reading, thinking & Caleb Crain

I don’t often envy my friend Matt his Harvard education, except for on days like today.  After skimming through my RSS feeds and finding not one, not two, but three links to the same New Yorker article – I remembered why occasionally I think Harvard wouldn’t have sucked.  Because Matt went to school with Caleb Crain.

And if you want to know why, just read Caleb Crain’s latest article in the New Yorker – Twilight of the books: What will life be like if people stop reading?

I’ve read enough apocalyptic, end-of-knowledge type discussions of how the kids today, they just don’t read that as soon as I hear there’s another article on the topic I get twitchy.  And since the NEH report (To Read or Not to Read) hit the airwaves the number of simplistic mass media treatments of the topic have about made me crazy.  When I read this morning on Cliopatria that Caleb Crain had written about reading my spirits — they noticeably lifted.  Noticeably!

And he doesn’t disappoint –

He considers history.  So many critics worry so much about losing the habits of now that they forget that the now is a relatively short blip on the epistemological radar screen.  While the ideas of text, of authority, or single authorship hold a lot of power over us now it wasn’t that long ago that that’s just not how we knew things. 

"Taking the long view, it’s not the neglect of reading that has to be
explained but the fact that we read at all."

I just can’t take criticism seriously, no matter how serious it is, when it has no historical perspective.  And those who don’t recognize that ideas like the author’s voice, or even intellectual property itself are historically and culturally situated — no matter how insightful or intelligent their criticism is, I can’t treat it as such.  While I do think that we have something to lose if we stop reading, if we stop arguing, and if we stop communicating as we do now – I don’t necessarily think that we also have nothing to gain if those things go away. 

History is change – but the changes are the result of real people making real choices and at any point things could go a lot of ways.  Now isn’t inherently better than then, and tomorrow won’t be inherently better than now.  Just as a step away from now isn’t a step away from progress, the right path, the best way.  I don’t know what it is that we might gain, but I do know that we just don’t know.

Looking at Walter Ong and especially Maryanne Wolf, Crain looks seriously at what we knew pre-reading – how those brains differed from our post-reading brains.  When he says that if the movement away from reading continues in our culture "the world will feel different, even to those who still read" you believe that by "different," he means "different" — not "way worse OMG".  Western reading, western epistemology aren’t just the result of some inevitable progressive march towards perfection – it’s what happened, it’s not what obviously had to happen.  And that means if it changes, then the impact of those changes aren’t inherently good or inherently bad – they just are.

Which isn’t to say that they’re value-neutral or that there’s nothing there to value.  But this kind of examination is a necessary first step to any real, meaningful reflection on what it is we might want to preserve about what is.  What we might want to fight for.  Because we can’t pull out the act of reading itself and assign it inherent value and bemoan its lack — it’s not the number of words or pages that we read that we need to think about – it’s something else.  In higher ed, a lot of the people I know have come to call it "critical reading" — by which I think they’re getting at our students’ ability (or inability) to learn from what they read. 

Citing Wolf, Crain talks about how fluent readers have enough free brain time while they are reading — during the process of reading — that they can think about what they read.  They can reflect, synthesize, anaylze, criticize and evaluate. 

"The efficient reading brain, quite literally has more
time to think."

– and –

"The secret at the heart of reading, is "the
time it
frees for the brain to have thoughts deeper than those that came
before."

This resonates because I think we’ve all felt sometimes that some of our students are so focused on the act of reading that they forget about the thinking.  Or worse, that they’ve never really been taught that thinking is part of the process.  One of my colleagues in graduate school used to tell her students that "you can’t read without a pen in your hand."  Reading with thinking is an interactive process – the reader and writer both engaged, both creating, both thinking.   That’s the piece that we want to preserve — or to create — students who can engage with a text and learn from it.  That’s far more important than their page counts.

Crain talks at length, in part because Wolf talks at length, about television and other visual media.  The overarching theme is that exposure to visual media threatens out ability to think, to understand.  We lose grade levels if we watch too much tv.  But even here, Crain’s treatment shows that the picture is more complex than "tv makes us dumber."  Some tv for younger children is good, Sesame Street raises grade levels, older teens can’t watch much without damage…

When I read these types of arguments I wonder a couple of things.  One relates to what I was talking about above – is it really fair to use the ability to read and engage with text as our only or primary measure of the impact of our students’ engagement with visual media?  Or is that focusing on what’s lost, without considering what might be gained?  Beyond this, but still connected, is the idea of creativity.  Does it change the equation if our students are engaging with media interactively, if they are creating, if they are thinking while they do it.  Is there a media fluency that can free the brain up to think and read and consider and analyze and evaluate?  I don’t think that all kids today are doing this, because I’m not crazy.  But I’d love to see someone examine the question of is there a difference – is there a difference between people actively engaged in the creative production on visual media and those who only consume?

Anyway, read this – pass it along – this is the kind of smart, complex criticism we need to really think about how we can help our students learn today.  Reifying the past without criticism means we won’t get there – articles like this one make me think we can.

Note: Karen Munro points out another good article on the reading question.

3 thoughts on “reading, thinking & Caleb Crain

  1. Linear, progressive views of history still seem very pervasive, perhaps especially in narratives about how bad things are now. The implication is that people are somehow regressing, risking the loss of “progress,” never mind that that progress is supposed to have been inevitable or “already written” somehow. In the end, this way of seeing history ends up being fairly conservative regardless of its “progressiveness.”

  2. Interesting question of whether older adults START reading more (have more time, retired, etc) – or – whether older adults read more now because they used to read more as children.

    But this is the part I worry about: Crain says “According to the Department of Education, between 1992 and 2003 the average adult’s skill in reading prose slipped one point on a five-hundred-point scale, and the proportion who were proficient—capable of such tasks as “comparing viewpoints in two editorials”—declined from fifteen per cent to thirteen.”

    and this is exactly what I am about to ask my students in a university class on argumentation to do — read editorials and compare the viewpoints and respond. No wonder they have such a hard time with it.

    Having grown up in a house with the New Yorker and no TV may make me not representative of my generation and certainly quite a bit unlike my West coast MUCH YOUNGER students in terms of thinking about and reading about ideas.

    Thanks for your good insights on this!

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