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By now, it should come as no surprise that entertainment outlets such as television, movies, social media and video games have surpassed their literary predecessors. For the majority of Americans, especially the younger generation, gone are the days of simply reading for leisure or purposes of news and research. Instead, we now exist in a period of time where we’d much rather consume ourselves with visual stimulation as opposed to indulging in print media. In other words, we prefer to watch the news, or some news outlet, rather than read about it for ourselves. Such a drastic shift has led to the expansion of popular streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, while simultaneously allowing for movies like Avengers: Endgame to net over $2.79 billion at the global box office within just 87 days of its release. This led me to wonder, why do we hear about the success of major films and TV shows so often, yet hear very little about literature anymore? Is it because we have made a plethora of technological advancements over the years, or is there something else? Moreover, can this loss of literacy be the explanation behind a generation of uninformed and mentally stubborn individuals? Due to an absence of liberation in our schools and a rise in digital media use, it is my belief that we are becoming more and more uneducated by the day.
In order to understand why we have suddenly become predisposed to have a lack of knowledge, it is imperative that we first examine how the problem originated in the first place: a lack of liberal education. In 1990, David Breneman, former president of Kalamazoo College and a former visiting professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, published a study on the number of liberal arts colleges that existed. At the time, Breneman found that of the nearly 3,400 institutions in America, only 212 of them met the requirements of what he felt were true liberal arts colleges; colleges that primarily award degrees in the arts and sciences, like English, history, chemistry, and psychology. Fast forward twenty-two years later, and we find that number to decrease to a mere 130 remaining colleges in the year 2012, a trend that has likely continued as time progresses. Lorraine Smith Pangle, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, proposes that as we shift towards more technical and professional programs, we will likely see a “restructuring of universities…that perform more like businesses”. Ultimately, this will result in a model where student success metrics are determined solely by grades alone, and professors and instructors alike will be pressured into teaching basic, fundamental tasks that can easily be reproduced.
But why is this such a bad thing? Doesn’t it make more sense to promote a model that equips students with the technical skills necessary to gain employment upon graduation? Well, not necessarily. As noted in Pangle’s publication, many employers find themselves displeased with the level of “writing and critical thinking skills” that are presented by potential applicants. Basically, we are not properly armed with intangible skills (communication, team work, writing reports, etc.) that are crucial to being successful and thriving in a competitive work environment. At its core, Pangle offers a loose definition of what it means to have a liberal education. She suggests that liberal education is “an effort to instill breadth, general knowledge, critical thinking skills…and a taste for the life of the mind as an end in itself”. It is this model of education that will encourage its students to read thought-provoking literature and engage in conversations that require a thorough examination of the hard questions that must be answered. Furthermore, by studying the works of famous philosophers like Socrates and Plato, Pangle believes that students will gain a greater appreciation for deep, intellectual conversations and discover that they are more than capable of articulating their own personal convictions; they will no longer accept arbitrary truths presented at face value. Since reading is an integral component of the liberal arts, it would be plausible to witness a heightened interest in many literary forms from the majority of young students. But rather than encourage the facilitation of free thinking in our public education system, we have created an environment where we force our students to read assignments and remember insignificant details related to the passages. Hence, we have transformed reading into more or less a chore, causing students to see it as a mundane task rather than a beneficial and enjoyable leisure.
So, if we are no longer reading for pleasure and have formed a genuine disinterest in the subject, then what are we doing with our time? In their study titled To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) confirmed that reading was no longer popular amongst young adults. In 2002, the NEA reported that the percentage of adults, aged 18-45, who read for recreational purposes had significantly declined over a ten-year span. On average, there was about a 6.3% decrease within the age group, a figure that was estimated to be anywhere from around 5-6 million people. Unsurprisingly, this evidence was supported by an increase in teenagers, ages 13 and 17, who reported to “never or hardly ever” read any type of literature for fun, and a decrease in reading habits among UCLA students once they reached college. Instead, it was found that teenagers and young adults spent the majority of their free time watching television or engaging themselves in some other type of activity. Statistics showed that individuals over the age of 15 spent anywhere from 2-3 hours per day watching television, while only spending a measly 20 minutes reading. Now, I do recognize that this study was conducted in 2008 and used data that was collected almost twenty years ago. However, due to the rise of technological innovations and social networking sites, I am overly confident that the trends have remained the same over the years.
We have completely emerged ourselves into what many would call a “digital age.” Seeing as we have cultivated a generation of non-readers, it has become increasingly common to see a toddler properly operate a hand-held device prior to even being able to read and write in full sentences. I would argue that we have a compulsion to watch our entertainment because it is less invasive. Subconsciously, I believe that humans have developed a fascination with living vicariously through the lives of others. As Henry Beckwith states in his novel Unthinking: The Surprising Forces Behind What We Buy, we like it when characters are portrayed just as we are. In other words, we feel at ease when we are able to visually witness a character on screen experience the same trials and tribulations that we go through on a daily basis. On the flip side, we also enjoy seeing happiness and prosperity, as it gives us reassurance for an optimistic future.
