Archive for the ‘Literacy’ Category

Fools Rush In

Posted: July 1, 2014 in Culture, Economics, Education, Literacy
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Several highly publicized inventories of OECD Skills Outlook 2013 hit the media last fall and then promptly fell off the radar. They stayed on my radar, waiting for the propitious time to sort my thinking and develop a blog post. (I’m always late to the party.) The full report is 466 pp., including blank pages, extensive front- and back-matter, and a writing style that positively discourages reading except to pluck quotes or statistics, as I do below. Such reports (e.g., the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) also released in Fall 2013, which I also blogged about here) take considerable effort to compile, but they always leave me wondering whether any of them are actionable or worth going to such lengths to assess, compile, and report. Even the executive summaries expend more effort saying what the reports are rather than offering a cogent conclusion and/or recommendation. This style may well be a requirement of advanced bureaucracy.

Skills assessed by the OECD Skills Outlook are described here:

The Survey of Adult Skills, a product of the OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), was designed to provide insights into the availability of some of these key skills in society and how they are used at work and at home. The first survey of its kind, it directly measures proficiency in several information-processing skills — namely literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments.


I’ve struggled for a little while to know quite what to do with this quote from The Master and His Emissary, which I’m currently reading (albeit very slowly) and blogging as I go:

Language enables the left hemisphere to represent the world ‘off-line’, a conceptual version, distinct from the world of experience, and shielded from the immediate environment, with its insistent impressions, feelings, and demands, abstracted from the body, no longer dealing with what is concrete, specific, individual, unrepeatable, and constantly changing, but with a disembodied representation of the world, abstracted, central, not particularised in time and place, generally applicable, clear and fixed. Isolating things artificially from their context brings the advantage of enabling us to focus intently on a particular aspect of reality and how it can be modelled, so that it can be grasped and controlled.

After this, McGilchrist launches into a wider discussion of metaphor and symbol, which gets a little heady for the uninitiated. I say uninitiated because the insight that language is a human technology, like writing, number systems, clock time, and others, that enables us to construe reality according to certain inherently limiting principles is not altogether obvious or intuitive to most of us precisely because we are inside the bubble, working and thinking from within those limitations. For instance, the inner voice everyone hears in the mind’s ear is language based, and to think in other terms — without words — is closer in experience to feeling than thinking.

I sensed something profound in McGilchrist’s analysis, but I didn’t know how to structure my thinking. Then I saw in the comments at a recent post at kulturCritic this remarkable observation, which Sandy Krolick appears to have simply tossed off:

… the transformation of language from an oral to written traditions wrought incalculable damage not only to the fullness of words, but to the fullness of experience as well. Univocality replaced polysemy. And the power of the spoken word was emptied out in the interests of clarity, disambiguation and legalistic adjudication. Scientific control of nature and people took precedence over everything else. And life became similarly emptied as a result. Specialization in how we interacted with one another was a further qualification on this specialization in language — at the semantic, syntactic and logistic levels of communication. This was the ground work for the curriculum of the West.

Krolick’s comment meshes extremely well with McGilchrist and reminded me of a blog post I wrote more than two years ago citing Neil Postman’s discussion of “The Judgment of Thamus,” as well as another more recent blog post about language in decline. It’s all probably too much to read and absorb, so I’ll summarize.

Krolick and McGilchrist are both arguing that words get in the way of a more immediate connection with (not “to”) the world by creating screens and abstractions that allow us to understand, manipulate, and control things and ideas. Language and writing thus represent a fundamental departure from a much older, primal identification with reality. In contrast, I’ve been in the rather unfortunate position of defending language and deploring the decreasing facility with which most people use words in both speech and writing. These perspectives share a fundamental concern: the loss of meaning. But the lost meanings are quite different from each other. Preverbal cognition is experienced in the body but is notoriously difficult to access, as in the controversy over infant amnesia, precisely because it isn’t fixed in memory through language. Meaning is felt through empathetic identification, but it’s a constantly moving target. Verbal cognition is experienced in the head and essentially amounts to a powerful virtual reality that blocks or at least dominates other cognitive states. Meaning is imposed and rationalized but ultimately fails to be very convincing because it is largely fictive.

