Thursday, January 19, 2012

Reading & Writing Will Go . . . Wonderful! 1

Are we headed to a world where reading and writing will fade as unimportant skills?  Some say yes and some say that this is good!
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It has been quite apparent for some time now that the literacy rate in the world is on the decline. Walk into any school district and the teachers and administrators would probably agree. It is getting increasingly more difficult to get students to pick up a pen, paper, or book. And the number of spelling and grammar mistakes found in emails and letters sent from adults is becoming embarrassing. While few would argue this point, some may require proof. So, with little difficulty, we found the following statistics: According to, 
The NAAL (National Assessment of Adult Literacy) administered tests which revealed that an estimated 14% of US residents would have extreme difficulty with reading and written comprehension. These people can legally be defined as illiterate. states that “More than 20 percent of adults read at or below a fifth-grade level - far below the level needed to earn a living wage.” says “One child in four grows up not knowing how to read.” And says that Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America reports that
...while all demographic groups showed declines in literary reading between 1982 and 2002, the survey shows some are dropping more rapidly than others. The overall rate of decline has accelerated from 5 to 14 percent since 1992. 
Some may say this is staggering. Some may say it is scary. Some may think this is a tragedy or abhorrent. We say this is wonderful!

We are sure that this statement has drawn some strong reactions from our readers. Some probably are confused. Some may be angry. Some may be disgusted. Some are probably so offended that they don’t want to continue reading. All we ask are two things. First, that everyone hears us out and reads the full article with an open mind before drawing any conclusions. Second, that before you begin, you answer a few simple questions very honestly.

Question 1: How many jobs can you come up with where reading and/or writing are essential; NOT including any job that is related to being an author, editor, or publisher? This means that if you did not know how to read and write, you would NOT be able to perform the job. Please keep in mind that something like needing to read emails does NOT count as being essential, because even though people may not want to, there are other options like phone calls and video chat.

Question 2: How many books do you believe the average person read in the past year, which was NOT for work or school?

Question 3: How often do you think the average person reads; not counting when you are on a bus, train, or plane, going to the bathroom, or when you are trying to go to sleep? We exclude these scenarios because these are situations when we are confined with few other options for entertainment. So basically what we’re asking is how often do people choose reading over other forms of entertainment?

Question 4: If you do not read as much as you would like to, why don’t you? Now please keep all of your answers in mind as you continue reading and we will revisit them.

A Historical View of Reading & Writing
We would like to begin our argument by asking one more simple question; why are we so scared of a world without reading and writing? This is the first thing we realized when we began researching this topic. It seems as though everyone, even people who are illiterate or just don’t want to read and write, is scared to death of the notion of a future without reading and writing. Why is this? If we talked about a world without any other type of technology people would not be scared, but intrigued. A world without cars? Cool! A world without food? Really? How would that work? A world without reading and writing? No! Never!

But why is this? It wasn’t always like this. Actually, half a century ago it was the exact opposite. In the 1500s, there were many people who did not feel that reading or writing is all it is cracked up to be. For the first hundred years after the printing press came out (1450-1550) many people objected to those who were trying to learn from books. As Elizabeth Eisenstein reminds us in her book, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe,
The idea of observing natural phenomena directly and carefully was, of course, as old as Aristotle. So too was a distrust of book learning. Ironically, the slogan of the empiricists - that one should use one's own eyes and trust nature, not books - derived from an experience which printing outmoded. Classical authors had warned against trusting hand-copied books and especially hand-copied pictures for the excellent reason that they degenerated over time (218)
However, while printing did stop the texts and pictures in books from “degenerating” over time, it did not stop people from still believing that people should learn from nature and NOT books. So even though the texts were no longer degenerating, many people were still against book learning. Still people preached, 
Sell your lands. . . burn your books. . .buy yourself stout shoes. . . travel to the mountains, search the valleys, the deserts, the shores of the sea, and the deepest depressions of the earth; . . .In thus way and no other you will arrive at a knowledge of things and their properties (Eisenstein, 217) 
Now, 500 years into the future, we have the technology to see, communicate, and experience the world without having to read or buy “stout shoes.” All we need to do is utilize the Internet where we have such wonderful inventions as Google Earth and Skype. Yet walk into any school and they are not pushing these tools, they are pushing learning from reading and writing. For example, earlier this year the The New York Times published an article about how teachers and parents in Idaho are fighting a state legislature which pushes the use of technology in their schools. Why are they against this initiative? Are they against technology? According the ones interviewed, they are not against technology. They actually claim they are for it. The reasons they give for fighting this legislature is that they,
 ...feel policy makers are thrusting computers into classrooms without their input or proper training. And some say they are opposed to shifting money to online classes and other teaching methods whose benefits remain unproven. 
If only their students could hear them. What happened to taking some initiative? What happened to putting in some effort? What happened to learning on one's own? Or do these lessons only apply to the students? And as for not wanting to take chances on methods that are not yet proven, exactly what are we trying to prove? If they are expecting the use of these new devices to improve reading and writing scores on the state test, they are not going to have much luck. 

