Monday, July 28, 2008

information gathering vs. reading

Hardly a week goes by when the media doesn't produce another article or broadcast questioning whether or not the internet makes us dumb. Today, the New York Times features this latest offering that has jumped to the top ten of most read articles, and is actually one of the best I've read on this issue. Media organizations are profit industries, so these angst-filled analyses must be popular topics among readers and viewers, or the question would go away. I think the question itself is dumb.

When I surf the internet, which I do on a daily basis, I don't consider it 'reading' per se. I'm gathering information. Of course, I use my reading skills, but I'm not doing the type of in-depth reading that following the plot-line or character development a novel requires. On the internet I scan or skim-read, looking for and following various nuggets of information. It is not linear reading; it's more like jumping from one thought stream to another. I love reading like that because it follows my own unique way of thinking. I feel as if I'm contributing to my own knowledge-making, rather than absorbing wholesale what a book delivers through a slow, authorial voice.

Now, I love slow, authorial voices, therefore I read novels everyday as well. Much of what I've learned about what it means to be a human being has come from novelists and poets, the best of whom provide a holistic approach to understanding. I believe wholeheartedly in the power of literary transformation and development because I've experienced it. The reason I'm comparing internet surfing to novel reading is that in the NYT article this claim is stated:
The only kind of reading that related to higher academic performance was frequent novel reading, which predicted better grades in English class and higher overall grade point averages.
Whenever I read something like this, I have to ask myself whether smart people are driven to read novels, or frequest novel reading makes us smarter. My guess is that novel readers have the skills to sit in a classroom and attentively follow the linear storyline of a lecture, as well as the linear story progression of a lesson, and make enough sense of both to maintain a high gpa. After all, life is a narrative, right?

Consistent novel reading produces the ability to view a holistic structure as well as mine underlying issues. These are wonderful abstract skills, but at some point we have to come down from the clouds to confirm the facts of what we've learned through our own experience or the experience of others. This is when life gets messy and chaotic and the facts change according to viewpoint and new discoveries. And that's where the internet comes in, an amazing tool to augment our classroom learning through knowledge-gathering and assumption-testing. These skills, however, are not being tested in any systematic way:
Elizabeth Birr Moje, a professor at the University of Michigan who led the study, said novel reading was similar to what schools demand already. But on the Internet, she said, students are developing new reading skills that are neither taught nor evaluated in school.
In fact, the entire world gathers information from the internet, and for the first time many nations' students will be tested on their digital literacy. But not the United States.
The United States is diverging from the policies of some other countries. Next year, for the first time, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which administers reading, math and science tests to a sample of 15-year-old students in more than 50 countries, will add an electronic reading component. The United States, among other countries, will not participate. A spokeswoman for the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the Department of Education, said an additional test would overburden schools.
US schools are too over-burdened to test their students for digital literacy? Instead of teaching students how to gather information to make their own knowledge, we will continue to cram the limited offerings of textbooks down their throats? How's that worked out for us? Will we allow the world to pass us by?

Excuse me while I go read another chapter of my novel.

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