Will the Internet kill the book?

Genrich L. Krasko

 

 

To destroy the Western tradition of independent thought, it is not necessary to burn the books.  All we need to do is leave them unread for one generation.

Dr. Robert Maynard Hutchins, former President of University of Chicago

 

 

Recently I spent a few hours on line, having typed the following words into Google: “Future of the book.”  I received a long list of Internet sites.  Most of them, of course, discuss the problem:  Will the computer kill the book? 

I also came across a book entitled “Future of the Book”.  It was a collection of papers presented at a conference in Italy in 1994.  The Afterword was written by Umberto Eco[1] (author of bestselling “Foucault’s Pendulum”, “The Name of the Rose” and many other books).  I borrowed this book from my town library.  I also borrowed another interesting book, “The Gutenberg Elegies:  The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age” by Sven Birkerts.  This is a collection of essays – reflecting on the future of the book, and, actually, on our humanitarian culture.

Umberto Eco, an intellectual of the highest caliber, was anxious about whether the proliferation of computers will eventually force us to sacrifice our literary culture.  Will “computer literacy” leave people “culturally ignorant”?  His answer to this troubling question is Yes.  But what is the bottom line?  Participants of the conference agreed that, most probably, the “brick and mortar” libraries and printed books would gradually disappear.  Whatever information people need, they will be able to get it through computers.  In spite of the common confusion about the difference between information and knowledge, the authors tried to analyze the impact of computers on our traditional ways of reading and learning.

In one of his essays, Birkerts quotes from a book discussed in the 1992 New York Times Book Review, terrifyingly entitled “The End of Books”:

 

“In the real world nowadays, that is to say, in the world of video transmissions, cellular phones, fax machines, computer networks, and in particular out in the humming digitized precincts of avant-garde computer hackers, cyberpunks and hyperspace freaks, you will often hear it said that the print medium is doomed and outdated technology, a mere curiosity of bygone days and destined soon to be consigned forever to those dusty unattended museums we now call libraries.  Indeed, the very proliferation of books and other print-based media, so prevalent in this forest-harvesting, paper-wasting age, is held to be a sign of its feverish moribundity, the last futile gasp of once-vital form before it finally passes away forever, dead as God.”

 

The author of that book (from which the above quote was taken) Robert Coover is obviously concerned, if not terrified with the predictions of postmodern high-tech-age prophets.  But God has always been dead for those for whom God never existed.  The same is true of books:  For those who prophesize their imminent death, books – as a bottomless well of knowledge and the source of intellectual and spiritual nourishment – have never existed either.

No wonder that almost no one in those many Internet pages even guessed that the computer would kill the book as a source of knowledge, rather than just an object made of paper. 

People – especially children and youngsters – now read less and less; even worse, they are not encouraged to read by either parents or teachers.  Today, according to the National Endowment for the Arts[2],

 

“15-to 24-year-olds spend an average of just seven minutes a day on voluntary reading. Two thirds of all college freshmen said they almost never read a book or an article outside their schoolwork.”

 

But what has the proliferation of high-tech gadgets to do with books disappearing from the lives of millions of people?  This process began well before the first computer appeared.  And it continues with its own dynamics.

Computers have come just in time when boredom [3] became proliferating in our lives.  And now they are one of the main vehicles helping to kill it.  People spend hours surfing the Internet looking mostly for information with the main objective to be entertained.  Psychologists now even talk about Internet addictions; among the “Internet drugs,” gambling and games are the most dangerous; the latter – especially for children.

Surfing the Internet for hours is not a substitute for reading.  It is jumping from link to link, from entry to entry, from message to message in attempt to acquire information.  While reading requires focusing, persistence and imagination; apart from bringing about an important nutrition for the soul, it is also the main vehicle of acquiring knowledge.

As for the “experimentation” so many are proud of:  substitution of such concepts as “hypertext” and multimedia for the “linear” book, has nothing to do with “killing the book.”  The book is dying because education, as it has been understood for centuries, is dying.

In this country – and more and more throughout the world – training becomes a substitute for education (seeTraining or Education? America’s Cultural and Existential Dilemma).  The objective of education as seen today by both educational professionals and people in the street, is teaching basic skills that would later facilitate finding a good job and competing in an ever more cruel job market. 

Unwillingness to read books is just one side of the problem.  It is one of the symptoms of a more serious disease: our educational system, depriving children of broad knowledge of the world, unwittingly prevents them from acquiring the ability of clear and logical thinking, of analyzing both society’s and personal problems, and, ultimately, of making responsible decisions.  These qualities naturally emerge with maturity.  And so many adults are but over-aged teenagers.

In my view, books play fundamental role in building character and acquiring maturity.  Reading good books enables an individual to participate in lives of people from different epochs and civilizations.  People learn how to empathize with books’ characters, suffer and be happy together with them.  Without reading one experiences only one’s own live; reading expands life experience, makes life – the real life outside books – richer, more fulfilled.

