Is it possible that raising one’s children to be avid readers is becoming an mark of antiquarianism? Such is the thesis of this recent op-ed, “Literature is the New Latin”. Michael Reist writes:
No one would argue that literacy is not an essential life skill — one needs to be able to decode the prompts on an ATM, to be able to recognize the titles of YouTube videos — but the sustained reading of many pages of text is quickly becoming obsolete, like Latin.
Literature has a boring format. Even if I transfer the book to the cool platform of my iPad, I still have to decipher pages and pages of black squiggles on a white background. Novels have no pictures, sound or choice. After reading page one, I have to go to page two — and there are hundreds of these pages. To the mind raised in cyberspace, what could be more boring?
This puts me in mind of a poem by Chesterton, which reads (in part):
Our fathers to creed and tradition were tied,
They opened a book to see what was inside,
And of various methods they deemed not the worst
Was to find the first chapter and look at it first.
And so from the first to the second they passed,
Till in servile routine they arrived at the last.
But a literate age, unbenighted by creed,
Can find on two boards all it wishes to read;
For the front of the cover shows somebody shot
And the back of the cover will tell you the plot.
Now that was satire, once upon a time, but perhaps no longer? Are such ideas really as far to the fringe as they ought to be? It is not the first time I have heard the claim that the multi-media options available today render reading far less attractive, or that we are moving from a literate to a visual culture in which reading will be far less prevalent. (As I write I am sitting in front of a new version of MS Word in which the former text-based menus have been replaced by panels of little visual icons, few of which have any meaning to me.) Perhaps we are all due for another look at McLuhan.
Mr Reist’s students apparently take it for granted that we go to school for job training, so anything that won’t help on the job might as well be jettisoned. This itself points to a major failing of our education system, for we should think of education as a training of the mind, an enrichment of the soul, and a preparation for a lifelong engagement with our long cultural and intellectual tradition.
I take two lessons away. First, it is important to put limits on the use of electronic media in our home if we, as parents, want to encourage reading in our family. Second, to the extent that in our classrooms “literature is being replaced by “literacy activities” that are interactive and online to “engage today’s student””, we should think twice about sending our children to school.
Note: I have edited the original version of this post, after having been encouraged to re-read the newspaper article more charitably. I also would like to note that Mr. Reist has published several books on education, and I am told that they are good and instructive reads.