Thursday, July 26, 2012

Literacy Grows People
Children must earn adulthood by becoming both literate and well-mannered.
(p 88) The Disappearance of Childhood by Neil Postman 

…C. H. Waddington has hypothesized that “one component of human evolution and the capacity for choice is the ability of the human child to accept on authority from elders the criteria for right and wrong.” Without such assurances children find it difficult to be hopeful or courageous or disciplined. If it is hypocrisy to hide from the child the “facts” of adult violence and moral ineptitude, it is nonetheless wise to do so. Surely, hypocrisy in the cause of strengthening child growth is no vice.
 (p 93)

 Literacy Grows People

I’m eager to tell you: It’s been a life-changer to read Neil Postman’s The Disappearance of Childhood. I feel (he said in a stunned voice): “Wow.”

I’ve been fond of Postman ever since I did a book report for college, back when my world was young and idealistic, on Teaching As a Subversive Activity (written with Charles Weingartner). Postman will always be best known for his books about TV, such as Amusing Ourselves to Death and (with Steve Powers) How To Watch TV News. Of course these books deserve their fame. Yet just as an art-house movie can be better and more memorable for you than a famous mainstream movie, can even become almost your favorite film, (Tree of Life) even though you just can’t recommend that film to strangers, so too is The Disappearance of Childhood my favorite of Postman’s work, although it’s one of his less known books. It’s Postman’s favorite too, as he notes in the forward to the new Vintage edition.

Obscure, and perhaps too bookish: I don’t even know who Postman’s readers will be. From what I can see, even smart computer nerds seem to prefer their computer forums, such as reddit, to be just like TV: Valuing variety over complexity, quick emotions over depth, and with a pronounced distaste for anything lengthy. One Internet lady wrote with heated annoyance that if you couldn’t make your point in 200 words then you shouldn’t bother writing at all. (I guess she’s not one of my fans)

Postman needn’t apologize to nerds, although his thesis, step-by-step, chapter-by-chapter, requires more than a page each to cover things like: the long history of non-childhood; the super-swift spread of the “printing press with movable type;” the character-building effect on the reader of literacy; how childhood is a relatively recent social construct, we made it up; how childhood as we know it arose alongside printing; and, finally, the US cultural decline of the concept of childhood and innocence alongside the ascent of TV. That’s a lot of pages. Just now, trying to keep this essay closer to 200 words, I am focusing not on childhood but on literacy… Although I’ve posted two quotes as prologue to get you started on thinking about children.

Although lately, as shown in my essays, I’ve been grasping how TV is “bad,” especially TV “news,” suddenly a new light bulb has turned on: Thanks to Postman, now I grasp how literacy is “good.” More: From Postman, my new theory is that literacy is an achievement, and that adulthood is an achievement, and that literacy is a key to mature adulthood, as we have known it. (Although my favorite brother-in-law is both adult and less-literate)

It seems to me that in those dynamic Greek forums the citizens supported democracy as they gathered to talk, but the true sinews of power for their forums came from a populace who would go home alone to read and to reason. How seriously the Greeks took citizenship could be seen by their term “idiot” meaning one who could neither swim nor read.

I remember when “new, exciting” video computers first appeared, being used for teaching and gaming and TV, and a few people speculated that the skill of reading might one day become as rare as playing music. However—and this is serious—none of them speculated that literacy had an effect on the body politic: on people’s character. Considering how even the nerds among us don’t get it, I’m feeling glum. Considering the consequences, I’m aghast.

Oh well, I may be walking around in a dark cloud but there’s a silver lining: At least I have a clue for the solution of a mystery. In one of the recent nonfiction best sellers, —It was either by the Freakonamics guys or Malcolm Gladwell— he had tracked how TV came to America in bits, with certain regions getting TV broadcasting earlier than others. He tracked the crime rates in these same regions. He was baffled, considering that children only watch kiddies shows, not ones on crime or violence, baffled at how those earlier regions suffered an earlier rise in the crime rate. Today I am wondering if those kids had a less innocent, more cynical childhood, followed by a less literate adulthood. Our ancestors, in their traditional oral society would of course communicate, but literacy means something upstairs, beyond plain communication.