In an article titled Why Do We Identify With Fictional Characters?, author Keith Hillman, a writer with experience in neuroscience and biological psychology, further explores this idea of why we tend to grasp onto the lives of on screen characters. Hillman proposes that we have an “evolutionary tendency” to self-identify with objects that we determine to be real as a result of our dire need for human “companionship”. This inherently conquers the premise of reading literature that simply contains words that are inanimate in our eyes; they hold little to no emotional value at all. Additionally, a visualization of characters gives us the ability to empathize with others. We can allow ourselves to completely dissociate from our own lives with a clear consciousness, bearing none of the responsibility for any negative consequences that may come.
But we haven’t resorted to just watching television or movies; we have shifted our attention elsewhere. With the rise of social media sites, internet usage among adolescents has seen a significant increase across multiple digital platforms. As recently as 2016, it was found that 82% of middle school and high school students reported using social media “almost every day,” while also doubling their internet usage time over a ten-year period. Unsurprisingly, as the use of this new media increased, the use of older “legacy media” rapidly declined (Twenge et al., 10). Subsequently, a sample of high school seniors reported spending, on average, approximately 8 hours of leisure time in front of some type of screen (TV, computer, cell phone), a number that has virtually tripled since the 1970s. This has ultimately created a new generation of students who will be ill-prepared to handle the academic rigors that will come their way. Arguably, it will be more challenging for a student to navigate their way through credible sources of information. It will be difficult for them to understand that a one-click search on Google will no longer suffice.
Since we now have access to multiple forms of digital media, it is much easier for us to become susceptible to inaccurate information. What’s more alarming, however, is that we tend to seek out these inaccuracies on purpose in order to comply with our own personal biases. In a report written by psychologists William Hart et al., it was determined that people are twice as likely to “select information congenial…to their preexisting attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors”. That is, we prefer to process ideas that agree with or are in line with our viewpoints. By doing so, we allow ourselves to feel “validated” about our perspectives, regardless of whether the information is truthful or not. This can leave us vulnerable to falling victim to the spread of disinformation and misinformation by various sources. The inadequacy of peer reviews and fact checking has led multiple political figures to spread propaganda across an open social media market and “manipulate” the views of its users (Bradshaw and Howard, 21). I’m sure we are all familiar with the ongoing accusations surrounding Russia’s involvement in the 2016 United States presidential election. But falling victim to false information is only half the battle. We must also overcome our inclination to believing it as well.
According to David Rapp, a psychologist at Northwestern University, people tend to believe misinformation simply because it does not require their minds to undergo any thorough or demanding contemplation. In his publication titled The Consequences of Reading Inaccurate Information, Rapp explains that we “encode a trace of the presented inaccuracies…in short-term memory”, later suggesting that our brains decide to retrieve this information first because it is easier (Deardorff, “Why We Fall”). Rapp also details how we can be misled into believing information that may appear to be true. He mentions that “plausible alternatives create confusion,” further explaining that people are less likely to investigate general knowledge. It would be extremely unbelievable if I said that water was dangerous for our consumption, and thus, you would have no problem dismissing my statement; it is implausible. However, if I were to post a news article highlighting a single act of criminal activity involving an illegal immigrant, and then later comment on how illegal immigrants are the primary source of crime in America, it’d be much more likely that you would believe my words to be true without doing any further research on the topic. This highlights a major issue at the dawn of social media and internet searches: credible sources. Rapp notes that even when we are suspicious of a source, we still manage to view it as being “credible”. I don’t know if this is a lack of laziness, or just our tendency to believe what others say. Either way, we are doing a major disservice to ourselves.
So how do we solve this issue? I think it starts with bringing liberal arts back into our school system. History and statistics have shown that a lack of liberal education has led to a decrease in reading and critical thinking skills. This has attributed to a rise in digital media consumption that is filled with misinformation. We have to show appreciation and respect for the arts. We must encourage our students to read by giving them multiple options of text to choose from, as well as a number of argumentative writing prompts. We have to stop teaching to a test, and start exploring the depths of life; stop making students believe that an A is equivalent to a wealth of knowledge. It is also imperative that we do our own research, check the validity of our sources, and remain as unbiased as possible. We must stop seeking out information that will undoubtedly agree with our stance and be willing to face the fact that we could be wrong. We have to listen to one another, and initiate conversations that will share different perspectives and enact change. In doing so, we will properly educate ourselves, as well as future generations to come.
A lack of truly educated individuals would be detrimental to our society, especially with the number of looming issues that lie ahead of us. And I don’t just mean college graduates with a diploma; many people can graduate with a piece of paper and have no knowledge of themselves, nor the world around them. Instead, we need individuals who are willing to think critically and take on the task of solving climate change, healthcare disparities, immigration issues, and social injustices against people of lower socioeconomic status. In short, we need innovators and problem solvers that will contribute to a resolution, not individuals who will start a disastrous revolution.
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