However, what they will improve is a lot more important. After all, Which would get you to learn better? Reading about other countries half way across the world or using Google Earth and Skype to not only view these countries but communicate with people from there? In addition to this, these devices will also improve the most important aspect to the future success of all students; their technology literacy. And if we do wait for these all important test results to roll in before deciding to use these devices in the classroom, these devices will become outdated and irrelevant. 

Oh! One last thing. For those people who think that this article is unimportant because this is just one state; even the author of the article admits that this is "a tension that is especially visible in Idaho but is playing out across the country." 

And while Eisenstein points out that classic authors cautioned us against trusting hand copied books, their opinions didn’t change much after the printing press either. Many classical authors of the 17th century, well after printing corrected this degeneration, still wrote about the inadequacies of language. Take Jonathan Swift and Lawrence Stern for example.

In Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, when Gulliver is visiting Lagado, he narrates that one project they were working on was,
...a scheme for entirely abolishing all words whatsoever; and this was urged as a great advantage in point of health, as well as brevity. For it is plain, that every word we speak is, in some degree, a diminution of our lunge by corrosion, and, consequently, contributes to the shortening of our lives. An expedient was therefore offered. 'that since words are only names for things, it would be more convenient for all men to carry about them such things as were necessary to express a particular business they are to discourse on (Kindle Edition, loc. 2348)
This is something that is rarely brought up when discussing the advantages or disadvantages of reading and writing. Even those that think that reading and writing are crucial must admit that it takes too much time. We are guessing that when you answered question 4 (why don’t you read as much as you would like to?) at the beginning of this blog, most people responded “a lack of time.” This is, after all, the prime reason why those who enjoy reading and writing do NOT do it very often. However, If we were to watch a video to learn something rather than learning from reading, or record ourselves dictating something rather than writing it, the time it takes to finish is only a fraction of what it would have been. Yes, we know that there are people in the world who are capable of reading something faster than they can watch a video on it or listen to someone explain it. But, honestly, how many people in the world, today, are able to do this? It is a dying art. And the suggestions we are making in this article are based on conclusions we have drawn from observing the majority of the population, not the minority. And for the majority of the population, time is the largest downside to reading and writing.

The ironic part about time being the largest downside to reading and writing is that, as Kevin Kelly points out in his book, What Technology Wants
Language accelerates learning and creation by permitting communication and coordination. A new idea can be spread quickly if someone can explain it and communicate it to others before they have to discover it themselves. 
This was the main advantage to humans learning how to read and write in the first place. It was the fastest way for people to share their ideas with others on the other side of the world; write a letter and send it to them. Eisenstein reminds us that,
...academic lectures were sometimes supplemented by drawing pictures on walls; verbal instructions to apprentices were accompanied by demonstrations; the use of blocks and boards, fingers and knuckles were common in teaching reckoning; gestures usually went with the recitation of key mnemonics. Nevertheless, when seeking rapid duplication of a given set of instructions, words simply had to take precedence over other forms of communication. (Eisenstein, 42)
Why? If there were so many other important ways of communicating besides writing, why did writing take over as the primary method of communication? Was it because it is superior to the others? No. In fact it is inferior to the others. It took over as the primary means of communication simply because it was absolutely impossible back then for these other methods of communication to be shared with people on the other side of the planet. Back in the 1500s, how do you share a lecture or a sermon with someone hundreds or thousands of miles away? How do you share verbal instructions, gestures, or facial expressions? You don’t. . . because you can’t. But that was hundreds of years ago. With, radio, phones, video, and the Internet, this is no longer the case. Yet, for some reason, we are still clinging to the methods of our ancestors.

According to Gulliver, there was only one downside to the Lagado project. He states,
However, many of the most learned and wise adhere to the new scheme of expressing themselves by things; which has only this inconvenience attending it, that if a man's business be very great, and of various kinds, he must be obliged, in proportion, to carry a greater bundle of things upon his back, unless he can afford one or two strong servants to attend him. (Swift, Kindle Edition, loc. 2355) 
But this is also no longer the case. With everyone carrying around smart phones with video capabilities, it would be very easy to show a picture of anything you wished to talk about. Don't get us wrong. We are not suggesting that the Lagado project is the ideal solution. Even with this, there are some limitations; especially when dealing with some of the more abstract ideas. After all, how  difficult and time consuming would it be  to show such concepts as "frustration" and "contentment" using the Lagado project? That being said, getting across these difficult concepts isn't necessarily any easier using language, especially written language.

