Friday, December 14, 2012

The Future Literacy

A little survey on my favourite research cohort - students - and everyone tells me that they don't read books anymore. I am not delusional - I already expected that - but I am still sad: It is as if no one cared about the death of my old friend. But there is more than that: I am also puzzled how to teach a Postgraduate qualification without books interfering. Some younger friends tell me that this is a Generation X problem though, something like dementia, people successfully complete research degrees without reading books, which may very well be true. However, this is a personal problem: I live surrounded by books, I spend most of my money on them and my greatest regret in life is about being separated from the collection I built up over the years but had to leave behind in India when I migrated. So, I talk in books - my teaching is often walking through the ideas etched on paper, and my efforts in the classroom are mostly focused on making students discover the joy of that secret Shangri-la. In an age when reading books is uncool, my methods and I may sure look outdated.

So, I moaned: I asked why they don't read books. The most common answer was that they used to, but life's other priorities have taken over. I fully sympathise - that happened to me too, that keeps happening to me at times - and I know how hard life can be for a full-time student while they work part time and also live a full-blown social and family life. Just too many things to do to take time to read! For me, when I feel similarly submerged, I try harder: I surround myself with books, taking out my full quota from libraries, stealing few minutes out of work hours to stroll down to charity shops, and even, in my new start-up avatar, set up meetings in the cafe inside Waterstones at Trafalgar Square, so that I am still surrounded. I usually read several books at a time, often reading only a few pages at a time, often violating that strong affectionate linear attention that the act of book-reading demands: However, that is my act of love, just like stealing a kiss, so that I am reminded of love. And, then, finally, inevitably, the noise of life subsides and I am able to read a book from end to finish, sometimes through a night, which gives me the sense of fulfilment, a successful conclusion after waiting for that moment to come. It is an elaborate dance, perhaps too elaborate, but this is my way of having a sentient existence.

Therefore, I told my students that: That it is like having no time to read at all, an act, or the lack of it, that may condemn them to ignorance. Then the truth came out, slowly but inevitably, everyone in the class reflecting and confessing that it is not that they don't have the time, but book-reading has been squeezed out of their life as the Internet has taken over. They read online, which is reassuring for me as a teacher to know, but still painful as a book-reader. We launched into a discussion about relative merits of Internet reading thereafter, the discontinuous culture of Internet reading versus the patient pursuit of books, the digital versus the intensely physical, musty smell and all, experience of reading. There were clearly two sides of the debate, a muted disbelief that I am even trying to defend book-reading: It was cast to be one of those age versus youth, old versus new, debates, where the new ideas must eventually win.

But, indeed, I am not denouncing Internet: I am a old digital hand, having fallen in love with Internet before the web was born. Indeed, I did not read on the Internet then - that is precisely my point - I connected with people. For me, coming from those bulletin boards, Internet was a live experience, connected, noisy and full of people, not a solitary one to disconnect and to read. I came to blog writing almost naturally thereafter: Internet was a place to talk, to have a conversation. Then, when it was still a green screen with blinking text, Internet sat neatly with my various other habits, talking to people, writing by hand, book reading, watching Star Trek on Television etc. I am no one to tell people to digitally disconnect, as I can't. But, I felt, telling me that reading on the Internet is squeezing everything else out is like being able to speak, but not able to read, is one thing consuming the other to nothingness, an intellectual poverty rather than enlightenment.

We must labour on this point further. Socrates denounced writing, because he thought mental faculties needed to remember and argue would diminish as a consequence. This is cited as a classic (indeed, classical) example of fear of the new media, but there is a somewhat broader point (as with everything Socrates ever said or did). The new media shouldn't impoverish us, not replace our old literacy but to add to that. Take for example the great education innovator Jan Comenius, who used the great innovation of his age, printing press, to the pressing education problem of costs of teaching, and came up with textbooks, which revolutionised teaching but eventually undermined other skills, of remembering and understanding the classical literature, and resulted in Victorian classrooms. This is one example at hand where the new media replacing the old impoverish us, rather than adding on to it, something that Socrates so presciently observed.

We may be time-poor, but this is my point: Internet represents a different opportunity, that of sharing and connecting, and must be treated as such. I am greatly enthused by the experiments in social reading, where it enables reading together, but not of interactive texts, where the voice of commerce (what else to expect) can interrupt the one on one conversation between the book and its readers. I am an enthusiast of new media skills and would go as far as possible to acquire it, and writing this post on my laptop plugged on to the wi-fi at Waterstones, I celebrate it too: But, may this not be at the expense of what we already have, a great ability to transport our voices over time, as represented in the frozen form of books, the ability to read deeply and without distraction, and imagine, without being told what to think by the ubiquitous voice of the salesman who must, and always do, intrude whenever we drop our guards. 

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