OMG Johnny Can’t Read

The other week was only the latest takedown of what has become a fashionable segment of the population to bash: the American teenager. A phone (land line!) survey of 1,200 17-year-olds, conducted by the research organization Common Core and released Feb. 26, found our young people to be living in “stunning ignorance” of history and literature.

This furthered the report that the National Endowment for the Arts came out with at the end of 2007, lamenting “the diminished role of voluntary reading in American life,” particularly among 13-to-17-year-olds, and Doris Lessing’s condemnation, in her acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in literature, of “a fragmenting culture” in which “young men and women … have read nothing, knowing only some specialty or other, for instance, computers.”

Amy Goldwasse, Salon, March 14, 2008

There has been a real run lately on these sorts of stories. One conservative blogger is even recommending that old chestnut, Why Johnny Can’t Read, as a corrective to what he (or she, but it has to be a he) calls “the entire leftist establishment that has so dominated our culture for decades.” These studies come out regularly, but I think it was Dorris Lessing’s Nobel Prize speech that started this round.

Goldwasse takes a swipe at Lessing, of course, although I get the feeling that she did not read the speech. If she did, then she would know that Lessing’s point was that the powerful always turn technology against the powerless. Why should the Internet be any different? Lessing worries that we have turned some terrible corner, that the powerful have in recent years won a victory that may be impossible to reverse. It’s also fascinating that Lessing herself seems so foreign to writers like Goldwasse.

What I most disagreeable about Goldwasse’s defense of the young is its political naivitee. If you can’t see class, race, and even gender, perhaps because you have fallen in love with a stylish, ironic detachment, it’s hard to see that the Internet might be empowering to some but not all youth. It seems pretty obvious, for example, that the online voices are more affluent than the off line voices and that as usual the affluent voices are getting the most attention.

It is equally obvious that some Johnnys and Janes are getting more help in their reading and writing and computer skills than others. Why wouldn’t the Internet reflect that too? If you take class into consideration, then in effect Goldwasse is defending the privileged. I think she’s right, too, in that the online kids are probably not in much danger of becoming the village idiots of world culture. Even their misbehaviors come from their material advantages. The poor are in a very different boat.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and Smarthinking.com. I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol] writinginthewild.com

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