This presents a puzzle: what type of beings should we really be? Slobbering, grunting brutes who share the world (modestly) with other animals or sophisticated, thinking men who possess power to create wonders and even more immense power to destroy? History has gotten us to this second state, but it’s clear that many of us are deeply dissatisfied with our labors and wish for something more immediate and primitive. The trend toward ever greater erudition and understanding has probably only just reversed, but it’s apparent to the cognoscenti that, for the masses, being a know-nothing is preferable to being a know-something. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have to nearly so many silly fops in entertainment and government to keep us enthralled with their vapid stupidity. Whether this is an expression of the cultural mind destroying itself is a good question.

A never-ending debate rages between two camps: language mavens who are dedicated to preserving standards and language modifiers who embrace change of any sort. The characterization of one group by the other is less charitable. Mavens are called school marms, Nazis, and keepers of pointless detail. Modifiers are called philistines and ignoramuses. Can you guess which camp I’m in?

Undoubtedly, language is fluid and undergoes change as particular usages dominate or decay with time. Further, some details matter more (or less) than others. A raging debate was sparked by a recent change to the Associate Press style sheet. Many publishing organs compile style sheets to bring consistency out of chaos with respect to how certain terms are used. For example, which is correct, Web-site or website (or some further variation)? The current debate is over e-mail vs. email. Although this is not a detail worth arguing at length, it is probably worth deciding for the sake of consistency. Whereas I prefer e-mail, the Associated Press decided to change to email. Neither determination is borne out of ignorance as to how compound words are formed, but loud, vehement cries of “Who cares?” no doubt are. Those are the ignoramuses who can’t believe such detail warrants the slightest bit of attention. The keepers charge that if we don’t care about this, then why care about spelling or punctuation at all?

Even more unsettling, perhaps, is the decision of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the self-proclaimed definitive record of the English language, to include initialisms, namely, LOL, FYI, and OMG. (I was a little surprised by the word initialism, but it apparently has a long period of use.) If the OED is trying to be all inclusive, then sure, throw everything in. But if it’s trying to be definitive, admitting new words to the lexicon needs to be quite conservative. No doubt its editorial board has conditions for inclusion that lie beyond my scrutiny.

Changes in usage do not necessitate decline, but the preponderance of changes now occurring stems not from any need to express ideas better but from liberalization of expression. Shortcuts taken to accommodate texting efficiency or to meet Twitter character limits do not enhance language, though their ubiquity cannot be challenged. And as we transition from a reading public to a viewing public (as I’ve argued here, among other places), the loss of ability to decode subtle usage and indeed think sophisticated thoughts is guaranteed when our lexicon is littered with thoughtless though hip and efficient nonwords.

An article at The Chicago Tribune about libraries moving away from the Dewey Decimal System to bookstore-style shelving and organization covers the issue with typical journalistic banality: telling both sides of a potentially contentious subject (everyone being doctrinaire about nearly everything these days) without rendering judgment. Differences between research and public libraries are mentioned briefly, as well as differences between commonly used classification systems. Library patrons are also quoted for man-in-the-street authenticity. It’s virtually assembly-line news reporting — writing to a template that can be applied universally, not unlike paint-by-the-numbers movies.


I’m reading The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, which describes how technologies we use affect brain/mind function. He surveys several inventions (the clock, the map, the printed book) that had significant effects on how we think. The history behind the book (pre-Gutenberg) surprised me. As Carr reports, the transition from cuneiform and other logographic forms to the phonetic alphabet and then to fluent, silent reading as we now do was protracted. He notes that prior to the Middle Ages, phonetic presentation of text was variable and had no spaces or punctuation. It was called scriptura continua, and the act of reading was an intensive cognitive process akin to deciphering the text, which was accordingly always done aloud, typically one reader to a plurality of listeners.