Reading Postman (p. 76-77) I thought of strange far away young males in our war on terror: “When one learns to read, one learns a peculiar way of behaving in which physical immobility is only one feature. Self-restraint is a challenge not only to the body but to the mind as well…. In reading, one must wait to get the answer, wait to reach the conclusion. And while waiting, one is obliged to evaluate the validity of the sentences, or at least know when and under what conditions to suspend critical judgment… The literate person must learn to be reflective and analytical, patient and assertive, always poised, after due consideration, to say no to a text. This mode of behavior is difficult for the young to learn… the young reader is expected at first only to paraphrase, not criticize.”

 According to Postman, (p 101) “When the United States Constitution was written, James Madison and his colleagues assumed that mature citizenship necessarily implied a fairly high level of literacy and its concomitant analytic skills. For this reason the young, commonly defined as those under twenty-one, were excluded from the electoral process because it was further assumed that the achievement of sophisticated literacy required training over a long period of time… As Tocqueville tells us, the politics of America was the politics of the printed page.”

You may think that in a month or so, with second thoughts, I will have reached a calmer, more critical balance… I hope so, but just now, under Postman’s spell, and wondering if literacy builds character, I am feeling dark and thunderous. I see TV as images without language, without abstractions, and without a sense of time. I see “moving pictures” which don’t allow any pause to reflect. I sense the futility of any “TV-now-time” liberal trying to direct our foreign policy and our savage peace making without having first woven together a personal philosophy of history. I envision the horror of Nineteen Eighty-Four replaced by the horror of Brave New World, censorship replaced by the “soma” of electronics. Later I will be calmer, of course, but just now I am trying on this new clothing, look at every mirror, trying to imagine if an entire society can suffer from a reliance on image over abstract language.

As regards society, I suppose people intent on politics are especially sensitive. Earlier this month, a backroom party worker and syndicated columnist, Warren Kinsella, wrote that image, emotion, has become more important than words. The hook for his column, which he must have been thinking about for some time, was about Bev Oda, the Member of Parliament we all loved to hate. Finally she’s been turfed. It seems her fate wasn’t just from the public contemplating her incredibly stupid and selfish actions, but was mostly from a single image of her dressed in black, looking sinister, sneaking a cigarette. Kinsella wrote, “Print folks —the ones who like to pour their souls into writing newspapers and magazines, the ones who craft profound essays for blogs, the ones who toil in government offices and conjure up grand speeches— like to believe that words matter still. But, mostly, they don’t.” To this, all I can say is “Ouch!” and “Too true.” What’s happened to us?

I guess James Madison’s time has passed. Judging by the prevalence of electronic screens, Americans now prefer not to think. Last summer, when a nearby library was having a one-dollar sale, I overheard two young ladies in high heels. As a blonde reached for a fantasy her brunette friend asked, “Are you going to look at these science fiction books?” “No! I don’t want to think!” …As God is my witness, I never would have thought to see, in my lifetime, the fantasy books at the big box bookstore, formerly a minority to be mixed in with, and outnumbered by, the science fiction books… now having their own separate gargantuan fantasy section, ignoring the withered little row of sf books. While hoping it is somehow coincidence, I am finding those two book sections awfully symbolic.

Often I despair. As documented in A Time to Start Thinking (A book I announced in my America Descending essay of June 2012) when it comes to US federal politics the experts have concluded, and I suppose Kinsella would agree, “to explain is to lose.” And so “they” spout labels and slogans. I ask you: How much more unthinking could the American people be? When Postman discusses screens versus literacy he never comes out and says “post-literate age,” but I think this term describes our timid new world. Longing for lush language, I am traveling across the desert, “a stranger and afraid, in a world I never made.” Las Vegas initially looks attractive, with bright images of moving neon, but in the end, it is surrounded by desert.

… “And what is the use of a book,” Alice thinks “without pictures or conversations?” Lewis Carrol is making the obvious point that the pictorial and narrative mode is of a lower order of complexity and maturity than the expository. Pictures and stories are the natural form in which children understand the world. Exposition is for grownups.
(p 117)
The often missed irony of the remark that television programs are designed for a twelve-year-old mentality is that there can be no other mentality for which they may be designed. Television is a medium consisting of very little but “pictures and stories,” and Alice would have found it quite suitable for her needs.
(p 118)

Sean Crawford
Finishing this essay, complete with quotes, at exactly 1776 words.
July 2012

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