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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.
- 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.
- 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?)
- 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).
Every week, I help high schoolers with their research projects. I watch them take the assignment, type its prompt questions exactly into Google, and then copy-paste the answer from the search result preview box into their slideshow/paper/spreadsheet. They evince no awareness of whether the text they are plagiarizing is thematically compatible with what they have already copied, or even whether it is grammatically consistent with the previously stolen sentence. On those rare occasions when it does dawn on them that what is in the box may not be what they need, they look at me like I’ve started speaking Welsh when I actually click through to follow a link to a website, or try to explain to them how they can skim through that page to find a relevant section by looking for keywords (precisely the job they use Google to do for them). The moment we leave that preview box, they are utterly lost.
I know why they are, too, because every week I sit in meetings with teachers talking about how “everything is on the Internet now” and “anything they need to know they can just look up on Google,” and why, in consequence, we need to shift our focus from teaching them “mere” facts to focusing on “critical thinking skills” and the ability to “evaluate sources”. The trouble is that, as Carl Hendrick has recently written in an essay that absolutely everyone in education should be forced to read with their eyelids peeled back, decades of psychological research has shown that there are no such things as generic “critical thinking skills” abstracted from subject-specific knowledge contexts. Cognitive abilities developed in one domain or in one activity do not automatically translate into other areas. Champions of Pi memorization competitions are no better at memorizing long strings of letters than a random person on the street.
The further trouble is that the “evaluation of sources” depends ultimately on being able to judge claims against prior background knowledge. Our present focus on source evaluation is, ironically, being rapidly rendered obsolete by the same digital information culture that prompted it in the first place, as the widening availability of ever more sophisticated tools in both desktop publishing and web design makes it increasingly easy to imitate the appearance of professional sources. Thus, we are pushing students with less and less facts at their disposal to trust more and more in traditional indicators of source reliability at the very same time that we are witnessing a massive proliferation of so-called “predatory publishers“. These academic scams work by convincing trained scholars that they are legitimate sources, and thus persuading them to submit papers and to pay for open access publication. What is more, these sources are increasingly showing up as citations in legitimate research (they are open access, after all), threatening the integrity of the whole academic chain. How do they eventually get found out? A specialist in the field perceives discrepancies in their facts, which my fact-starved students could never hope to notice.
Simply put, we are producing an entire generation powerless to detect rapidly proliferating academic fraud and “fake news”, and arming them only with extensive training in general cognitive and critical thinking skills that our research shows do not actually exist.
On the purely quantitative level of the sciences, there can be said to be such a thing as “progress”. We are, collectively, more knowledgeable about the processes of the material world and more skilled at the manipulation of our physical environment than any generation to precede us (and, not coincidentally, more in danger of catastrophic environmental failure than any generation to precede us). In the qualitative realms of the humanities, however, human nature is enduring and the limits of its reconfiguration are narrow. In education, as in politics or philosophy, there are changing fashions, but nothing truly to be known that was not known a thousand years ago. The best preparation for our students in this rapidly shifting age of Google is still classical—a foundation of many years’ training in grammar (which to the ancients meant not just the rules of language, but the raw facts that formed the basis of understanding in any field). This, as cultures from first century Gaul to fifteenth century Mesoamerica recognized, is an indispensable preparation for the critical discipline of logic that engages new data to solve new problems, as well as for the subtle art of rhetoric that unmasks fallacies and sophistry.
To so many progressive educators of the past hundred years, the nineteenth century’s drone of Windsor-knotted elementary schoolers reciting Latin conjugations seemed little more than the bleating of imperial sheep. Thinking to free such pupils from their pen, the reformers pulled out their sledgehammers and knocked out the posts. I can’t help but feel, though, as I watch my high schoolers in the computer lab today, that what the progressives thought was Pink Floyd’s wall was actually Chesterton’s fence.