Monday, August 30, 2010

"Generation Text" - or, Even in Higher Ed, Shallow Hysteria Reigns.

I was in the middle of a good Breaking Bad, and someone had to go and put something horrific in front of my face, so you might notice I'm in a foul mood.  I really hope Carlin Romano wrote this piece for the money, and doesn't actually believe that today's college and high-school age kids are "the most distracted generation in history."  Because, really, if a professor of . . . well, of anything, really, believes that Twitter constitutes a greater threat to a generation's ability to sustain interest in an entire book than did, say, pneumonia epidemics, the lack of indoor plumbing, mass migrations, two World Wars, and the Dark Ages . . . let's just say it's fitting how little responsibility the article places with instructors and administrators.

Technophobic hysteria is just as pathetic as techno-utopianism, and both are that much worse when we get our facts wrong, as Romano does when he alludes to declining book sales - they increased by 1 percent in 2008 and dropped 2 percent last year, a period in which unemployment rose by roughly 100%.  This is pretty much the opposite of apocalyptic, and shows just how big a reality gap Romano is wrestling with.  His sociology is just about as loose as his statistics, as he piggybacks on observations by Robert Darnton (and, of course, many unnamed co-conspirators) that these kids today do not have the "concentration, endurance, the ability to disconnect from other connections" required to really read books.

I'm not going to argue with this observation.  Young people today ARE a distractable, lazy, shiftless lot.  But Romano and Darnton alike make a terrible, terrible mistake when they blame this on technology, or in fact on anything other than human nature. Young people are distractable, lazy, and shiftless by nature, in general, and while I don't have the hard data ready to hand, I'd be willing to bet they've been so pretty much throughout history.  Oh, except for whenever Ramano and Darnton were growing up, since every one of their classmates went on to write at least one influential essay for Harper's.  Right?

What has changed isn't that kids are stupider. What has changed is that more people are going to college, and not all of them are inherently interested in the stuff humanities professors love to teach, and there are also more humanities professors without the drive, energy, or ability to cultivate that interest (though some of them apparently have leftover time in which to write articles and books blaming society for their failure to do their jobs).  To try and paint a picture of a society in decline based on a comparison between the average level of today's students and of those of the past would be absurd even IF those past universities really had been idyllic havens of seriousness.  Which would require that Romano and Darnton hadn't based their implicit cultural history on Dead Poet's Society.

The discipline and effort required to think in a sustained and engaged way has always and will always be hard-won.  If it weren't, there wouldn't be millenia-long traditions of mental discipline rooted across the globe, and there wouldn't be such respect, even reverence, reserved for those who master and refine them.  If it weren't, we wouldn't need either of the two European versions of the struggle for self-cultivation - if we were anything other than a bunch of foot-tapping monkeys who nonetheless aspired to greater things, neither the church nor the university would have any place.  This is the most disturbing part of Romano's little traipse: while he skillfully dances between taking a technophobic stance and merely documenting and summarizing the technophobia of others, he makes absolutely no connection between the "cultural condition" he purports to diagnose and the mission of the university and college instructors who make up his audience.  By talking about "Generation Text" so neutrally in a forum like the Chronicle,  he is helping to create them.  By cynically giving students a generational pass on caring, he's helping rob them of the sense of worldly responsibility that will (eventually, I swear it happens) turn them into adults.

Some of the greatest literature and philosophy of the last two centuries was written by people who only owned one suit of clothes, lived in squalid tenements, and/or were slowing losing their minds to syphilis.  There has never been a time in human history when we were more able to comfort and support students and scholars.  I don't personally agree with the premise that our children, is they not learning? But if I'm wrong and Romano's right - if from all of this plenty coming generations prove unable to better or match their forbears in serious engagement with art and thought - we will need to look for an explanation deeper, and likely more disturbing, than Facebook.

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