Saturday, August 15, 2009

Fahrenheit 98.6

A few weeks ago, I explored how our culture celebrates certain behaviors and attributes when displayed by children, even as those same behaviors are not lauded when exhibited by adults. As an example, we don't give adults Pizza Hut gift certificates when they have finished a set number of books. Yet even if we don't put theory into practice, and even as we show movement toward a postliterate society, I believe we still have a strong theoretical underpinning in our society that holds that reading is an inherently constructive act. Whether that theory is built on solid empirical data or whether it is a result of a kind of educational indoctrination (or somewhere in between), the fact is that to read a book, any book really, is vaguely considered to be "better" than watching a television show-- in the same way that eating broccoli is considered to be better than eating ice cream.

As such, we have no problem with our educational institutions mandating concepts like "Sustained Silent Reading" or DEAR ("Drop Everything and Read"), in which children are given freedom to choose reading material, then given an allotted time to peruse it. Of course, if a school allowed students to spend an hour in sustained silent Xbox playing, there would probably be quite a bit of opposition, even as research shows that children can and do develop cognitively from playing video games.

So knowing that there is a privilege assigned to the act of reading, I wonder if this privilege could theoretically exert an influence in policy beyond that which is applied to captive schoolchildren. Many people, most famously Ray Bradbury, have speculated about and warned against a possible dystopian future in which a government censors books, perhaps even removing all of them from circulation. I have yet to see anyone speculate on the opposite scenario, in which a government actually forces books upon a populace. I'm not taking about the issuing of one-sided propaganda, but rather a situation in which a government actually seeks to benevolently foster growth and learning.

Such a scenario may not be all that far fetched when one considers that there are theocracies in the world today that more or less shut down for ritual prayers. And there are many cultures, not just in Latin America, that observe an afternoon siesta. So what about a 30 minute or 60 minute block of time in the afternoon in the USA for good old-fashioned SSR? Broadcasters and Internet-service providers would be required to shut down, as would all commerce. If you wanted to envision a real unswerving approach, you could even close down roads and force everyone pull over to the side to read.

Though I truly believe that there are dormant ideological roots in our society that could help such a notion flourish, I am not unaware that to suggest locking down commerce in the middle of the business day (or really any time of day in this era of 24-hour service) is, as of now, a deal-breaker. But there are a couple factors, which should they come to pass, would perhaps at least open up some soil around those aforementioned roots. Here is what would need to happen:

1) Sustained economic crisis: As we realize that the status quo is not working, we would become open to even radical alternatives
2) A de-emphasis on specialization: This could also come about because of economic distress. As we realize that we may not be able to lock into a single career, and as we realize that time devoted to intellectual development can help us to flourish in diverse settings, we become open to alternatives to business as usual
3) An emphasis on quality over quantity: Americans already put in more hours than workers in many other nations. Sociologists are making the case that we are gaining nothing from our increased endeavors-- except for increased anxiety. As we realize this, we may rebel.
4) A technological backlash: As a culture we are still in the adjustment phase to the new reality that we can be located 24/7. It really wasn't that long ago that if you weren't home, you weren't reachable. While we have gained much from cell phones and blackberries, we have also given up much. A compromise period of an hour "off grid" for everyone could be a way to reconcile convenience and anxiety.
5) An emphasis on cultural literacy: E.D. Hirsch has been trying for years to raise awareness of this issue, but at some point it might come to pass that despite the world of information at our fingertips, we will realize that we don't know anything about anything. The collective shame of this realization will motivate us to take action.

Whether or not the above factors fall into place and this scenario ever comes to pass, I wouldn't mind reading a book about a society that tries it.


Blogger Teecycle Tim said...

Done. Going to read this right now:

12:30 AM  
Blogger Joe Vince said...

Do you want people to be reading more or do you want them to be learning more?

I think people are reading more now than they ever had thanks to the Internet. People today probably read more e-mails and text messages compared to how many snail-mailed missives they might have ever received. And although Mom & Pop shops are becoming extinct, there's no shortage of chain bookstores.

The problem is what people are reading. Yes, reading as an action flexes certain brain muscles, but not as much as composing music or doing math problems.

I'd rather figure out a way to make the act of learning more palatable in our society. Thanks to institutionalized education, learning has become stigmatized as being a chore. The lack of substantive reading is just a symptom.

1:11 AM  

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