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A couple of weeks ago, I was out of town and feeling rather crummy with a head-cold. In a moment of desperation for a Monday blog topic, I threw out a plea for ideas, and Charles Wiggins sent me a link to a Wall Street Journal book review of the book The Dumbest Generation by Mark Bauerlein. The review was Can U Read Kant? by David Robinson.
Obviously, not many can.
On the surface, the information glut inspired by the Internet seems like a reader’s utopia that would inspire young people to embrace books and reading, but Robinson points to a NAEA study that shows young people spend only about seven minutes a day reading a book. Worse yet, the reading and comprehension levels of teenagers have dropped significantly. The report states that “Only about a third of high school seniors read at a proficient level, a 13 percent decline since 1992. ‘And proficiency is not a high standard,’ Gioia said. ‘We’re not asking them to be able to read Proust in the original. We’re talking about reading the daily newspaper.’”
Without engaging in books and newspapers, younger people are losing their ability to assimilate and interpret basic information. A lot of this has to do with the way we read online. Young people don’t understand how to draw new ideas from the information they read, because they don’t fully understand the information they’re reading.
Jakob Nielsen wrote a 1997 Alertbox column on How Users Read on the Web. Nielsen points out that people “rarely read Web pages word for word; instead they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences.” Out of seventy-nine percent of his test users, only sixteen percent actually read web pages word for word.
If you think that article is a little dated, use your information retrieval skills and Google this phrase: reading vs scanning online articles. There is a whole host of online articles on the subject.
So while young people are spending a great deal of time online where they can find information, they’re not actually reading the information they’re locating, they’re scanning it. Contrast how you read online versus how you read a newspaper article or novel. The attention span necessary to read a book is much greater than the attention span necessary to read an online article.
People raised prior to the Internet’s information explosion learned to read word for word whereas younger generations, who essentially acquire their information online, learned to scan brief blog posts or articles rather than read them word for word. So the problem becomes not so much the ubiquity of the information, but the way in which we read and assess the information available to us.
Adults need to force children to unplug from the Internet. My own daughter developed a deep appreciation for books and the newspapers, because I didn’t allow her to waste hours online. This same daughter, who sometimes has the attention span of a gnat, still sits for hours reading books for pleasure.
Is she a college graduate with a PhD? No, but she can understand the world around her and doesn’t formulate her world-view from misleading sound bites masquerading as news. As a young adult, she reads the newspaper every morning and is a voracious reader of novels. I suppose the most important thing is that she understands how to evaluate and utilize the information around her.
The ubiquity of online information only destroys our appreciation of books and newspapers when we allow the Internet to become the sole source of our information. E-books, computers in the classroom, and the Internet all have their places in the learning and home environments. However, we also need to unplug and make room for books and newspapers too.
What about you? Do you believe the ubiquity of information online has destroyed our appreciation for books and newspapers? Did your parents and grandparents have a deep appreciation for both books and newspapers?