If, beginning with middle school on, children do not study mathematics seriously (e.g. if they do not prove theorems in studying geometry – and this is the case in a typical American school today) – they diminish their chances to be able to think in abstract categories and even think logically as adults.  This, in the future, will jeopardize their ability to study not only technical but humanitarian disciplines as well.  The student may read all the reading material given as an assignment, and even pass the test, but, most probably, all that "knowledge" will be flushed out from one's brain in a very short time.

If children’s knowledge of the physical world is provided only by shallow science courses, rather than by mandatory courses of physics (separately mechanics, electricity and magnetism, nuclear physics, and astronomy), chemistry (separately inorganic and organic), and biology (separately botany, zoology, and elements of microbiology and genetics), then we should not be astonished that high-school graduates know virtually nothing of the Newton’s laws, of basic astronomy, of radioactivity (hence the public outcry over development of nuclear power plants), or of the micro-world of bacteria and viruses.

If geography is not a mandatory subject in so many public schools, why should we be surprised that so many children (and adults!) cannot even show the United States on the map, to say nothing about them knowing virtually nothing about the world at large: its people, its cultures, and conditions they live in?

If children, and later young adults, do not seriously study history –not as part of "social studies," with the only objective to show, in a "politically correct" way, how the slavery in ancient Greece and Rome later transformed into the slavery in America – they will not understand how civilizations have evolved.  In no way will then the adults be able to understand the lessons of the past.  In no way will they (including too often their ignorant leaders) acquire the wisdom that is required of a citizen in a democratic society, and which is necessary for the viability and stability of our civilization.  And why should we be astonished that less than 50 percent of people care to vote?

But the current anti-intellectual educational system[4] did not appear in America overnight.  At the end of the nineteenth century, a fierce battle was raging between the advocates of pragmatic training-oriented education and their opponents.

In 1893, The National Education Association’s Committee of Ten, comprised of distinguished educators under the chairmanship of Harvard University president Charles William Eliot, recommended that America’s secondary schools have “as a minimum, four years of English, four years of foreign language, three years of history, three years of mathematics, and three years of science.”[5]   The committee, in its recommendations, insisted that the proposed curriculum was not to be considered a preparation for college education.  They stressed that even if only an insignificant percentage of high school graduates should go on to colleges,

 

“…every subject which is taught at all in a secondary school be taught in the same way and to the same extent to every pupil so long as he pursues it, no matter what the probable destination of the pupil may be or at what point his education is to cease.”

 

The majority of schools did not accept these recommendations.  By 1918, American public schools were completely “reformed,” and “liberated” from any ideas and practices having to do with broad academic education.

By the early 20s, a new so-called Progressive Movement in Education, began making an impact, and soon completely took over American education.  Its theory and practice have been dominating American education ever since.

A distinguished journalist, whose thoughtful nonpartisan editorials are often a breath of fresh air against the background of Right-Left political bickering, wrote recently, almost word-for-word echoing the claims of the progressive educators of one hundred years ago:

 

Students today are still taught trigonometry and algebra instead of, say, basic medicine; they are taught ancient history and English literature.  They are not routinely taught basic business skills or human skills for parenting and marriage.  Advanced mathematics and memorization of facts are at the core of our high school education and its test-oriented system.

 

Unfortunately, it is not a joke, and many American educators and politicians are ready to "reform" our education in that direction.

But do we, today, need the broad, “academic” education?

A while ago I came across an interesting Amazon.com book review on Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, a seminal book, probably the first one to discuss the decline of our education.  When it was published in 1987, it caused an uproar in the educational establishment and among ideologues of progressive education.  Bloom was accused of attempting to force on America “his own culture” (as they called it), and of insisting on the necessity of a broad liberal education.  His opponents understood that it was not the education that he had been criticizing but the foundations of our culture.

Knowing too well how quickly people forget, I was astonished that 20 years later, people still read Bloom.  And there are quite a few Amazon.com reviews on line.  The one I mentioned strongly resonates (albeit in a negative way) with my own thoughts, and even mentions my name (with respect to my book):

 

“If we frame this debate with Bloom, Neil Postman, Mark Edmundson, and Genrich Krasko all on one side, whom do we have on the other?  There are plenty of folks bemoaning the quality of liberal arts education in our schools.  But I think another argument can be made to suggest that what our schools prepare students for is what they really need to be prepared for to survive in the world as they find it.  Perhaps it is wrong to think very many people need a liberal education – a good one at least.  Imagine the task of working in Wal-Mart after receiving a good liberal education?  Wouldn't that be worse?”

 

This is something that should be broadly discussed today – and not only in America.

Should the main objective of education be teaching basic skills that will enable an individual to find a profession?  If so, then a broad education is unnecessary, if not harmful.  But teaching only skills will inevitably leave people culturally illiterate, with severe consequences.  Because in the twenty-first century, every member of a human society must have human qualities, well beyond those of a highly skilled social animal.  A healthy democracy is impossible unless people’s intellect and spirit are at a level well above the level of their jobs.  And the danger is at its threshold:  Our economy is becoming increasingly a service economy, which is gradually stripping jobs of their creativity, enhancing boredom.  If the majority of people are culturally illiterate, then democracy is doomed.  Is this the future of our society?

