10 April 2014

When "Education" is Used as a Weapon

I began watching the 1968 movie Charly last weekend. I thought, at first, that I wanted to see it again. But as it began to play I remembered the first time I'd seen it, in New Rochelle, New York's Town Theater, when I guess I was 13 and trying very hard to impress a young woman.

Charly 1968.(YouTube) It only took about two and a half minutes...
So I went to this film with this girl and a few of her friends, kids who were not in any of my circles. They were Honors Classes kids at Isaac E. Young Junior High School, and they had parents who were doctors and lawyers and stuff. They were also, being both African-American and professional-parent middle class, two unusual circumstances for kids in that school at that time, were keenly aware of their status. So, I was uncomfortable at the start, but then, the film began. And before three and a half minutes had gone by, I heard, "damn, look at his writing. He's already way smarter than Ira."

The Town, towards the end of its existence
Five years before that afternoon I might have cried. Three years before I probably would have hit someone. At that moment though I did neither. I guess I retreated into a silent stare and watched myself be compared to a white rat. The other kids knew the story, honors English kids read Flowers for Algernon, my classes didn't, so I didn't, but it hadn't taken me long to figure this out.

Dumb kids can get bullied and its all fun. Dumb kids don't get the girl. When you're "smart" life is good. Being dumb, becoming "dumb" again, is tragic. And how do we know Charly Gordon is dumb? He plays on a playground, and he writes like I write, or, as my "friends" pointed out, better.

There are many ways to feel superior to others, and to make that supposed superiority apparent. There are, I suppose, "natural" ways, you might throw or hit a ball further than most others can, or you might draw pictures others cannot, or play music in ways few others are able. And then there are invented ways. Games are one of those, constructing a specific, invented experience at which some can excel and others fail (I know about this too, in high school I was on a basketball team that lost 107-30, no sh**). And much of the academic experience is traditionally another of those specific, invented experiences. In school you get belittled for expressing yourself the wrong way, taking in information the wrong way, often sitting the wrong way. As I've often said, I began school with them telling me I was making my fives wrong - they could tell they were fives but I wasn't following the "correct" order...

You're making your fives wrong. I mean, really?

...and I ended school with people telling me that my citations were wrong. They understood the citations well enough but I wasn't following whatever nonsensical protocol was in fashion. (I believe that the only valid citation these days is a link to your source, otherwise, honestly, nobody will check up on your sources.)

Of course I didn't just make my fives wrong, I made all my letters wrong. And not just in the wrong order, I made them backwards and upside down and often fully incomprehensible. And I couldn't read either. And in the world of "school" that meant that it didn't matter that I could take in stories - fiction and non-fiction - or that I could tell stories - fiction and non-fiction - effectively. It didn't matter that I could work in math in real life. All that mattered was what I couldn't do.

No, that's not quite it. It wasn't just what I couldn't do... it was who I couldn't replicate. I couldn't do things the ways those "in power" wanted them done.

What made me "dumb" was not what my brain might be able to do, or what my abilities or capabilities were. What made me "dumb" was that I didn't write, read, sit, or even persevere like those in power wanted me to. I was "dumb" because I couldn't, and wouldn't, comply.

One flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. Non-compliance will cost you

With that in mind I found endless Tweets about a story about the decline of "serious reading" in the Washington Post. "Serious reading," if you can believe the pretense that this is somehow a technical term.

"I worry that the superficial way we read during the day is affecting us when we have to read with more in-depth processing," said Maryanne Wolf, a Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain," in this paean to the sad level that academic research has seemingly sunk to in America.

The best selling author of the 1920s?
Dr. Wolf imagines a world which never existed. A world where everybody read like she does. I've met many academics who think like this. These are people who actually believe that F. Scott Fitzgerald was the best selling author of the 1920s. In fact, I'm quite certain that it was Dr. Seuss's original work, "Quick Henry, the Flit!"

These are the same people who railed against the "Dime Novels" of the 1890s, against film, radio, comic books, television, computers, the early internet... whatever didn't look like the kinds of information and story intake these "leaders" had found comfort in.

"Wolf, one of the world’s foremost experts on the study of reading," says the Post in a completely unsubstantiated assertion, "was startled last year to discover her brain was apparently adapting, too. After a day of scrolling through the Web and hundreds of e-mails, she sat down one evening to read Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. ...“I’m not kidding: I couldn’t do it,” she said. “It was torture getting through the first page. I couldn’t force myself to slow down so that I wasn’t skimming, picking out key words, organizing my eye movements to generate the most information at the highest speed. I was so disgusted with myself.” Ahh... I say, wanting to give both the professor and reporter failing grades in research methods. Dr. Wolf begins research not with quality observation, and not with a developed research question, but with a Seinfeldesque random anecdote. "I was riding the subway the other day and noticed someone reading a TV Guide with Al Roker on the cover, and from this I became determined to write a book about the decline of intellectualism in America."

So, my personal anecdote cancels out Dr. Wolf's personal anecdote,
Why doesn't the Washington Post report that?

