Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Literary Quite Contrary, How Does Your Gardner Grow?

Howard Gardner is a well known and highly respected scholar in the field of education, and educational psychology. He's best known for his theory of multiple intelligences, which argues that, rather than there being one single "thing" called intelligence as is implied by the IQ test (a test that measures something that was never clearly defined), there are many different intelligences, for example verbal, mathematical, scientific, musical, visual, social and emotional, etc. Different people may be better or worse in any one of these, or any combination. Interestingly, for me, his theory was influenced, in part, by the highly uneven combinations that give rise to the autistic savant, an individual who may be on a genius level in mathematics or visual expression, for example, and extremely poor in verbal, and especially social intelligence.

So anyway, this morning as I was reading our local paper, The Record, (traditionally referred to as the Bergen Record, but now officially the North Jersey Record), I was delighted to see an op-ed piece by Gardner on literacy and the new media (the piece is not listed as a reprint from another paper, as is sometimes the case, but appears to have been commissioned by The Record, to its credit).

Gardner is certainly a media ecologist, as he puts literacy in an historical context going back to prehistory (although I find his chronology to be slightly off, as writing was developed a bit over 5,000 years ago, and other forms of notation are significantly less than 100,000 years old. But what's a few millennia among friends? More importantly, he discusses how different communication technologies, different media in other words, give rise to different types of literacy.

And please note that, at no point does he use the term literacy as a metaphor. He's not talking about some vague notion of media literacy, visual literacy, or even computer literacy. He's talking about the ability to create and understand written texts, about knowing your ABCs and minding your Ps and Qs.

And so, without further ado, let me give you over to Howard, in this think piece that's entitled: Gardner: Reading, R.I.P.? and appears on p. L7 of today's Record (February 19, 2008):

Computers, pessimists maintain, are destroying literacy; optimists foresee the Internet ushering in a new, vibrant participatory culture of words.

WHAT WILL HAPPEN to reading and writing in our time? Could the doomsayers be right? Computers, they maintain, are destroying literacy. The signs -- students' declining reading scores, the drop in leisure reading to just minutes a week, the fact that half the adult population reads no books in a year -- are all pointing to the day when a literate American culture becomes a distant memory. By contrast, optimists foresee the Internet ushering in a new, vibrant participatory culture of words. Will they carry the day?

Maybe neither. Let me suggest a third possibility: Literacy -- or an ensemble of literacies -- will continue to thrive, but in forms and formats we can't yet envision.

That's what has always happened as writing and reading have evolved over the ages. It was less than 100,000 years ago that our human predecessors first made meaningful marks on surfaces, notating the phases of the moon or drawing animals on cave walls. Within the past 5,000 years, societies across the Near East's Fertile Crescent began to use systems of marks to record important trade exchanges as well as pivotal events in the present and the past. These marks gradually became less pictorial, and a decisive leap occurred when they began to capture certain sounds reliably: U kn red ths sntnz cuz Inglsh feechurs "graphic-phoneme correspondences."

A master of written Greek, Plato feared that written language would undermine human memory capacities (much in the same way that we now worry about similar side effects of "Googling"). But libraries made the world's knowledge available to anyone who could read. The 15th-century printing press disturbed those who wanted to protect and interpret the word of God, but the availability of Bibles in the vernacular allowed laypeople to take control of their spiritual lives and, if historians are correct, encouraged entrepreneurship in commerce and innovation in science.

Criticism and celebration

In the past 150 years, each new medium of communication -- telegraph, telephone, movies, radio, television, the digital computer, the World Wide Web -- has introduced its own peculiar mix of written, spoken and graphic languages and evoked a chaotic chorus of criticism and celebration.

But of the changes in the media landscape over the past few centuries, those featuring digital media are potentially the most far-reaching. Those of us who grew up in the 1950s, at a time when there were just a few computers in the world, could never have anticipated the ubiquity of personal computers (back then, IBM's Thomas Watson famously declared that there'd be a market for perhaps five computers in the world!). A mere half-century later, more than a billion people can communicate via e-mail, chat rooms and instant messaging; post their views on a blog; play games with millions of others worldwide; create their own works of art or theater and post them on YouTube; join political movements; and even inhabit, buy, sell and organize in a virtual reality called Second Life. No wonder the chattering classes can't agree about what this all means.

Here's my take.

Once we ensured our basic survival, humans were freed to pursue other needs and desires, including the pleasures of communicating, forming friendships, convincing others of our point of view, exercising our imagination, enjoying a measure of privacy. Initially, we pursued these needs with our senses, our hands and our individual minds. Human and mechanical technologies to help us were at a premium. It's easy to see how the emergence of written languages represented a boon. The invention of the printing press and the emergence of readily available books, magazines and newspapers allowed untold millions to extend their circle, expand their minds and expound their pet ideas.

