The devolution of reading.

A few days ago I read this piece by Cal Newport concerning the social media reform movement. In it, while exploring some of the damage we do to ourselves through pervasive social media use, he notes:

This argument focuses on the ways that heavy social media use can make users less happy, less healthy, and/or less successful. Most of my writing and speaking on this topic falls into this category. (My main point is that the benefits of these services are exaggerated, while we tend to underestimate their damage to our ability to do valuable things with our brains.)

This seed planted, about the diminished ability to employ concentrated thinking, was the beginning of my musing on how our current technologies affect not only the deep work which Cal Newport dissects in his area of expertise, but also things as simple and basic as our ability to read, comprehend, and apply the knowledge accessible to us through books.

As I pondered these things, I came across this article which more specifically targeted the direction in which my thoughts were flowing. What do current technological, reading, and information gathering trends mean for our ability to read classic literature, sacred Scripture, and other works that require the ability to meditate deeply on the words and internalize higher truths and complexities of life and being?

We know from research that the reading circuit is not given to human beings through a genetic blueprint like vision or language; it needs an environment to develop. Further, it will adapt to that environment’s requirements – from different writing systems to the characteristics of whatever medium is used. If the dominant medium advantages processes that are fast, multi-task oriented and well-suited for large volumes of information, like the current digital medium, so will the reading circuit. As UCLA psychologist Patricia Greenfield writes, the result is that less attention and time will be allocated to slower, time-demanding deep reading processes, like inference, critical analysis and empathy, all of which are indispensable to learning at any age.

The early returns on the results of screen reading as the dominant mode of reading are beginning to come in:

Increasing reports from educators and from researchers in psychology and the humanities bear this out. English literature scholar and teacher Mark Edmundson describes how many college students actively avoid the classic literature of the 19th and 20th centuries because they no longer have the patience to read longer, denser, more difficult texts.

Makes sense to me. It is easy to think that because young adult literature (YA) is a booming industry selling a huge number of books that real reading is on the rise. Indeed, there are many people, parents and educators alike who believe that youngsters reading anything is better than youngsters reading nothing at all. As the mother of two children (out of five  total) who struggled to read, there were periods when I succumbed to that level of thinking myself.

I don’t believe that anymore. I understand that what we read, and how we read it, is more important than reading for the sake of reading itself. Even armed with this knowledge, I have children whose habits and concentration show evidence of having been re-wired by overuse of screens for reading as well as amusement.

Now, I have the unfortunate and hard job of trying to re-orient them to a better brain and better habits from a strategically disadvantaged starting point. My children read classic books and quite frankly, are receiving a far better literary and  theological education than the average American public schooled student. Yes, of this I am absolutely certain.

If they have to be *fixed*, what does that then mean for the entire generation of kids in their cohort (ages 10-12)?


7 thoughts on “The devolution of reading.

  1. Elspeth says:

    Now I am thinking about the line between adopting a type of Neo-Luddism (which the fact that I am even online demonstrates I don’t support), and a balanced use of technology.

    I am married to a tech guy and even he occasionally chastises me for my dependence of technology, most notably GPS, but still. Neo-Luddism isn’t even a remote possibility in our house given the way we make our living unless the man feels a strong pull in that direction.

    I’m curious how any of you approach it. What limits do you place on yourself? On your kids? How big a role does tech play in your educational pursuits? Etc?


  2. Bike Bubba says:

    A good picture of this can be had in Reformed circles (or outside); compare the number of people who have a strong view on the doctrines of grace (a.k.a. “Tulip”) with the number of people who have read Calvin. I’ve read through the Institutes, and it is just some dense writing by modern standards.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. stmichaelkozaki says:

    E: My children read classic books and quite frankly, are receiving a far better literary and theological education than the average American public schooled student. Yes, of this I am absolutely certain.

    Yep. My sardonic brother on our HS: well, you guy suck but so does the competition! He wasn’t lying since now got 7th graders literally in college simply because they can read/write & haven’t imbibed TV/videogames/junkfood). That is, they are what everyone used to call “normal”. World. Gone. Insane.

    PC: It means higher susceptibility to low-quality propaganda.

    Read Unz on propaganda; some is pretty high-quality these days…check out the American Pravda series…even Unz himself was fooled for a time with his 180 IQ.

    But this was an interesting post and got me thinking even though I love my screens & the web deeply (as the Flynn Effect in realtime). But I do understand this is the exception since most people are not nerds. Keep the posts coming pls.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Elspeth says:

    My sardonic brother on our HS: well, you guy suck but so does the competition!

    Your sardonic brother is correct. I am not on the “homeschool or die!” bandwagon, but I also believe parents have to be especially, almost intentionally inept to do a worse job than the public system. They are great at offering the pretense of educating because they are good at making a detailed checklist and checking it off, but there is precious little real education taking place. You might enjoy this piece:

    That said, despite being a highly literate and decently motivated woman, I still don’t trust myself to homeschool my kids alone. I was floundering horribly, because the uber trad homeschool supermom template was drowning me.

    Which is why I was eternally grateful to find some highly intelligent veteran homeschool families who are running a moderately priced (not cheap, but doable) part-time classical Christian academic program to help me target our focus and lift some of the load so I wasn’t adding another job to my husband’s 60 hour work-week plate.

    Liked by 1 person

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