Catholic Phoenix


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?

2 comments | Add one of your own.

  1. Tom

    I don’t think you are off target, Tony. I also don’t think this is a new phenomenon. It is an old phenomenon with new technology. Cliff’s Notes provided in the 80′s what “tweets” give now. It has long seemed to me that we are regressing to the point where humans will only know how to sleep and eat with each other. I think the loss of gentlemanly societies that meet, drink and discuss on a regular basis as in Lewis’s day is also a manifestation of the same impatience with anything that takes time (while at the same time acknowledging we do not live in Oxford). I see the same general impatience seeping into church, too. Fr. So and So better get it done in an hour or he’s going to be giving the final blessing to empty benches. I am amazed at how many people leave now after communion at my church.

    Much was made in the Catholic media about Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI “tweeting.” I quipped on a blog that soon there will be a Prefect of Papal Tweeting whose duty will be to update us regularly on the pope’s weekly menu and the plumbing renovations at Castel Gandolfo. My point is that screens get everybody looking down when they ought to looking up, around or within. This is what great literature or the beauty of liturgy can do for us. But, it takes time. Lewis was not only a great Christian apologist, he was also a highly respected literary critic in his day job. In his Preface to Paradise Lost, Lewis talks about the patience one needs to have in reading an epic poem. One has to be willing to let the lines lead the way as the poem slowly unfolds. Being in a hurry is anathema to great literature in Lewis’s view.

    What to do about it? I don’t know. A start might be for parents to control the number and use of screens in their home. Dr. David Schindler at the JP II Institute probably has much to say on this topic. At any rate, I don’t believe what you are observing in your classroom is anecdotal. I think you are right that something new is afoot. Just as with smoking in the 50′s, it remains to be seen what the effect the near total immersion in the immediacy of personal technology will have on thought.