Reading aloud accounts for the presence of carrels and cloisters in ancient churches and libraries to accommodate the privacy needs of readers/listeners. In contrast, modern libraries have reading rooms — large open spaces filled with tables and chairs (see here and here) — precisely because silent reading requires no such privacy. Silent, personal reading was therefore a shift away from oral cultures that still used text as a tool within the wider context of orality. Later, the printing press and the economic effects of publishing gradually transformed oral culture to print culture by inaugurating the trend of private, personal knowledge newly and widely available to everyone.

Somewhat later in his book, Carr circles around to say that modern media, especially hypermedia, have returned us to the era of scriptura continua — not because everything is necessarily experienced aloud but because the variety of parallel channels and distractions returns media consumption to a deciphering process that blocks full comprehension. We’re often unaware of this fact, since most cognitive activity is subconscious, but the increased cognitive load may account for excitement we feel by being overstimulated. The irony is that learning occurs best when the mind is in a paradoxical state of relaxed concentration, which is what we experience during deep reading.

Many of us over the age of 30 or so, who remember a time before the Internet and its bounty, intuit that some part of our mental faculties has been lost. Regrettably, those below age 30 typically cannot know the loss of something they never developed. The world changes, of course, and we change with it; so in a sense, transitioning from one style of consciousness to another is inevitable. It’s happened numerous times before. If the failure of the electrical grid and the disappearance of all our pseudo-connectedness is as inevitable as doomers believe, I wonder what will happen when people are returned to the mental state where today’s constant stream of mostly irrelevant inputs is gone. Will they have the capacity for any depth of thought?

The New Yorker has a rather long but interesting article called “Twilight of the Books” about the decline of reading and literacy in the modern world. The article is far reaching in its attempt to summarize information from a number of sources, notably a book by Maryanne Wolf, a professor at Tufts University and director of its Center for Reading and Language Research, titled Proust and the Squid. The article begins with a litany of statistics demonstrating that reading is in decline.

I have to pause here to chide The New Yorker about its own writing, which is the flip side of reading on the literacy coin. Don’t all articles pass over at least two desks: the writer’s and the editor’s?

In January 1994, forty-nine per cent of respondents told the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press that they had read a newspaper the day before. In 2006, only forty-three per cent said so, including those who read online. Book sales, meanwhile, have stagnated. The Book Industry Study Group estimates that sales fell from 8.27 books per person in 2001 to 7.93 in 2006. According to the Department of Labor, American households spent an average of a hundred and sixty-three dollars on reading in 1995 and a hundred and twenty-six dollars in 2005. [emphasis added]

Isn’t per cent better as one word: percent? Similarly, shouldn’t a hundred and sixty-three be one hundred sixty-three? Any experienced copy editor should know that we don’t write numbers (or numerals) the way we speak them. We may say one-oh-six, but we don’t write 1o6 (as opposed to 106 — the typographical difference is difficult to see with some fonts, but it’s there). There are lots of other style errors, contractions, and generalized clumsiness, but I’ll move on.

As I read the article, I was struck by the number of times I said to myself, Duh, that’s so obvious it doesn’t bear stating! But I realized that most of the Duh! moments aren’t in fact so obvious to anyone ignorant of even entry-level media theory, which is really what I have. So I’ll reproduce a few noteworthy items with comments. (more…)

If anyone has been paying attention to me at all, then I don’t even need to provide an opinion about this in the Boston Globe:

When “say,” “they” and “weigh” rhyme, but “bomb,” “comb” and “tomb” don’t, wuudn’t it maek mor sens to spel wurdz the wae thae sound?

Those in favor of simplified spelling say children would learn faster and illiteracy rates would drop. Opponents say a new system would make spelling even more confusing.

Eether wae, the consept has yet to capcher th publix imajinaeshun.

Must … keep … opinion … to … self … heroic … effort … involved.