04 January 2006

Telecommunication and Intellectual Life

I wasn't going to get going on my blog until school started, but Stanley Kurtz at The Corner linked an interesting article from the Chronicle of Higher Education. It's written by Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University, and focuses on the growth of collective leisure habits and their influence on students' attitude toward learning, particularly the liberal arts.

Bauerlein cites several examples of leisure habits, including watching television, text messaging, instant messaging, and blogging; but all the habits he mentions are based on telecommunication, and, with the exception of watching television in groups, do not involve physical interaction. I was quite interested in the article, as I am a college student, an avid user of instant messaging and E-mail, a consumer of blogs, and, as of this post, a blogger myself. Bauerlein goes on to say that all of these uses of telecommunication foster a sense of community among students, and even among strangers, despite the lack of physical interaction.

Bauerlein asserts that this feeling of community among a single age group has resulted in a peer consciousness, characterized by a strong interest in popular culture and by a lack of interest in classwork and the "intellectual life of the college," by which I believe he means that students fail to discuss ideas raised by their coursework outside of class, either with each other or with their professors. He specifically cites several studies that suggest that history, civics, literature and the arts, geography, and politics are areas in which the ignorance of "young people," which I gather refers to the 18-25 age group, is significant and disturbing. These studies added another dimension to my interest in the article, as I have long maintained the truth of the existence of this ignorance, and deplored it.

Another phenomenon I've noticed lately, and which I'm surprised Bauerlein doesn't mention given that he is an English professor, is the inability to write that is demonstrated by so many students today. Several of my engineering classes have required me to work in teams and have required the team to produce a final paper, and I've generally been appalled at the quality of writing. It's improved now, but it is still below what I would expect given the intelligence levels of my classmates. I've also seen poor writing at work, where I served on the mentor award committee for two tours. The committee reads the nominations submitted by the co-ops and selects award recipients. Most nominations were incredibly badly written. Several even reminded me of 419 scam emails.

My personal theory is that bad writing is often promoted by telecommunication. Instant messaging is a venue for poor writing, including incomprehensible abbreviations, improper sentence structure, and the use of emoticons rather than words to convey emotion. The same is true of text messaging on cell phones.

(That's not to say that telecommunication must inevitably have this effect. I personally believe that instant messaging improved my writing skills. I hated emoticons almost from the first, so I learned to better express my feelings through words, and I also developed a strong voice.)

Given the concerns Bauerlein addresses, the question naturally arises: what can be done? How can we engage college students, and high school students for that matter, in their classwork?

And the answer is: we can't.

There is absolutely nothing we can do to catch the interest of someone who is in high school or college and doesn't want to learn. Bauerlein points out one common technique, that of trying to relate something to popular culture, and observes, "All too often, the outcome is that important works are dumbed down to trivia, and the leap into serious study never happens." He's right.

For example, I personally think that the movie A Knight's Tale does a fairly good job of translating jousting into the context of popular culture, with the crowd singing "We Will Rock You" and one small girl telling "Ulrich," "When we joust, I always say I'm you!" as countless small boys say they're Biggio or Clemens. But how many people who saw A Knight's Tale were inspired to read Chaucer or study the Middle Ages? How many girls who managed to sit through the brain-draining teenspeak of Clueless went on to read Jane Austen's Emma, on which the movie is clearly based?

So, what is the solution to this dilemma?

Primary and secondary schools need higher standards. I don't mean that kids need to score higher on standardized tests like the TAAS, or TAKS as they're calling it now. I mean that individual teachers and parents should hold students to high standards of achievement and critical thinking.

And that is the problem. There is no grand national solution, no amount of money that can be thrown at schools to force them to produce perfect citizens. The resolution of this state of affairs can come only one step at a time - one child at a time.


Blogger Chestertonian Rambler said...

Agreed, but I still think things can be done (and are done) to help people along and interest them in education. However, I think that's because education is inherently fun. Trying to "make" education fun is problematic in that it implies that education isn't. It's also rather patronizing, and people who seek to educate themselves are generally smarter than they're given credit for.

To quote one of my favorite bloggers (also a teacher), "A few years ago, someone sent me a “cool” Shakespeare poster to put up in my classroom when we were studying The Bard. It is an ingenious poster, with WS looking rather buff, in a t-shirt and shades. I’m glad to have it around for a laugh, but when I think about the idea of luring students into Shakespeare with a cool brand logo, I’m a little embarrassed. It’s my job to make Shakespeare interesting, or actually, to let Shakespeare be Shakespeare, because when left alone, he’s the greatest writer in English.

I have little doubt that my best students are not waiting for this level of motivation, but are waiting for something authentic. They already live in a world of artificiality, and as their teacher, I am attempting to persuade them to step out of those illusions into the reality of great literature, and even their own writing. I know that such visuals get praise from some educators, but I guess I prefer a plain room, a primary text and an old codger professor who takes me into the presence of the author and starts the fire of curiousity in my mind." (http://www.internetmonk.com/index.php/archives/theology-in-fazolis)

Of course, none of this prevents me getting a huge kick out of the trailer for Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night, which advertizes the movie as something for those interested in other madcap cross-dressing films such as Porky's...

12:26 AM  
Blogger Chestertonian Rambler said...

Regarding IM/blogg/etc. -- I'm not sure about its general effect on society, but I am sure that it is what we make it. Some of my blog posts (never those that make it to blogspot) are just brain-poop, things I have to get out but don't really take the time to do a good job on. Many, though, are experiments or finely-tuned works where I try for that combo of witty+substantial+honest+open-ended+not-
just-griping. And IM I've developed to an art, using the slowness of conversation as a chance for minor revisions and increased wit (like having that pause-button I always wanted during junior high "comeback wars."

Comments for this thread from me exhausted.

12:32 AM  
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10:38 PM  

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