Are We Texting and Tweeting Our Way to Idiocy?
Just a thought on our technologies of immediacy: Is there a connection between frequent engagement with the type of communication shared in the short bursts of a text message and "tweet," and what I have been seeing in the classroom the past several years, namely, students who have difficulty with either an argument that requires time to unfold or lengthy descriptive passages in fiction? The number of students who openly complain about articles that are too long and contain repetition, passages by C.S. Lewis which contain examples of his famous analogies, or passages in novels and short stories that are not driving the plot has been on the increase in recent years. Of course high school students complain about this-and-that, but I've been surprised at how often these complaints are directed at prose and fiction that is very well written. I first noticed it about 6 or 7 years ago in my Lewis classes. "Too many analogies; why doesn't he just say it and move on?" Recently an article on Galileo was met with comments about how it "says the same thing over and over again." Last semester, when reading The Children of Men by P.D. James with students, many of them expressed rather strong disapproval of how slow the buildup in the first part of the book was, when James was establishing the characters and the situation. My beloved Jane Austen has even been taken to task for being too darned slow and not getting on with business.
Apocalyptic rantings are best left for premillennial dispensationalists, but I'm tempted toward some of my own when students go after Jane Austen, not to mention C.S. Lewis. As any careful reader knows, good arguments and fiction both take time. Apt analogies clarify an argument and make it not only easier to grasp, but also more winsome. Effective characterization also requires time and patience, and a writer who knows what he or she is about is will often linger when describing and setting up. None of this can be reduced to bullet points or quick summaries. And fiction is not just about "what happens." Yet so many students struggle with this, and I have a hard time believing it's just another example of kids being kids. Something new is brewing, it seems, and I have to wonder whether or not the pernicious habit of saying whatever trivial thing you happen to be thinking at the moment in the form of a text message or a tweet, again and again and again, doesn't diminish your capacity to think beyond the immediate moment and make you lose all patience with a writer who says "Slow down, please, we're going to be here a while." Is the world of ICT making this impossible? Is it conditioning people to think only in short bursts, and turning them away from the type of writing and thinking that helps us to engage reality beyond the moment? Will it make critical thinking in education a luxury? The inability to think beyond the moment is a characteristic of early childhood, something we ask our children to advance beyond. What happens if they don't want to?