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It’s not the digital revolution that’s making us dumb

June 12, 2011

I’ve just finished marking over 100 pieces of student work and I’m struck by just how little undergraduates read. It’s as if it simply doesn’t occur to many of them to engage any of the relevant scholarship on a topic before writing an essay on it. As a consequence their work often shows little understanding and no depth of knowledge. Their discussions are cursory and banal, and I am obliged to plough joylessly through some of the most ill-informed nonsense ever committed to paper.

It’s tempting to throw in the towel and bemoan the post-literate times we live in; to lament the death of the book at the hands of digital technology; and conclude that reading and writing are now minority past-times that need to be taken under the protective wing of an organisation like the National Trust. But why should this be so? After all we live in an era of ebooks and ejournals, which improve access to academic writing. No longer do students have to fight over half a dozen dog-eared copies of a set text in the library. A wealth of knowledge is available to those with a username and password, and you don’t even need to leave the comfort of your favourite armchair.

Mr Marc Prensky’s Famous Post-Literacy Machine

That’s why I don’t subscribe to the idea that the digital revolution is ushering in an era of post-literacy. Quite the reverse. The digital revolution has expanded the opportunities to read and write, to such an extent that you can carry a library in your back pocket and everyone can be a citizen correspondent, and many are.

So I’m thinking that post-literacy is a problem that is quite specific to the university and other institutions of learning. And I’d speculate that its roots lie in bad politics rather than technological change or the admission of bad students.

The problem, it seems to me, is that as higher education becomes more ‘vocational’, students invest less in reading, thinking and writing, since these activities are considered irrelevant to the ‘real’ world of work. Out there, hands-on experience and practical skills, it is assumed, are more useful and more marketable than the ability to produce a thoroughly researched and well-reasoned discussion in 2500 words or less. In short, reading, thinking and being able to articulate what we think to others is the new dumb.

This was impressed upon me last year when I asked a third year seminar group what they thought was the point of writing an essay. It was, they told me, to get graded. The experience was as banal and instrumental as that. There was no pleasure to be had from it and beyond the rarefied walls of HE it had no discernible or imaginable purpose.

Students didn’t arrive at these conclusions on their own. They have been encouraged to think that way by successive governments that can only conceive of education as work’s antechamber. That’s about to get worse. As Mike Baker pointed out in April: ‘there are growing signs that prospective students are not just concerned about costs – they are just as interested in the return on their investment’. He went on:

For many that will be measured in terms of improved career and salary prospects. This week the Office for National Statistics revealed that graduates earned £12,000 a year more than non-graduates over the past decade.

But that was an average figure, and job and salary prospects vary widely according to the university and the course chosen.

So, before paying up to £9,000 a year, many prospective students want to know what their particular university course will do for them.

Universities are getting the message. Nearly all now offer award schemes designed to boost, and formally recognise, “employability skills”.

It’s entirely understandable that students should be concerned about their employment prospects after university. Everybody’s got to eat. But humans are not just mouths, guts and arseholes. Our experience of life exceeds working, eating, shitting and fucking. Although there is nothing wrong with any of that – indeed eating, shitting and fucking are all pretty fundamental to being human. But so is thinking and feeling. We accumulate knowledge; we express ideas and we have an innate ability to ruminate upon our existence through various cultural and artistic forms, including scholarship.

When these things are considered irrelevant in the ‘real world’ we are closer to confirming Leonardo da Vinci’s depressing reflection upon human life: ‘How many people there are who could be described as mere channels for food, producers of excrement, fillers of latrines, for they have no other purpose in this world; they practise no virtue whatsoever; all that remains after them is a full latrine.’

