Willful Illiteracy and Teaching Anyway

You might think, on reading the headline, that today’s blog posting might have something to do with the down-and-outs in society, but it doesn’t, except tangentially.

No, today’s posting is about perfectly normal, ordinary — often, quite bright — up-and-comers, who are quite competent, but don’t read, and don’t want to read.

Now, it’s not that they would have any trouble with these words on the screen.

Their spelling might be inconsistent and occasionally stretched far beyond acceptable levels of error, but they have mastered reading. However, sitting and reading thoughtful articles — or serious magazines or books — isn’t something they do.

Robert X. Cringely, the pseudonym of the technology observer who blogged as “I, Cringely” on the PBS web site, took time in 2008 to speak to the shifting field of education as it is assaulted by multi-tasking grazers who are masters of search: the students.

Fundamentally our curricula are built, still, around reading once we get above a certain grade: typically, as elementary school ends (Grade 5-6), students are expected to read texts and supplemental materials, and to work in the milieu that was made possible within the first twenty years after Gutenberg: a milieu filled with books.

Teaching, in turn, turned into a book-centred experience, reading from them when copies were scarce, and assigning them directly to be read when copies were plentiful.

Slowly the older model, of the professor as one who “professes” his (and it was almost always a “he”) current research as a series of lectures, was pushed aside in favour of a repeated curriculum year after year: the divorce of teaching from research or, if you like, of education from learning.

That last statement may be surprising, so let me take a moment to explain it.

Before the Renaissance, such few people as were schooled — almost always, in a school attached to a church for the purposes of handling the early stages of development of the priestly and monkish cadres — were quickly taken up to the limits of knowledge and worked, once the basics of grammar, logic and numeracy — the old Trivium — were internalised, on the frontiers of knowledge.

These were the learnèd.

At the time of the Renaissance, coupled with the greater availability of books and the establishment of more and larger schools for more than just the needs of the Church, the concept of teaching to educate came about.

But education is always back from the edge of knowledge: it takes time to agree on a curriculum, prepare texts, etc.

The divorce between what an educated man (or woman) knows and what a learnèd one knows — seen today in the gap between those who break ground and those who fill in around the edges of knowledge — was born and quickly widened, so much so, in point of fact, that Western society, as education became more common, forgot things it knew and had, several centuries later, to learn them again, all because they couldn’t be found in old Classical works.

(See the out-of-print but very worthwhile Might of the West by Lawrence R. Brown for more on this — and some deep surprises!)

What Cringely discussed is the impact of the millennial generation’s — and the next generation of children’s — approach to learning.

For it is an approach to learning, not to being educated.

All the standardised testing, school ranking, provincial curricula, and the like that is the apparatus of the last gasp of the educational establishment (and the older generation of voters who have elected politicians promising to “bring order to the schools”) is merely the flare-out of a culture based around teaching through reading.

We are returning to a culture of learning through doing — and having the tools to “look up” facts and quotes as needed rather than reading to remember them.

If this is true in schooling — and the rapid rise of home-schooling, alternative schools, and the like, along with the apparent rise in the number of “gifted” children — then so, too, it is becoming true in the workplace.

It is not by accident that procedures are starting to appear written at Grade 3 levels, or issued as comic books (as has been done in Japan for many years to deal with problems of literacy in a society of ideographic language).

These are not meant to be read, but to be “glanced at” for a quick reminder.

In essence, the procedure is never learned, but taken in afresh as each new situation appears.

The new generation knows what their predecessors had forgotten: reality never repeats exactly as before; every process cycle is similar to, but not the same as, its predecessor, and, when dealing with people, barely repeatable processes are the order of the day.

To make this work — for the pace of our world in 2012 is far faster than that of monks and priests doing scholarly and scientific work in a scriptorum in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries! — technology (as Cringely notes) is brought into play, and, with it, the “multi-tasking” instant messaging, music listening, video watching, blog reading, twittering, searching and scanning young person of today.

Becoming “productive” in this sort of sensorial assault zone is more difficult the more of a reader you are.

Being productive in this type of high-input world is easier the less you read and the more you take the world in scraps and dribbles.

It produces — and thought occurs in — a very different mind-set and world-view, as Canadian intelligence analyst, psychologist and foreign and military affairs expert W. R. Clement noted in Quantum Jump over a decade ago.

Back to schools: I have twice in the past taught a Philosopher’s Café for 10-12 year olds. In it, I require no pre-reading of texts, nor do I generally read from them.

I tell the great story of philosophy using its stories: one need not read Plato aloud (the language is archaic even in a modern translation) to communicate the imagery of the Cave sequence in The Republic, or the trial and death of Socrates; nor need one quote from Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Nietzsche and the rest — I need only pose their questions.

Rather, we do philosophy together.

My students in the past have, without prompting, figured out the classical arguments and elements of Plato’s Theory of Forms and the rebuttals to it, the cosmological arguments for the existence of God and their counter-arguments, and are vibrant at dealing with real issues (allocation of health-care resources, for instance).

They may not, in other words, read much philosophy, but they are quite good thinkers.

This suggests to me that asking for ever-more accountability, costing, and testing in schools, or layering one bit of social engineering on top of another to deal with one societal problem after another, is a mug’s game that is doomed to fail.

Instead, we need much more of our classroom time to be praxis — practical work, even if it is the practice of thinking and arguing (rhetoric and reasoning, natural language logic and the like).

These will be the tools of the generation that works, in real time, to deal with the barely repeatable, the both/and (rather than the either/or thinking of the past four centuries), the blended and the nuanced — these, and the open communications lines these young people build between themselves.

It will be an much more oral culture again, even if some of that voice looks like GR8 C U L8R on a cellphone.

The reality is that unless each one, in his or her own time, acquires the spark of reading for pleasure, they will not be book- or text-centred.

They are willfully illiterate (in the term of the age of the book).

The question is: will we allow the world to change positively, or force new wine into old bottles — and, by doing so, break them?

One last point, from a community-building point of view. The traditional model for “teaching the young” was to pair them with the old. (The parental generation was busy.)

Done well, with imagination, we might turn this from a feeling of losing something important, to gaining something instead.

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