Friday, February 01, 2008

Reading Really IS Fundamental

A recent article in The New Yorker, "Twilight of the Books" by Caleb Crain, added yet another lamentation concerning the decline of reading in western culture, and America in particular.

Even though I am an English teacher, I get tired of these jeremiads by the chicken littles who say the cultural sky is falling. The statistics (and the above article cites many--too many) seem to be irrefutable: people aren't reading as much as they used to read. But the question I always ask myself is, "Why does that matter?" We know that IQs have been rising pretty much all through the 20th century--the proof has been given the name the Flynn Effect (as outlined eloquently in a recent Malcolm Gladwell article).

So people are getting smarter, right? Well, as Gladwell points out, we have become more abstract in our thinking, and the IQ tests examine this type of abstract thinking. So we may not be getting smarter, we may just be getting better at abstract thinking. But as our culture becomes less literate, the Flynn Effect might reverse as we become less able to recognize patterns. This pattern recognition is what has led us to the IQ gains and to our modern, abstract way of thinking--a way of thinking that seems to be, more and more, the only way of thinking that allows for personal success.

Thus, abstract (modern) thinking seems to derive from literacy, so, to answer my question posed earlier, literacy is very important for the habits of mind it creates--the ability to reason. The Crain article cites a great example of the difference between literate and illiterate thinking:
It’s difficult to prove that oral and literate people think differently[....] But some supporting evidence came to hand in 1974, when Aleksandr R. Luria, a Soviet psychologist, published a study based on interviews conducted in the nineteen-thirties with illiterate and newly literate peasants in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Luria found that illiterates had a “graphic-functional” way of thinking that seemed to vanish as they were schooled. In naming colors, for example, literate people said “dark blue” or “light yellow,” but illiterates used metaphorical names like “liver,” “peach,” “decayed teeth,” and “cotton in bloom.” Literates saw optical illusions; illiterates sometimes didn’t. Experimenters showed peasants drawings of a hammer, a saw, an axe, and a log and then asked them to choose the three items that were similar. Illiterates resisted, saying that all the items were useful. If pressed, they considered throwing out the hammer; the situation of chopping wood seemed more cogent to them than any conceptual category. One peasant, informed that someone had grouped the three tools together, discarding the log, replied, “Whoever told you that must have been crazy,” and another suggested, “Probably he’s got a lot of firewood.” One frustrated experimenter showed a picture of three adults and a child and declared, “Now, clearly the child doesn’t belong in this group,” only to have a peasant answer: "Oh, but the boy must stay with the others! All three of them are working, you see, and if they have to keep running out to fetch things, they’ll never get the job done, but the boy can do the running for them."

Literacy allows people another way of seeing--the ability to be metacognitive, to think about thinking. This ability is not necessarily a better one, not necessarily a smarter one, but it certainly is an increasingly useful one in our modern world.

More importantly for our society, a literate mindset seems to be the only one that would allow for the debate a democracy requires. As a researcher concluded after synthesizing existing research on the "oral mind-set":
Whereas literates can rotate concepts in their minds abstractly, orals embed their thoughts in stories. According to Ong, the best way to preserve ideas in the absence of writing is to “think memorable thoughts,” whose zing insures their transmission. In an oral culture, cliché and stereotype are valued, as accumulations of wisdom, and analysis is frowned upon, for putting those accumulations at risk. There’s no such concept as plagiarism, and redundancy is an asset that helps an audience follow a complex argument. Opponents in struggle are more memorable than calm and abstract investigations, so bards revel in name-calling and in “enthusiastic description of physical violence.” Since there’s no way to erase a mistake invisibly, as one may in writing, speakers tend not to correct themselves at all. Words have their present meanings but no older ones, and if the past seems to tell a story with values different from current ones, it is either forgotten or silently adjusted. As the scholars Jack Goody and Ian Watt observed, it is only in a literate culture that the past’s inconsistencies have to be accounted for, a process that encourages skepticism and forces history to diverge from myth.

It seems that just the widespread ability to read might have been the catalyst that dragged us hominids out of the dark ages. It now seems that the declining ability to read might be what is plunging us back into them.

Read the entire article here.


Robert Archer said...

I'm all for that reading thing, certainly, but haven't IQ tests been debunked? Whether they are ethnically or socially or economically biased, or they are testing only good test-taking skills, are these the best bases for making argumentative points about reading?

Eric said...

Click on the link to the Gladwell article I included in my post. Certain claims about what IQ measures have certainly been debunked. What is in dispute is what, exactly, it measures, and the Flynn Effect seems to point to the fact that, among other things, it measures modern, abstract thinking. Read the article...I think you'll enjoy it.

Mleinoly said...

"The Alphabet vs. The Goddess" by Shlain.

This book is written by a brain surgeon who likes to do cultural anthropology in his spare time. ...makes me feel like a slacker, but it's an excellent book about culture and literacy.