illiterate high schoolers to continue to matriculate grade after grade and ultimately receive a diploma (and which, incidentally, makes that diploma so worthless as a guarantee of ability that students wishing to go on to jobs that used to require only a high school education now have to plunge themselves into tens of thousands of dollars of debt to obtain a college degree).

A successful reinvigoration of functional literacy in our society would thus require either a social revolution in education or the collapse of much of our modern technological infrastructure (neither of which is especially likely to happen without the other). Conversely, both the success of experiments in universal basic income (on the social side) or the development of true artificial intelligence (on the technological side) would guarantee its permanent waning. In that case, H.G. Wells will have proved remarkably prescient in a book that no one will read anymore (I said, linking to a YouTube clip from the 1960 film).