Do people read with in-depth processing? Sure, sometimes. And they do that whether they are decoding ink on paper symbols or listening to the radio or watching a film or television or listening to a friend talk. And mostly they don't, whether reading - say, Tom Clancy - or watching a James Bond movie, or listening to simplistic music. Is CNN worth deep reading? Was that Washington Post article? No, of course not. Is listening to my friends tell stories? Then, probably. But its always been that way. I also watched The Americanization of Emily recently, an amazing 1964 film that's surely demanding of serious attention. On the other hand, the current Cosmos TV series had me wandering off within 20 minutes. What can I say? Is that a web problem? A text messaging problem? A mobile phone problem? No, if those things weren't here I'd still stop paying attention to stuff without sufficient interest.
"You American haters bore me to tears, Ms. Barham. I've dealt with Europeans all my life. I know all about us parvenus from the States who come over here and race around your old Cathedral towns with our cameras and Coca-Cola bottles... Brawl in your pubs, paw at your women, and act like we own the world. We over-tip, we talk too loud, we think we can buy anything with a Hershey bar. I've had Germans and Italians tell me how politically ingenuous we are, and perhaps so. But we haven't managed a Hitler or a Mussolini yet. I've had Frenchmen call me a savage because I only took half an hour for lunch. Hell, Ms. Barham, the only reason the French take two hours for lunch is because the service in their restaurants is lousy. The most tedious lot are you British. We crass Americans didn't introduce war into your little island. This war, Ms. Barham to which we Americans are so insensitive, is the result of 2,000 years of European greed, barbarism, superstition, and stupidity. Don't blame it on our Coca-cola bottles. Europe was a going brothel long before we came to town." - "Serious Reading" in The Americanization of Emily
The research Dr. Wolf and others quoted in the article is so bad, it is laughable. "Before the Internet, the brain read mostly in linear ways — one page led to the next page, and so on. Sure, there might be pictures mixed in with the text, but there didn’t tend to be many distractions. Reading in print even gave us a remarkable ability to remember where key information was in a book simply by the layout, researchers said. We’d know a protagonist died on the page with the two long paragraphs after the page with all that dialogue.," Wolf says proving how little she has actually experienced of even literature - missing everything from poetry to DosPassos to the beats to all postcolonial literature, but, there you go... research and knowledge are not Dr.Wolf's, nor the Post's, purpose here.

The purpose in that article is the snarky over-educated equivalent of, "damn, look at his writing. He's already way smarter than Ira." The purpose of Dr. Wolf's book is to humiliate all who do not read like she does, so she can project her own superiority.

We'd simply laugh at her, and I guess eventually feel sorry for her incredibly limited life, if she was just making these assertions over cheap brandy in the faculty lounge ;-) - but what she and the Post are doing is incredibly dangerous - incredibly harmful - to a hundred million kids in America who may get branded as being "less intelligent" and "unserious readers" because they read more like, I don't know, Jack Kerouac or Lawrence Ferlinghetti, than Maryanne Wolf.

Maryanne Wolf is doing "research" into why more people aren't like Maryanne Wolf - which might be a legitimate question for her, but she has no right to demean others who might struggle with Hermann Hesse's writing, who might jump around when reading things of little interest.

"They're reading texts and watching TV and jumping around," people will say, while labeling them failures.

So here's my answer to those who want people to be like them, who think the way they do things is superior. It's the same answer I should have said way back when in the Town Theater, "Shut the F*** Up." That's a clear answer and anyone can read it really deeply, really seriously.

Because I am finished hearing about those "good ol' days," about how much better things were "back then." You know, "back then" our schools sucked for most kids. They were bored and frustrated. They read no better then than now. Many fewer graduated from high school, many, many fewer went to college. People chose bad movies and third rate books then, and now. Zane Grey for God's sake. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? did very well in 1966, but if you add up Grand Prix, Lt. Robinson Crusoe, The Good The Bad and the Ugly, and The Russians are Coming The Russians are Coming, you'll see an audience three or four times as big. The same would be true today.

Americans chose to fight a worthless war against Spain in 1898 and a very questionable war in Iraq more than a century later. Our media is still targeted at the 6th Grade reading level, now, as then, because that's where most people are. It was that way the first time we gave a standardized reading test in 1867 (pdf), it is that way on every NAEP result since.

So I'd rather find what works for people, in their worlds, instead of criticizing them or humiliating
When was the last time a five paragraph essay
was ever written outside of school?
them. I don't want to talk about "serious reading" or "slow reading" or "deep reading," I want to talk about effective reading which I define as getting information and stories into your head in ways which are useful to each individual.

I don't want to talk about inattention and divided attention and shallow attention. Nobody cares. We don't have the time. We need to help each other find ways to focus when we need to and how to be "ADHD" when we need that, and we need that a great deal. Because while you're doing your "serious reading" the world might be changing, and those changes might change how you understand what you just read.

And I don't want to talk about writing - of course - because your writing rules are tied to antique technologies. From your citation rules to your sentence structures - which, frankly, John DosPassos was tossing out over 80 years ago because they were already antiquated, from your use of pens and pencils to your grammatical limitations, from your belief in required lengths of certain works to your five paragraph essays... its all nonsense. What matters is communication, what matters is empowering voices.

Life is a real thing. People are real people. They all have different needs, differing abilities, capabilities, interests, and they change day-by-day, minute-by-minute. They want to play more than they want to work, but they want to do the things they want to do well. So let's stop telling them how they must do things and making them feel bad about what they do, and let's let them be human.

- Ira Socol