The End of the Word as We Know It; If You Think Kids Don't Read Now, Wait until the Visual Media Really Take Off

By Guterl, Fred | Newsweek International, September 26, 2005 | Go to article overview

The End of the Word as We Know It; If You Think Kids Don't Read Now, Wait until the Visual Media Really Take Off


Guterl, Fred, Newsweek International


Byline: Fred Guterl

It's never easy to plumb the reading habits of children, but teachers and parents perennially knock themselves out with worry over any sign of a decline. Among U.S. teenagers, reading skills haven't improved in high schools since 1999, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test. To many educators, the wild success of the "Harry Potter" books only underscores the paucity of reading in the lives of today's children, who somehow manage to find copious amounts of time for videogames, Web surfing and text messaging. "Fast-paced lifestyles, coupled with heavy media diets of visual immediacy, beget brains misfitted to traditional modes of academic learning," writes psychologist Jane Healy in "Endangered Minds." The lure of the visual in today's electronic media, it would seem, is proving too much for the increasingly antiquated pleasures of the written word.

What should be done? Healy and others would have us mount a vigorous campaign to restore reading to its rightful place, or risk raising a generation cut off from a rich cultural heritage. Before we jump on our high horses, however, it might be helpful to look at the conflict between visual media and the written word not so much as a battle between technology and culture, but between two technologies, each representing a different mode of communication.

It's easy to forget after all this time that writing is as much a form of technology as the Internet. Humans roamed the earth for thousands of years without language, and then for thousands more before coming up with an alphabet to represent the sounds they uttered. In his book "Orality and Literacy," the late scholar Walter Ong points out that when Homer set down the Iliad, he was adapting a long oral tradition--in which stories were passed from one speaker to the next--to a relatively new medium. In fifth-century B.C. Athens, writing and reading had become part of the culture, but it was still new enough for Plato to express skepticism. In the Phaedrus, Socrates asserts the superiority of oral argument: writing is a crutch, Plato wrote, that would lead to the decline of memory, and a passive medium that cannot defend its arguments.

It might seem that the advent of the computer is as big a change in the technology of expression as the written word was. But the real revolution may not yet have arrived. …

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