It is nave to believe that a broad education directed at creating an individual’s strong spiritual core would transform America into a nation of thinkers, a nation of people who have actualized their humanness to the highest extent.  But even a first step in the right direction – like resurrecting books – could change our society dramatically.  We do have a developed educational infrastructure; we just have to make that step.  If we do, we will become the light unto the nations, a country eliciting deep respect and emulation throughout the world.

It is a disgrace that so many in this country, among them intellectuals and academia, believe that it is OK if people are not fully fledged members of our society (and not only those flipping hamburgers or working low paying jobs), that they don’t need to develop themselves to the maximum of their abilities and that they don’t need to know our civilization’s past, understand its present and reflect on its future. 

Let me return to the subject of reading.  Not many know that in the nineteenth century, farmers’ children who where educated either at home or in one-room school-houses often read a lot.  Fifth-graders were encouraged by the then popular Appleton School Reader to read the Bible and original literature: novels, poetry, science, philosophy, and civics.  Among the authors they read were John Bunyan, Lewis Carroll, Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Benjamin Franklin, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Johnson, Herbert Spencer, William Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, Henry Thoreau, Mark Twain, Daniel Webster, George Washington, and other great authors and thinkers.  This literature is far too challenging even for today’s high schoolers.

However, in view of our educators, reading is but one of the important skills, which will be necessary for an adult who wishes to read a newspaper or comprehend an instructional manual, or an IRS form.  The No Child Left Behind law [6] is not an exception.  Although the Law administers the Reading First program, what it means is improving reading skills.  Nowhere is it mentioned that reading is much more than a skill[7]; that children must be encouraged by teachers and parents to read much more at home and at book clubs.  Had this been mentioned, we could have hope.

Returning to the book as a source of knowledge, and a necessary nutrition for the soul.  Yes, it is dying as such.  But it could be resuscitated by a simple measure.  Just imagine that at school, from the kindergarten on, the moment a child is able to read, he or she is given homework with daily reading assignments, gradually increasing in length and seriousness; and children are required to write short essays and discuss books in class.  What if that mandatory reading leaves no time for TV watching?  And that the book a child reads is so interesting and fascinating that he or she has no desire to watch TV at all?!  Would that not be a sure remedy for the destructive role of TV in our children’s and their families’ lives?  And would it not be a sure way to return millions of people that treasure of our civilization:  the book?

Something to think about…

Yes, the “forest-harvesting, paper-wasting” book that we are used to will soon disappear; as will disappear the “brick and mortar” libraries.  All the greatest literary masterpieces of the past will be digitized and available through computers or all kind of portable memory devices.  But I believe that book – the treasure of the human soul – will be resurrected in a new high-tech body. 

I envision a book that looks like our “conventional” books today – as a volume, with a number of pages in it.  I insert a CD with the book I want to read, or download it through my computer from an Internet library, and turn the switch on.  A text appears on book pages; I can turn them, I can make notes on page margins, I can return to the page that I want to re-read. 

Such a book has all the advantages of unlimited access to the intellectual treasures of the world, while preserving the old intimate way of human interaction with the written word.  I can read it while I am riding a train or on a plane; I can take it to bed with me – just to read a few pages after a long day, as I do now with the “old style” books.

I own a number of computer books of different lengths, numbers of pages, and bindings.  I also keep some “permanent” electronic books, those that I like to read often.  My bookshelves are stuffed with such books:  the best fiction and poetry, books on philosophy, psychology, sociology, medicine, etc.  I can read them both in English and in computer translation from their original languages.

I know, today it sounds like as a pipe dream.  It is well possible that I will not live to see such an electronic library in my home.  But my granddaughter, and certainly my great-grandchildren will have such books, and read them.

I hope that this dream of mine will one day come true.



[1] www.themodernword.com/eco/eco_future_of_book.html; see also “The Future of the Book”, Univ. of California Press, 1997

[2] Quoted from The Week Magazine, Dec. 7, 2007, p. 5.

[4] Richard Hofstadter, in his 1963 Pulitzer Prize winning book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, writes: “...ours is the only educational system in the world, vital segments of which have fallen into hands of people who joyfully and militantly proclaim their hostility to intellect.”

[5] The 1983 report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk, among other things recommended that high school curriculum should require at least three years of mathematics and three years of science – exactly what the Eliot committee had recommended over a century earlier.  Comparing these requirements with the already existing curricula in most European countries (requiring four years of math and four years of science) one can see that our projected requirements are mockingly insufficient.  And yet, we are still far from implementing them.  Dr. John Silber, a noted educator and former president of Boston University, writes in his 1989 book Straight Shooting. What Is Wrong With America And How To Fix It: "At the present moment, I believe very few [American] college graduates could pass the A-Level examinations required in England of students who wish merely to enter the university."

[7] "If you learn to love reading, you will never be alone," Nelle Reagan, told to her young son, Ronald. President Reagan read a lot, and could easily answer a journalist’s question: “Which book will you be reading tonight before you go to bed?”  Do you think that presidents that came after Reagan could answer this question?

 

 

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