Face it, we’re all ‘latrine fillers’ but we all have the potential to be more than that. But ‘vocationalism’, ’employability’ and the assault on the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences are a clear signal from the ‘people-wot-know’ that they have no greater ambition for us than we serve the most basic human functions. And that’s something I don’t give a shit for! (boom, boom)

23 Comments leave one →
  1. June 12, 2011 9:09 pm

    I do wonder what “The Knowledge Economy” actually means. I assume you’ve read Ken Robinson. In keeping with the theme, here’s a video instead:

    Ken Robinson speaking about the issues with education.

  2. wartimehousewife permalink
    June 12, 2011 10:09 pm


  3. Chris permalink
    June 12, 2011 10:19 pm

    Is the idea of ‘post-literacy’ a genuine concept you have come across in academia or just something you came up with that sums up the current situation with students?

  4. Rab permalink*
    June 13, 2011 8:19 am

    Welcome all,
    I’m not sure that ‘post-literacy’ is genuine. It’s something I’ve heard colleagues complain about (in a variety of institutions). It’s something I’ve complained about myself, usually using the term rather thoughtlessly after becoming exasperated with students who wouldn’t read any of the relevant literature in the area of study. And I’ve heard Marc Prensky, ‘internationally acclaimed speaker, writer, consultant, and designer in the critical areas of education and learning’, talk about a future in which only 20% of the population can read or write! He seemed rather blasé about that notion.

    But I’m just not convinced that we are faced with such an epidemic. All my students read; it’s just that many of them stubbornly refuse to read the academic literature set for them. And from what I can gather it’s because they don’t think it’s ‘relevant’ (the word I hear frequently). This may be a specifically Media Studies problem (although I doubt it).

    Media Studies exists within the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, but just watch as it beings to make a case for itself as somehow more vocational than other subjects in those areas, scandalously claiming intimate links to the media industries.

    Positioned uncomfortably between the AH&SSs and the ‘real’ world of work and industry, it seems to me, that many Media Studies students privilege hands-on experience and practical work, dismissing scholarship as being of little use or value.

    Ultimately, the idea that scholarship – reading, researching, thinking and writing – is somehow less important than making things is not a conclusion they reach on their own. In this respect I think crude vocationalism, employability and now the government cuts to the AH&SS budgets play a defining role.

    I quite like the cut of Ken Robinson’s jib but I’m a little weary of the idea that the case for human creativity and everything else has to made in economic terms.

    As for what the ‘knowledge economy’ means? Where to start…

  5. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    June 13, 2011 9:57 pm

    Here’s an idea: buy a shovel, borrow a vaulting horse from the Uni gym and start digging. With luck your tunnel will come up somewhere in either an academic English dept or a Sociology one. After all, surely Media Studies, as an academic enterprise rather than a vocational training option, sits between these these sister disciplines?

    OK, I’m joking (sort of) – you clearly can’t abandon your students or your intellectual traditions.& the pressures towards ‘vocationalism’ apply in those other departments as well, though perhaps not quite as much. But I suspect their students do actually read, or at least ready more.

  6. Rab permalink*
    June 14, 2011 7:07 am

    Ahh, Charlie,
    I often look enviously down the corridor at my English colleagues and image that they are teaching studious young book worms; or down the road at Sociology, where I image them engaged in meaningful debate about the shape of society. But I hear from colleagues that they don’t read much there either.

    Some of my students do read and they read the relevant scholarship and they produce fantastic essays and dissertations that are just such a pleasure to read. Sometimes it’s the sort of work that makes you run down the corridor to a colleague to share a student essay with him or her.

    Many other students read a little, but not in any depth and do just enough to get by. And then there are those that read nothing, and you have to wonder why they came to university at all.

    But it’s that phrase that I hear time and time again – ‘it’s not relevant’ – that gets me down.

    “I don’t want to read Noam Chomsky, ‘cos he’s not relevant to me.”

    “I don’t want to have to independently research an area, think about it in-depth and produce a considered discussion or argument about it because it’s not relevant to what I want to do when I leave university.’

    Ironically, (or perhaps there is nothing ironic about it at all) the students, in my experience, who produce the best production work – the best ‘hands-on experience, relevant in the real world’ – are the same students who read and think and are able to articulate their ideas not only in essay form but also as media productions.

