Thursday, 17 November 2011

Bauerlein and the Curse of Writing

One of the most prominent scholars of his day has come forth with a warning that with the newest “invention” human kind has indeed invented the means to its own doom. The man is Socrates (though probably written by Plato), the time is roughly 400 B.C., and the terrible invention which will mean the destruction of human intellect is called “writing”. His warning, from Phaedrus quoting King Thamus, goes as follows:
"For your invention will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it, through lack of practice at using their memory, as through reliance on writing they are reminded from outside by alien marks, not from within, themselves by themselves. So you have discovered an elixir not of memory but of reminding. To your students you give an appearance of wisdom, not the reality of it; thanks to you, they will hear many things without being taught them, and will appear to know much when for the most part they know nothing, and they will be difficult to get along with because they have acquired appearance of wisdom, not the reality of it" (62).

Now fast forward 2400 years where first the invention and then the easy dissemination of writing are the only reason why anyone even knows who Plato and Socrates are. The charges against writing sound hollow and counterintuitive, proven mostly unfounded by the record of history. Again mankind stands in front of a shift in communication technology which carries with it the good and the bad of human conduct. Again many people who are comfortable with the current modes of discourse look into the future and see the apocalypse of mankind. One of these apostles of doom is called Mark Bauerlein. He sees that students in his classroom are no longer worshipping his gods named Shakespeare and Cervantes but are going after the idolatrous goddess Lady Gaga. The ranks of believers worshipping at the altar of his chalk dust are diminishing, being lead astray by the enticing but empty promises of Information Systems and Communication who are void of knowledge about the deeper secrets of life. Yay, even out of his own Department do men appear, speaking perverse things such as “blogging” and “multimodal arguments” and “social media literacy”, drawing away disciples after them.

In the midst of such apostasy and confusion he takes upon himself the task of calling the rebellious Israel to repentance, by writing The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30). His main charge is easily summed up on his web page “According to recent reports from government agencies, foundations, survey firms, and scholarly institutions, most young people in the United States neither read literature (or fully know how), work reliably (just ask employers), visit cultural institutions (of any sort), nor vote (most can’t even understand a simple ballot).” When confronted with questions such as “then why are their IQ-scores higher today than 20 years ago? (In fact it has been steadily rising since the 80s)” or “then why was the student vote higher in the last two presidential elections than it has been the last 30 years?” his explanation is that these are anomalies and exceptions rather than the rule. They do not fit with his chosen narrative to explain the new generation, although several other narratives do exist and in fact have much more solid backing in research.
In “Expanding the Concept of Literacy” Elizabeth Daley claims that the definition of literacy should include digital technologies rather than just “rows and rows of double-spaced prose.” She is not the only voice advocating this expansion, although she does suggest perhaps a more radical shift than I would deem necessary. People will still be writing in a digital world, but it will be for a different audience and with different purposes. As Kathleen Yancey writes in “Made Not Only in Words: Composition in a New Key” writing is changing:                                                                
[Students] compose words and images and create audio files on Web logs (blogs), in word processors, with video editors and Web editors and in e-mail and on presentation software and in instant messaging and on listservs and on bulletin boards – and no doubt whatever genre will emerge in the next ten minutes. Note that no one is making anyone do any of this writing. Don’t you wish that the energy and motivation that students bring to some of these other genres they would bring to our assignments? How is it that what we teach and what we test can be so different from what our students know as writing? (298)

Writing and reading is becoming more applicable, necessary, and widespread than ever! Every student can be an author and be read without compulsory means. Every student has the chance to have at least a small voice in forming the collective conscience of the future. If we as compositionists do not learn to ride this wave we will be crushed or rendered irrelevant by it. We must speak now when the questions at issue are in what should be our ball park.

In 1871 professor Georg Brandes held a series of lectures in Copenhagen with the title "Main Currents in 19th-century Literature," and inspired a whole new generation of authors and thinkers including Henrik Ibsen. This changed the ideological discourse in Scandinavia and indeed all of Europe. Today, the literature studied in English classes does not form the ideological discourse of society. They are relics of a time long gone, rendered about as relevant as archeology. No series of lectures by a literature professor could shake up society the way Brandes did. The public discourse has moved from novels and plays to newspapers, online forums and social media. People are writing and reading more each day than they may have done in their entire lives just 30 years ago. Studies of text have a chance of becoming more relevant than ever! But rather than embracing this opportunity, some scholars such as Bauerlein choose to retreat into a self-induced state of exile from a changing literary landscape, attempting to build a utopian society based on a golden age of literacy that never was. And looking at the masses reaching up to the pedestals formerly reserved to the “literate” and “scholarly writers” all Bauerlein can say is that their literacy is “of a lesser kind” because it does not involve the same “depth of thought” (an attribute which of course is conveniently impossible to measure). I really wonder what kind of deep reading and pondering he can imagine comes out of books such as “The Da Vinci Code” and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (which btw. is the kind of literature that most people read). What mysteries of the universe and existence are revealed in the poetic lines of Tom Clancy? How will someone become a greater asset to society by knowing the different qualities of an AK-47 as compared with the M-6 semiautomatic machine gun? The literature of the mandatory reading classes was never the trend for the general population. 

Online literacy is relevant, important, and increasingly essential for anyone who wants to survive in a 21st century economy. Yes, there are trade-offs in any communication revolution. Writing did destroy the prominence and importance of memorization (just ask how many today could deliver an entire speech without a teleprompter), and yes, online discourse has advantages and disadvantages compared to printed discourse. However, this kind of blanket rejection of all online literature based on individual cases taken out of context is contrived. Bauerlein claims that just because it has not been proven that increased technological presence in classroom has immediate measurable benefits to the students it therefore follows that online literacy is a waste of time and money. I believe he will take his place in history next to the ones who claimed that the invention of the telephone was “an amusing toy, but would never make a great positive difference in society.”