Wednesday, January 14, 2004

The Literacy Project

People tell me they have no time to read, what with the demands of work and family. I can readily sympathize with that. I’m well aware that my own very peculiar style of life, partly chosen, partly enforced by circumstances, gives me far more time to study the world than those who, to use the inevitable expression, have a life. On the other hand, Americans, who are said to be inordinately busy, nevertheless make enough time to spend several hours a day watching television.

As the lately late Neil Postman used to say, whatever Americans are, watching television is what they do. And whatever the entertainment value of this experience, it is a lousy substitute for literacy if the object is to understand what’s going on. For that, not even Cable suffices. One requires PaperView. Indeed, several research efforts have demonstrated that television news actually makes its viewers more ignorant. The more hours of exposure to the cheesy mix of entertainment and propaganda that is television news, the less one actually knows. But I don’t think that these stultifying effects result solely from the intentions of the corporations to deceive and cheat, although thinking of Fox or NBC as being in the information business is like thinking of Frito-Lay as being in the nutrition business. The root of the problem is that the medium itself, though admittedly a good way to discover how things look, is an extremely inefficient way to convey what they mean. As demonstrated by almost any PBS talkfest, thought and video are largely immiscible. The sauce always breaks. Much as there is no negation in dreams, there are no ideas on the tube. But these observations are not widely disputed. Everybody has nice things to say about reading. There is, however, a qualitative as well as a quantitative literacy deficit. Grown up Americans don’t read grown up books.

As the ancient psychology had it, one is intelligent by contact with the intelligible. Unfortunately, the opposite also obtains. The stupid stultifies, while serious prose is a prosthetic that temporarily augments our normally feeble mental powers. It is an unremarkable aspect of the natural history of our species that a small caste does the thinking for the others, much as the queen does all the egg laying in the hive; but it is very important that the higher workers don’t shirk their responsibility to process serious ideas on a regular basis.

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