Thursday, September 22, 2011

"texting makes u stupid?" hardly.

Have you noticed that the new editor of Newsweek (and continued head of The Daily Beast), Tina Brown, is madly in love with Niall Ferguson? That guy gets top billing and cover teaser placement for everything he does. I, for one, don't think he's that great. And I really disagree with his article in last week's issue about how the United States is collapsing due to cellphones.

Come on, Niall! First, let's think about all of the cultural revolutions that have happened in the past year thanks to the social media available on smartphones. Isn't it remarkable what the thumbs of young adults can accomplish?

But I take more of an issue with his assumption that our society is becoming less literate simply because teenagers are no longer reading Moby Dick and Saint Augustine's Confessions (because so many 15 year-olds in the 1950s were lining up to check these out from their local libraries. Right.).

Isn't it arguably the case that we are becoming an ever-more literate, text-dependent society because our world now demands that you be able to read, navigate and respond to complicated texts where different colors, fonts, and images take you in and out of multiple documents and threads of ideas? Ferguson scoffs at the almost 50% of 18-24 year-olds who say they haven't recently read a book that wasn't for work or school. But how many of us read for pleasure in college? I certainly didn't. How many young adults 20, 30, or 40 years ago had jobs that required them to read and write for most of the day? Probably not as many as today, that's for sure. And how many of those students do read for pleasure -- just in a form that isn't hardcover-bound?

Far be it from me to discourage anyone championing the reading of classics and the importance of books to our society as a whole. And I hate it when students text during my class rather than engage with their learning environment. But I think it's a little ridiculous to scorn teenagers for finding a convenient shorthand way of communicating with each other when a regimented dictionary that determined "proper" spelling of words was only really accepted in the last 150 years or so -- long after many of the books Ferguson himself demands that we all purchase and start reading immediately.

And I think it's equally ridiculous to say that books by dead white men are the only ones worth reading (Oh, look, Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf are on your list! What admirable literary equanimity!) I agree that "children who don't read are cut off from the civilization of their ancestors." I also think that children who don't have access to stories written by people like them don't ever want to read. So while you have a national platform, how about suggesting books by some of the great writers of the 20th and 21st century, rather than giving us an eyeroll-inducing list of musty, staid titles? (I'll give him a slight pass since he is, after all, a history professor and maybe doesn't know about anything more modern than Charles Dickens.)

Stop bemoaning the world changing before you want it to, Professor Ferguson. Instead, let's embrace their love of language, even if it isn't a language we're always comfortable with navigating, and find ways to get students involved with reading by making the most of their incredible depth of knowledge and talent with all of our new and emerging literacies.

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