Friday, February 10, 2006

Gen Y's Fear of Thinking & Reading

AAAAAARRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! The meaning behind this anguished roar will become obvious as you read on.

I usually address these posts to any and all intelligent people who donate their valuable time to reading my humble little blog. But in particular, I’d like to slant this dispatch to the age 16-25 crowd, the group currently populating our nation’s high schools and universities. Dudes and dudettes, as Neil Young once sang, this note’s for you.

As you can tell from some of my earlier posts, I am a reader. Yes, I’m one of those types who actually likes deciphering words printed on numbered pieces of paper. Much of my time in school was spent doing this archaic activity. No, I don’t make my living doing it. I do it for fun, to exercise my mind and my imagination. To some of you, this means I’m either A.) a senile old fart or B.) mentally ill. Possibly. But humor the old man, won’t you?

I don’t dislike Generation Y. You guys got stuck with a lot of things us Gen-X’ers didn’t have to deal with. A war, a crappy economy, reality TV and Baby Boomer parents, among them. You’ve done an admirable job dealing with this stuff, really. In general, you’re a bright bunch of kids. But there’s one thing about you guys that just puzzles the shit out of me. Why, oh why, do you hate/fear thinking so much?

I first thought of this question after reading a January 31st editorial in the Chicago Tribune, “Just Look It Up”. Long story made short: many schools and colleges allow, and even encourage, students to use laptops, PDA’s, graphing calculators and other technological doo-dads on tests. It’s part of a growing trend toward “legalized cheating” in school. The article took the middle of the road: “[t]echnology,” it stated, “can be a tool or a crutch.” The Tribune asked readers if they viewed this practice as dishonest and invited them to write in with their opinions. Many, as expected, called it cheating. But just as many declared that it was a perfectly acceptable practice. “Who cares where they get their answers?” asked reader Cindy Peyton. “More reading and research. . .more knowledge. I don’t consider it cheating.” A Chicago elementary teacher assigned the question as an essay topic to her 5th Grade class. “It will help students get better grades,” wrote one kid, “and make test-taking more enjoyable.” Out of the mouths of babes.

A day or two later, I ran across a phenomenon online that I wasn’t aware of. It’s called “Rocketbooks: Classic Literature Visualized.” In short, Rocketbooks are DVD’s that summarize works of classic literature that are commonly assigned in high school and college classes. Several key scenes from each book are dramatized, Hollywood-style, with actors. Other segments include critics and scholars talking about key themes and characters in the books. Evidently, Rocketbooks are very popular. The company’s website,, is full of glowing testimonials. “Rocketbooks are here to save all students from the trials of classic literature,” gushes Kimberly Oakley, a student at Western Washington University. “This really helps me. . .appreciate literature more than I would from reading the book,” claims Bobby Sterling, a 16-year old at a California high school. Read Bobby’s comment again, slowly. What is he really saying?

Maybe it’s me. I thought the point of education was to become educated. To learn how to think, reason and interpret. You do that by using—by challenging—your brain. Reading works of classic literature is one way to do that. Obviously, I’m wrong. The point of education is to find the right answer, as easily as possible, and pass the test. And of course, test-taking should be as entertaining as a trip to Disneyland, or else it isn’t worth it. I graduated college just over 10 years ago. What in hell has happened since then?

I’m not saying that education should be punishment. It shouldn’t be as laborious as breaking rocks with a hammer. But since when are teachers obligated to be entertainers, too? What happened to the sense of satisfaction that came from accepting and meeting a challenge? Has college simply become a vocational school? You just go there, put the round pegs in the round holes, get the diploma and toddle off to the job? If it has, then students are being cheated out of the small fortunes they pay for the privilege of attending college.

Then, there’s reading. I don’t mean to criticize young Bobby or Kimberly. I’m sure they’re nice kids. But when it comes to the purpose of fine literature, they’re as clueless as Paris Hilton. Reading is not a passive activity. You have to invest time and effort in reading the books. You must actively use your imagination to bring the stories to life. But it yields a fantastic payoff. Your brain provides an entertainment experience greater than anything Lucas, Spielberg and their army of special effects technicians could hope to put on a movie screen. You transcend time and space, attain direct access to the author’s mind and the world that only exists there. You change and expand your own mind in doing so. But Rocketbooks can’t do it for you. It’s like going to a restaurant and simply looking at pictures of food on the menu, instead of actually tasting the food. To appreciate literature, you have to read the words and turn the pages.

I think the high school and college students of today are being cheated, by themselves and by the teachers, professors and administrators that are catering to the Rocketbooks mentality. They’re being cheated out of the skills they need to give them a leg up in the working world, regardless of what field they’re pursuing.

Chew on this for a minute:

''… A stone, a leaf, an unfound door; of a stone, a leaf, a door. And of all the forgotten faces.

Naked and alone we came into exile. In her dark womb we did not know our mother's face; from the prison of her flesh have we come into the unspeakable and incommunicable prison of this earth.

Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father's heart? Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent? Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?

O waste of loss, in the hot mazes, lost, among bright stars on this most weary unbright cinder, lost! Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When?

O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.''

That’s a quote from Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe. It’s one of the greatest American novels, and it has, most especially, appealed to people on the high school-college cusp. If the quote doesn’t touch you in some way, if it seems a ‘trial’, then you’re intellectually lazy and very hard-hearted. And you’re denying yourself one of the most enriching experiences the world has to offer. It’s as plain and as simple as that.


Blogger DaftLadybird said...

I couldn't agree with you more. I am so afraid for the future of education, for what technology is taking away while it appears to be giving us a "better" life. Can you imagine a world in which an eloquently written blog post such as this one would be indecipherable to a native English speaker in the not-too-distant future? That your words, though expressed in plain English, would be too complicated in structure and meaning for the lazy minds of our future children? I shudder at the thought.

3:58 PM  

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