Inhabiting fascinating worlds

For those of us of a 19th- or 20th-century frame of mind, books play a special, perhaps even spiritual, role. Works of fiction -- the writings of Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, Toni Morrison, William Faulkner -- allow us to inhabit fascinating worlds we couldn't have envisioned. Works of scholarship -- the economic analyses of Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes, the histories of Thucydides and Edward Gibbon -- provide frameworks for making sense of the past and the present.

But now, at the start of the 21st century, there's a dizzying set of literacies available -- written languages, graphic displays and notations. And there's an even broader array of media -- analog, digital, electronic, hand-held, tangible and virtual -- from which to pick and choose. There will inevitably be a sorting-out process. Few media are likely to disappear completely; rather, the idiosyncratic genius and peculiar limitations of each medium will become increasingly clear. Fewer people will write notes or letters by hand, but the elegant handwritten note to mark a special occasion will endure.

I don't worry for a nanosecond that reading and writing will disappear. Even in the new digital media, it's essential to be able to read and write fluently and, if you want to capture people's attention, to write well. Of course, what it means to "write well" changes: Virginia Woolf didn't write the same way that Jane Austen did, and Arianna Huffington's blog won't be confused with Walter Lippmann's columns. But the imaginative spheres and real-world needs that all those written words address remain.

I also question the predicted disappearance of the material book. When they wanted to influence opinions, both the computer giant Bill Gates and the media visionary Nicholas Negroponte wrote books (the latter in spite of his assertion that the material book was becoming anachronistic). The convenience and portability of the book aren't easily replaced, though under certain circumstances -- a month-long business trip, say -- the advantages of Amazon's hand-held electronic Kindle reading device trumps a suitcase full of dog-eared paperbacks.

Books in jeopardy

Two aspects of the traditional book may be in jeopardy, however. One is the author's capacity to lay out a complex argument, which requires the reader to study and reread, following a circuitous course of reasoning. The Web's speedy browsing may make it difficult for digital natives to master Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" (not that it was ever easy).

The other is the book's special genius for allowing readers to enter a private world for hours or even days at a time. Many of us enjoyed long summer days or solitary train rides when we first discovered an author who spoke directly to us. Nowadays, as clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle has pointed out, young people seem to have a compulsion to stay in touch with one another all the time; periods of lonely silence or privacy seem toxic. If this lust for 24/7 online networking continues, one of the dividends of book reading may fade away. The wealth of different literacies and the ease of moving among them -- on an iPhone, for example -- may undermine the once-hallowed status of books.

But whatever our digital future brings, we need to overcome the perils of dualistic thinking, the notion that what lies ahead is either a utopia or a dystopia. If we're going to make sense of what's happening with literacy in our culture, we need to be able to triangulate: to bear in mind our needs and desires, the media as they once were and currently are, and the media as they're continually transforming.

It's not easy to do. But maybe there's a technology, just waiting to be invented, that will help us acquire this invaluable cognitive power.

Howard Gardner teaches cognitive psychology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is directing a study of the ethical dimensions of the new digital media.

Now, far be it from me to argue with the esteemed Professor Gardner, but I must conclude by saying that I do not share his optimism about the future of literacy.

While I believe that a significant minority will retain reading and writing skills, I think that minority will be a combination of an affluent elite, for whom literacy will be a luxury item, and certain vocational groups, for whom literacy will be a requirement, say computer programmers. But for the latter vocational literates (Eric Havelock used the term craft literacy), they may only use reading and writing for utilitarian purposes, not to obtain culture, entertainment or enlightenment.

The same short attention span that Gardner writes about in his piece will, in my opinion, drive people away from the written word altogether, and toward the visual. And while images can never entirely replace words, speech recognition and speech synthesis software will go a long way towards making literacy unnecessary for increasingly larger numbers of people.

Anyway, that's just my op-ed rebuttal, for what it's worth (about a buck forty-nine, I figure). Believe me, nothing would make me happier than to learn in no uncertain terms that I'm wrong and Howard's right.


Anonymous said...

"...speech recognition and speech synthesis software will go a long way towards making literacy unnecessary for increasingly larger numbers of people."

And what happens when the computing device(s) used for speech recognition/synthesis break or become unusable from wear, age, viruses, EMP etc? I understand it takes lots of energy from depleting fossil fuels and thousands of gallons of increasingly scarce fresh water to make new computer chips. And computers and hand-held devices have a useful lifespan of less than ten years, some last less than 4 years. Our landfills are already filling with toxic e-waste.

Just another reason to be pessimistic, if you didn't have enough reasons already!


Kaz Maslanka said...

I read somewhere that computer memory will become so cheap it will be disposable just like paper is today ... interesting thoughts thanks