  7. June 14, 2011 9:47 am

    Well, you’re the one close to the students of today, not me.

    But some of this is pretty timeless I reckon. People mature at different ages. I can recall being an undergraduate back in the neolithic and routinely trying to work out just how little of that week’s reading list I could get away with checking out. But that was the sort of trivial laziness most teenagers are liable too and I suspect it has always been thus.

    Perhaps more relevantly, I can also recall struggling with stuff which I just wasn’t mature enough to understand – it was Lukacs, Mannheim and the sociology of knowledge for me, but this is a personal detail. Now, this wasn’t especially only because I was stupid or had an intellectual ‘blind spot’; I can now see It was absolutely because I didn’t have the emotional capacity to grasp the content and relevance of those particular ideas at that age. I stress the ’emotional’ because, at that age, I didn’t really fully understand who I was, or where the edges of my personality might be. So I found it difficult to get my head round ideas which dealt with matters whereby an individuals’ receptiveness to certain kind of knowledge was governed by things other than their assessment of whether they made sense – or, to put it another way, were ‘relevant’ to any question the person (cf the young Charlie) was capable of asking.

    If its any consolation, I did come to understand the relevance of these issues (both to my sense of self and, indeed, to practical’ work based problems) several years later though never, I’m afraid, to a degree than made me want to go back and read Lukacs or Mannheim outside of academia. You might be surprised how things you have taught and which seem to ‘go in one ear and out the other’ actually bubble up in your apparently dimmest graduates once they’re long gone from your academic institution.

  8. Rick Crawford permalink
    June 14, 2011 11:06 am

    Have you tried teaching you students how to read around a subject? I was really, really bad at essays until I went on a writing course – no one had thought to teach me how until the age of 22! Perhaps a similar course on “how to read” would be in order.
    If faced with a massive reading list it might seem like an impossible task. Can you really take all that in? Without a reading list the task could seem even more difficult, especially now that technology exposes us to the shear volume of stuff written on any subject.

  9. Rab permalink*
    June 14, 2011 12:02 pm

    Welcome Rick.
    I think that’s a very good point: nobody teaches students to write. In fact, I’d go further: nobody teaches students how to be good scholars, nobody explains to them what it means to go to university and effectively join an academic community for three years – at least not in my experience.

    With my first year class I’ve introduced a series of workshops where we look at academic skills (I had called them ‘study skills’ but an expert in the area of pointed out that students are put off by the term ‘study skills’ because they assume they already have them. Apparently, ‘academic skills’ sounds new and appropriate to HE). We talk about essay writing, researching, reading appropriately, even how to take notes in a lecture. The Open University provides an excellent resource for this sort of teaching material – all free to access.

    The other thing that I think we have to do better is actually make the argument for scholarship – and not necessarily in the narrow economic terms that seem to dominate all debate on education these days.

    But I think my broader point is that lit matters very little how diligent and inspiring lecturers are if the prevailing political climate sends a massive signal that education matters only in so far as it is vocational and promotes ’employability’.

  10. June 14, 2011 12:36 pm

    An academic skills course sounds just the trick! Although I might call it “introduction to scholarship”. Could you even you even use the course to enthuse students about scholarship? I would start by saying that uni is very different to school. You could also use arguments that have been alluded too here like “You are going to be here for three years so you may as well be good at it” and “Good scholarship enables good practice, often in ways you wouldn’t expect”

  11. June 16, 2011 7:54 pm

    Terrific that you were able to blog after marking 100 pieces of student work – I find it reduces me to either lying down in a darkened room or hard liquor (or both, the first after the second).

