Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Textless Internet?

Here is an aexcerpt from an interesting, non surprising, but nonetheless disheartening NYTimes article about the literacy level of college graduates as measured in 2003:

"Grover J. Whitehurst, director of an institute within the Department of Education that helped to oversee the test, said he believed that the literacy of college graduates had dropped because a rising number of young Americans in recent years had spent their free time watching television and surfing the Internet."

Okay, TV, maybe I'll grant you that in terms of literacy (of course, the question about the effects of TV on cognitive abilities and such as a totally different matter as Steven Johnson has explored), but - DO THEY THINK THE INTERNET IS A BUNCH OF PICTURES? ARE THERE NO WORDS ON THE INTERNET?

I would be interested to know, at what point will there be more individual words (mispelled or no) than in all of published literature. The above is the kind of conclusion drawn by someone...well, by someone who works in the cabinet of a president not too familiar with "the internets."

I would also make an argument here about the percentage of students studying liberal arts even ten years ago as opposed to now, what the growth of Systems Administration-type majors and such. Not that those are necessarily any less needed.



Blogger Cameron said...

I'd agree, but I don't. A lot of the text on the internets is written at a pretty low level, and there's an awful lot to do on the internet that isn't text based. From my own experience with undergrads, they are commonly profoundly inarticulate, with relatively few exceptions--though I wouldn't be so quick to blame it all on the internet.

8:48 PM  
Blogger Cary said...

Language changes. Internet literacy is maybe a new TYPE of literacy, but it is largely text based.

What for me would be a random series of symbols is for a 14 year-old a very nuanced emoticon. Isn't this distinction between meaning and meaninglessness exactly the border defined by language acquisition?

The issues you have with students' speaking prowess seems flike a grad student speaking to me, and there's a very rich tradition of each generation believing the next to be illiterate and/or inarticulate, when really the discourse has just shifted. Joyce or Beethoven are pretty obvious examples of this.

It's also important, I think, to acknowledge the shift from content-conumption as the primary form of internet use to content-creation. Kids reading books can't write in the process of doing so, but kids using the internet almost certainly are. How many blogs are there in the world? MySpace pages updated daily?

Granted, these are not "literature" aren't structurally the same thing as what comes up on a literacy test, but doesn't that mean, to some extent, that our tests are not useful?

10:32 PM  
Blogger Cameron said...

Leaning on a shift in the discourse is fine theoretically, but it doesn't do one much good if some large portion of the people and materials you have to engage with have not followed that shift. If one wants to be an engineer or a scientist, for example, one has to be able to decipher the existing literature in those areas. If you want to call that acquisition of a second language, that's fine, but it doesn't eliminate the neccessity of it. Also, I think one cannot speak an emoticon usefully--otherwise, my students would do it or try it--and I'm not so sure that emoticons can be used effectively to describe things that are not extremely familiar to everyone involved. In that case, your example may describe another language in some sense, but it is not one that is rich enough to discuss a number things.

8:43 AM  

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