Okay, this is just one of those “ka-ching” kind of weeks when everything good seems to converge all at the same time.
Yesterday afternoon, I was honored at an awards ceremony for placing second in the English 122 Essay Contest. This is me with Dr. Lewan, the head of the English department and one of my favorite professors and mentors. She has been such a great encourager and champion of my writing since I took her online English 121 class my very first semester at ACC. She read parts of my winning essay aloud and I will post it below in its entirety for anyone who would like to read it. Along with the lovely certificate, I get $25! Yahoo! For someone who never has pocket change, $25 is a windfall! And guess where that money is going? Yep–into my walking tour of England fund.
Reading: The Key to “Critical Literacy” in the Digital Age
“Where is the wisdom we’ve lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we’ve lost in information?”
—T.S. Eliot, “The Rock”
Like a homing pigeon returning to its loft, I find myself circling back through the doors of my local library again and again. From the age of four, I have sought out the comforting companionship of books, gleaning from their open pages insights into life’s marvelous complexities. Reading has always been an integral part of my life. For me, books are so much more than just wood pulp and ink. They provide a mental lifeline, an intellectual retreat, and a continual source of knowledge that nourishes my rich, inner life and keeps my mind active, engaged, and invigorated.
Unfortunately, avid readers such as myself, are becoming an anomaly in modern society. Recent surveys conducted by the National Endowment of the Arts show that less than half of American adults read anything literary (i.e. fiction, poetry, and drama) and that “the rate of decline for the youngest adults, those aged 18 to 24 was 55 percent greater than that of the total adult population” (NEA “Literary Reading”). Even as young people are opening their minds to the vast possibilities of the Information Age, they seem to be closing their minds to the ageless wisdom available only through the medium of books. However, young adults cannot afford to neglect literature if they are to have the critical thinking skills needed to compete and be successful in the 21st century.
Dan Gioia, chairman of the NEA, believes this declining interest in “active and engaged literacy” is not only a “national crisis” but a tragedy as well (NEA “Reading at Risk”). He claims there is a causal connection between the rise in electronic media usage and the declining literacy rate among youth. “Reading a book requires a degree of active attention and engagement,” he says. “By contrast, most electronic media…make fewer demands on their audiences…[requiring] no more than passive participation…Even interactive electronic media foster shorter attention spans and accelerated gratification. To lose such intellectual capabilities…would constitute a vast cultural impoverishment” (NEA “Reading at Risk”).
Although today’s young people are able to adapt to ever-changing technologies, assimilate information quickly, and multi-task efficiently, the internet generation is in danger of losing the important “intellectual capability” of critical thinking. Today’s youth, comfortable with the seamless integration of technology in their lives, may not understand why older generations are concerned about the impending “cultural impoverishment” that threatens our society if this trend of declining literacy is not reversed. Many educators are seeing that “fast-paced lifestyles, coupled with heavy media diets of visual immediacy, beget brains misfitted to traditional modes of academic learning” (Guterl).
Chris Ransick, an English professor at Arapahoe Community College, agrees that the explosion of technology and the internet over the past twenty years has led to a rapid cycle of social change. Ransick, a passionate supporter of media literacy, says that over the years, he has noticed the steadily declining work ethic and ability to think critically among his students. He believes strongly that “you either use media or get used by it and there is no middle ground” (Ransick). The one question he asks all of his students at the beginning of each term is: What is the last book you read? For Ransick, this question is the litmus test that determines which students are educable and which ones are not.
Even though young people are adept in the area of “computer literacy,” many people question whether the rising generation, who has never known anything but the influence of technology and the mass media, will be able to acquire the critical thinking skills necessary for successful leadership in the future. As the world’s problems increase in scale and complexity, the minds of our young people are unfortunately inundated and overwhelmed by the immediate and insignificant. Distracted by a plethora of technological gadgets, glitzy advertisements, and entertainment options, our young people habitually opt for the path of least resistance.
In response to a feature article in Business Week about the lifestyle of the internet generation, a young anonymous person said, “…its great to hear people complain about how my generation…[is] too focused on technology…But honestly, what do you expect? In a world where everyone…wants the next new gizmo…you wonder why we do anything else. Why are we going to call a single person a few miles away when we can hold multiple conversations with friends all over the country? Why go shopping in a single store when we can shop in six at once?…Honestly, I don’t know if it’s a good thing or not. But technology is only going to grow, and it’s only going to get bigger. Do you expect us to resist? No, we’re moving with [the] progress of the times” (Hempel).
Indeed the lure of technology is difficult to resist, particularly for young people who, according to a study conducted by The Kaiser Family Foundation, “spend an average of six-and-a-half hours a day online” (Paulos). David McCullough, one of America’s most literate personalities, decries the fact that Americans have approximately twenty-eight hours per week to watch television but claim they have no time for reading. He laments, “The greatest of all avenues to learning—to wisdom, adventure, pleasure, insight, to understanding human nature, understanding ourselves and our world and our place in it—is in reading books…Nothing ever invented provides such sustenance, such infinite reward for time spent, as a good book” (McCullough).