    I teach on courses that are accredited by professional organisations (RTPI and RICS) and so have had to think about the employability v. scholarship debate. We lose our accreditation if we can’t prove that our courses are relevant to the world of spatial planning. However, I’ve concluded that employability skills and good scholarship are not opposed to each other, rather they are complementary. Which students still read, write the best essays and exam answers, and even ask the off tricky question in lectures? The same ones who are strong on ’employability’ skills such as presentation, time management, IT and so on, and who are proactive about getting work experience with their good communication skills.

    I’ve not found too many students complaining that parts of the courses aren’t ‘relevant’ (although it does happen) but if they do then I make that connection. Above all, we have heard directly from employers that what they want more than anything is for their newly graduated employees to be able to write. It has an impact to pass that on.

  12. Rab permalink*
    June 17, 2011 7:01 am

    Hi Jenny,
    I blog therefore I am (even after reading 100 exam scripts).

    To be honest, a blog post was all I was worth after the marking, the external examiner’s visit, the exam boards and all the other duties that come with being a course director. For a couple of days I had one of those ‘thousand yard stares’. I just sat there staring into the distance, rocking backwards and forwards…

    I’m suspicious of the ’employability’ thing, because it seems to me that good university graduates are employable and have always been employable, so I’m left wondering, what exactly is employability about? I suspect it’s got something to do with this:

    And as I’m sure you’ve already anticipated, I’m against this sort of malarky.

  13. Charlieman permalink
    June 17, 2011 7:32 pm

    David Hepworth, a potential employer of your students, wrote a related blog piece earlier this month:

    As an academic related university employee, I get to visit lots of departments. Common perception is that books are found on the personal shelves of academics or in the library. More enlightened departments have books everywhere. If I’m visiting the CETL labs in Physics, I know that there will be a fundamentals in Physics text book (more accessible to read than it sounds) to browse whilst I wait for my appointment. In Teacher Training, every room is packed with reference books, popular writing, globes and maps, and the occasional skeleton. Books are often well thumbed but they are not set texts so nobody steals them. Dedicated teaching rooms with interesting books at hand versus a bare seminar room from the university “space management” division.

    You’ve identified that well rounded students are more employable, and that the university may reward or assist academics that produce employable graduates. What is your department doing to instil the appreciation of well roundedness?

    Accepting your idealism about teaching students who regard media studies as a discipline rather than job training, as a professional you still have to give a shit about the ones who thought that media studies was vocational. Treat the “you” as plural, in reference to the department. Somehow you have to get them out of the door (how easy is it to change degree?) and keep them happy. And sort out the admissions procedure.

    When “mass communications studies” was relabelled as “media studies”, was that a branding failure?

  14. Rab permalink*
    June 17, 2011 8:03 pm

    Hello Charlieman,
    Good to hear from you.

    I think the idea of having books everywhere is a fine idea, indeed, it strikes me as indicative of a cultural shift. I suppose many departments, my own included, need to think about the ‘mood music’ that they create. I’m all too familiar with the bare seminar room you refer to.

    Media Studies does have an identity crisis – neither wholeheartedly academic nor sufficiently vocational for some of the students; always struggling to reconcile theory and practice, head and hand.

    Managing student expectations during the admissions process is crucial. The commercially astute thing to do is emphasis the production work. That always recruits well. The honest thing to do is to make clear to prospective students that the course is substantially academic and that even the production work is assessed less for its technical competence than its ability to engage media theory – back to the books, then.

    I suspect that changing courses will become even harder with the hike in fees, which makes all of the above more important. But it’s shit to watch students on the wrong course growing frustrated and resentful.

  15. Charlieman permalink
    June 18, 2011 1:55 pm

    Returning to that old post of yours, Rab:

    What you identify is that the interests of students and the interests of employers are common; that students who engage in the university experience (read books, hang out with people who are not on the same course or from a different social background, pick the challenging academic modules) are employable should not be a surprise; they have an aura that is visible to a graduate recruiter.

    So the concept of mass education for 18 year olds fails. When 45% of teenagers are entering higher education, it is inevitable that a high proportion are not ready to engage with HE.