Gulliver points this out when he mentions another limitation of language which the Lagado project seems to solve. He states,
Another great advantage proposed by this invention was, that it would serve as a universal language, to be understood in all civilised nations, whose goods and utensils are generally of the same kind, or nearly resembling, so that their uses might easily be comprehended. (Swift, Kindle Edition, loc. 2362)
The language barrier issue is a limitation well recognized and documented throughout history. In fact, Eisenstein reminds us that George Sarton calls the “printed image” the “savior” of Western science, not the “printed word.” Why? Because science has the capability or “transcending language barriers.” Science has the means of doing this because 
...mathematical and pictorial statements conveyed identical messages to virtuosi and scientific correspondents in all lands without need for translation. (Eisenstein, 101)
Years later Kevin Kelly mentions another person who talked about language barriers. Not long after the telephone was commercialized in the 1890s, John J. Carty, AT&T’s chief engineer, prophesied,
Someday we will build up a world telephone system, making necessary to all peoples the use of a common language or common understanding of languages, which will join all the people of the Earth into one brotherhood.
And later in the same book Kelly, himself, writes that
The uniformity of a standard writing system (like an alphabet or script) unleashes the unexpected diversity of literature. Without uniform rules, every word has to be made up, so communication is localized, inefficient, and thwarted. But with a uniform language, sufficient communication transpires in large circles so that a novel word, phrase, or idea can be appreciated, caught, and disseminated. The rigidity of an alphabet has done more to enable creativity than any unhinged brain-storming exercise ever invented.

While we agree with Kelly, the thing he fails to mention is that there are still so many different languages all over the world. So if we look globally, it is almost as though our communication is 
"localized, inefficient, and thwarted.” This, in short, is one of the problems with reading and writing. However, this is not necessarily the case with videos. Watching videos is almost like living in the world the Gulliver describes. While we realize that when Swift writes about the Lagado project, he is not being serious; one has to admit that this would eliminate any problems a language barrier may cause. Or at the very least make it much less of a problem than with plain old reading and writing. Even if we do not understand the language, we can still get the gist of what is going on through hand motions and facial expressions.

However, do not be so foolish as to believe that the only problem with language is the language barrier. There are problems even among people who speak the same language. Eisenstein at one point quotes Cassirer who once said, 
Revelation by words are always. . . ambiguous. . . Their meaning must always be given them by man (303) 
How true this is. How many times have you been listening to someone speak, who you KNOW is speaking the same language as you, and yet you don’t understand the words that are coming out?

Another classic author who wrote about the inadequacies of language was Lawrence Stern. In one part of his book, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Tristram Shandy, the narrator, is trying to describe the most beautiful woman he has ever seen for the reader. Unfortunately, he finds this impossible due to the limitations of language. He writes:
To conceive this right, - - call for pen and ink - - here's paper ready to your hand. - - Sit down, Sir, paint her to your own mind - - as like your mistress as you can - - as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you - - 'tis all one to me - - please but your own fancy in it.            (blank page) 
 -- Was ever any thing in Nature so sweet! - - so exquisite!
      - - Then, dear Sir, how could my uncle Toby resist it? Thrice happy book! Thou wilt have one page, at least, within thy covers, which Malice will not blacken, and which Ignorance cannot misrepresent (Stern, Kindle Edition, loc.7570)

There are two things worth pointing out here that show the limitations of language. One is the fact that the narrator is asking the reader to describe the woman. This is because he knows that, as Cassirer stated, “words are always. . . ambiguous.” Shandy does not want to risk describing the woman himself and having his readers misinterpret him. Two, Shandy wants the reader to draw a picture of the woman, rather than writing a description. This is because everyone knows that a picture is worth a thousand words. Henry Petroski reminds us of this in his book, The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance, when he writes:
While Gesner's appears to be the first illustration of a modern pencil, it is not the very first reference to one. In 1564, a year before Gesner's book was published, Johann Mathesius wrote of a then new discovery for writing: 'remember. . . how one used to write with silverpoint. . . and now one writes on paper with a new unrefined mineral.' But this unspecific reference falls far short of the thousand words needed to equal Gesner's picture, and so neither it nor its author is remembered the way Gesner's illustration is. (Petroski, Kindle Edition, loc. 725)
No matter whether or not you believe reading and writing are important, or whether or not you believe it will eventually go away, you must admit that it is strange that early on in the history of printed books people seemed to be much more against reading and the written language than now. While many may argue that all new technologies are received that way; please keep in mind that for at least 200-300 years after the printing press, the view of the mass public towards books did not really change. People realized their importance, but also the vast amounts of limitations as well. Why is this? 

We will answer this question and continue this discussion in part 2 of this article.

We include a short video that seems to grasp some of the things spoken of in this article.  If you cannot see the embedded video, here is the link:

1 comment:

Kandace Brown said...

I love some of these book pictures! Where did you find them?