Yet young people, seeking for connection, entertainment, socialization, and expression prefer to turn to electronic devices for that sustenance. “Reading is harder than watching television or playing video games” concedes writer Andrew Solomon. “It requires effort, concentration, attention. In exchange, it offers the stimulus to and the fruit of thought and feeling” (Solomon). Solomon believes that Americans would readily “exchange easier for more difficult pleasures” if they understood “that those more difficult pleasures are more rewarding” (Solomon). Because the rewards of literacy may not be as tangible or apparent as the instant gratification proffered by technology, many young people overlook, ignore, or avoid books altogether. Most do not even realize that literature is far superior to technology when it comes to meeting these basic human needs.
Nevertheless, the benefits of active and engaged literacy are real, satisfying, and long-lasting. Books offer a multi-dimensional look at humanity that technology does not. Unlike the preprocessed information available through the mass media and the internet, the concepts presented in books invite thoughtful analysis by the reader. One idea at a time, the reader makes personal connections to ideas based on the context of his or her experience. Unlike technology, books build a solid foundation of character within the reader and create a greater capacity for complex thought. During the confusing and stress-filled years of young adulthood, when monumental and life-altering decisions about career and family hang in the balance, literature can provide a foundation of principle and needed illumination for youth navigating through those turbulent years of change and growth.
If the internet generation has the perseverance and attention span to master video games and endlessly changing technology, they have the attention span and capability to develop a taste for literature. Although today’s young adults can read, they choose not to. “What is the point of having a population that can read, but doesn’t?” Solomon asks. “Readers…are active,” he says “while nonreaders…have settled into apathy. There is a basic social divide between those for whom life in an accrual of fresh experience and knowledge, and those for whom maturity is a process of mental atrophy” (Solomon).
With access to millions of books, I know that my education never has to end. I have learned that literature can always be customized to my ever-changing circumstances. Always available, portable, and economical, reading accommodates every season of life. Every time I leave the library hefting my oversize tote bag filled to the brim with books, I feel a deep sense of satisfaction, expectation, and gratitude. I am the richest woman on earth because I have ready access to information that enriches, empowers, encourages and shapes me, granting me the limitless freedom to grow and soar. The realm of inexhaustible possibilities keeps me coming back for more, week after week.
“As more Americans lose this capability [of active and engaged literacy], our nation becomes less informed, active, and independent minded. These are not qualities that a free, innovative, or productive society can afford to lose” Gioia says (NEA “Literary Reading”). In order for today’s young adults to successfully navigate the challenges of the 21st century and solve the problems of their time, they must find a way to reverse the declining literacy rate.
Clearly, technology will continue to shape our lives in unpredictable ways. The challenge of our time will be to regain the balance we have lost and find ways to reintegrate a more substantial literary focus back into our cultural landscape. If more young people would replace a few minutes of mindless web surfing with attentive reading each day, they might discover that the immeasurable impetus of ideas found only in literature may hold the key to reversing the impoverishment and malaise of their generation.
Guterl, Fred. ”The End Of The Word As We Know It; If you think kids don’t read now, wait until the visual media really take off.” Newsweek International (Sept 26, 2005): 95. General Reference Center. Gale. Arapahoe Community College. 24 Sept. 2007 <http://find.galegroup.com/itx/start.do?prodId=GRCM>.
Hempel, Jessi. “The My Space Generation.” Business Week. 12 Dec. 2005. 26 Sep. 2007 <http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/05_50/b3963001.htm>.
McCullough, David. “No Time to Read?” Perspectives on Contemporary Issues: Reading Across the Disciplines. Ed. Katherine Anne Ackley. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2006. 333-34.
National Endowment for the Arts. “Literary Reading in Dramatic Decline, According to National Endowment for the Arts Survey.” National Endowment for the Arts. 8 Jul. 2004. National Endowment for the Arts. 26 Sep. 2007 <http://www.nea.gov/news/news04/ReadingAtRisk.html>.
- – - . Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America Executive Summary. Washington D.C.: National Endowment for the Arts, 2004. 26 Sep. 2007 <http://www.nea.gov/pub/RaRExec.pdf>.
Paulos, Leah. ”Multitasking madness: are you always online, downloading music, chatting with friends, and sending text messages? If so, you’re being trapped by your own technology.(Health).” Scholastic Choices 23.1 (Sept 2007): 10(4). General Reference Center. Gale. Arapahoe Community College. 30 Sept. 2007 <http://find.galegroup.com/itx/start.do?prodId=GRCM>.
Ransick, Chris. Personal interview. 24 Sep. 2007.
Solomon, Andrew. “The Closing of the American Book.” New York Times. 10 Jul. 2004. 27 Sep. 2007 <http://www.nytimes.com/>