“Self-Criticism in the Light of Tradition”– The Missing Tool in the Net Generation

The Dumbest Generation, by Mark Bauerlein, is yet another book written about the overstated benefits of the digital age. The development of the intellect is not synonymous with the the rapid information discovery possibilities of the Internet. If anything, the new social networking tools amplify existing bad habits of adolescents, and rob them of the time to develop into informed, well-rounded citizens. It’s not that the new generation is smarter or dumber than previous ones– the problem is the overhyped equation of new technology without an automatic expansion in intelligence. Digital tools can aid the process, but the process of building the intellect is still very much a matter of engaging complex ideas in long-form texts (i.e., books).

The dumbest generation : how the digital age stupefies young Americans and jeopardizes our future (or, don't trust anyone under 30) by Mark Bauerlein The Dumbest Generation, by Mark Bauerlein

Some quotable quotes from the book:

Lengthy exposure to finer things is the best education in taste, and it’s hard to sustain it when the stuff of pop culture descends so persistently on leisure time. There is no better reprieve from the bombardment than reading a book, popular literature as well as the classics. Books afford young readers a place to slow down and reflect, to find role models, to observe their own turbulent feelings well expressed, or to discover moral convictions missing from their real situations. Habitual readers acquire a better sense of plot and character, an eye for the structure of arguments, and an ear for style, over time recognizing the aesthetic vision of adolescent fare, as precisely, adolescent.

… the cumulative, developmental nature of reading, a cognitive benefit that says that the more you read, the more you can read. Reading researchers call it the "Matthew Effect," in which those who acquire reading skills in childhood read and learn later in life at a faster pace than those who do not. They have a larger vocabulary, which means that they don’t stumble with more difficult texts, and they recognize better the pacing of stories and the form of arguments, an aptitude that doesn’t develop as effectively through other media…. As the occasions of reading diminish, reading becomes a harder task. A sinister corollary to the cognitive benefit applies: the more you don’t read, the more you can’t read.

… screen reading differs greatly from book reading. In 1997, [Jakob Nielsen] issued an alert entitled "How Users Read on the Web." The first sentence ran, "They don’t" (emphasis here and in later citations original). Only 16 percent of the subjects read text on various pages linearly, word by word and sentence by sentence. The rest scanned the pages, "picking out individual words and sentences," processing them out of sequence. The eyetracker showed users jumping around, fixating on pieces that interest them and passing over the rest. This is what the screen encourages users to do, Nielsen observes. The Web network goads users to move swiftly through one page and laterally to another if nothing catches their eye. Web designers who assume that visitors, even motivated ones, read their prose as it is written misconstrue their audience.

People seek out what they already hope to find, and they want it fast and free, with a minimum of effort. They judge what they see not on objective traits of the content delivered, the quality of language and image, but on subjective traits of familiarity and ease. The fluent passage from one site to the next often counts more than the unique features of one site and another, and the more a site seems self-contained, as with PDF files, the less users approve it. Indeed, as Nielsen stated in the 2003 alert "PDF: Unfit for Human Consumption," the more Web pages look like book pages, the less people read them. A big, linear text lacking ordinary navigation features, a PDF strikes users as a "content blob," and anybody motivated to read it usually prints it to paper first. In general, the content encountered and habits practiced online foster one kind of literacy, the kind that accelerates communication, homogenizes diction and style, and answers set questions with information bits. It does not favor the acquisition of knowledge, distinctive speech and prose, or the capacity to reason in long sequential units. It does not cultivate the capacity to comprehend dense texts such as a legal contract or a logical proof or an Elizabethan sonnet. In fact, hard texts irritate young people, for they’ve spent years clicking away from big blocks of prose and thick arguments, and losing the freedom to do so (say, in a classroom) doesn’t stir them to think harder and read more closely. Forming reading and thought patterns through screens prepares individuals for only part of the communications demands of the twenty-first century, the information-retrieval and consumer-behavior parts. The abilities to concentrate upon a single, recondite text, to manage ambiguities and ironies, to track an inductive proof … screen reading hampers them.

… in every decade labors an army of lesser intellectuals– teachers, journalists, curators, librarians, bookstore managers, diplomats, pundits, amateur historians and collectors, etc., whose work rises or falls on the liberal arts knowledge they bring to it. They don’t electrify the world with breakthrough notions. They create neighborhood reading programs for kids, teach eighth-graders about abolition, run county historical societies, cover city council meetings, and host author events. Few of them achieve fame, but they sustain the base forensic that keeps intellectual activity alive across the institutions that train generations to come.

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