    I did a vocational degree (engineering) because I sought the tick in the box. There are other ways to become a professional engineer, but a degree is the quickest route. Ironically, I didn’t become a professional engineer, and as a student I shared classes with people who didn’t really get what it was all about but scored enough exam points.

    Getting a tick in a box should mean something to employers. If 45% of young people have a tick, the tick becomes meaningless. There is some wibble around at the moment about graduate statements; for a couple of years the graduate statement will be meaningful, until all graduate statements state that the holder is a well rounded individual, blah.

    Graduate tick in the box is no longer an indicator of merit. The graduate statement will mitigate for a few years. How long before an MA or MSc ceases to act as a signal?

  16. Rab permalink*
    June 18, 2011 3:23 pm

    Well, there is evidence that employers are beginning to wonder about the value of a BA Hons degree or its equivalent. I read somewhere that some won’t consider employing anyone with less than a 2.1. Also, some institutions now issue a breakdown of student marks because employers are increasingly interested in what areas their prospective employee is competent in and what areas less so. Additional, it’s allows employers to distinguish between a low 2.1 and a high 2.1, since they can see (or calculate) the student’s average mark.

    I don’t like mass higher education because it corals too many people through a system that many of them have neither an interest in nor an aptitude for. At the other end , puts pressure on universities and course to be all things to all people. Aren’t there other more suitable educational and training routes? And why can’t we do more for mature students, who perhaps wouldn’t have benefited from a higher education at 18-21 but would later?

    At my most cynical, I tend to see higher education as an industry, the purpose of which is to land 18-21 year olds in extraordinary debt and make them pay time and time again for ‘re-skilling’ to keep them employable. And it increasingly feels like an extension of school, except students pay for the privilege of going under the impression that a degree gives them competitive advantage in the job market. But as you say, if 45% have one then… well… then employers want you to be able to discriminate the good from the bad.

    There’s an argument in the States at the moment about the ‘education bubble’. I haven’t had a chance to look into it. But what I’m told is that some employers and prospective students are beginning to question whether a degree is much of an investment, and one employer is encouraging applicants not to go to college but get into the work place as quickly as possible.

  17. June 18, 2011 3:40 pm

    Lots of interesting points here. I was going to say that I (and colleagues, both academic and industrial) am convinced there is a lack of attention nowadays – students just find it more difficult to read books than they did. In fact I find it harder to read books nowadays, but then I teach online journalism, so spend all day on the web, and I’ve just got a dog, so my spare time involves a big squeaky rubber ball (not what you think, shame on you).

    But, yes – teenagers are teenagers, and focused laziness will always be a part of education. The other thing I believe (and sound off on interminably) is that extending academic-style HE to students who otherwise would not have experienced it 30 years ago means you will simply have more students who aren’t up to it – the study, the concentration, the thinking, the reading.

    But then I’m an elitist snob…

  18. Rab permalink*
    June 18, 2011 3:57 pm

    I’m not an elitist snob but I’m inclined to agree with you. Actually, I don’t think there is anything elitist about proposing that only people with an interest in, and aptitude for higher education be admitted. But as I said above, I wish that higher education was seen as a panacea to all societies ills; that we could provide more credible alternatives to higher education and that there was more flexibility in the system to facilitate more adult learners.

    I think success in higher education should depend upon maturity. This isn’t age specific but I wouldn’t have been sufficiently mature at 18 to appreciate or benefit from university. But by my mid-20s I was ripe for it.

  19. June 30, 2011 3:45 pm

    Hello Rab What about Photography degrees? There is a lot of focus at the moment on
    BA Photography degrees being too much ‘academic’. I think the ‘relevance’ of ‘theory’
    in professional photography is as one photography student at Coventry University called ‘Harpreet Khara’ said “the ability to consider your photographic work within context”
    Photography degrees are in an even worse position as it is seen as the most ‘practical’ therefore ‘vocational’ and should be less theoretical’

    If media studies is deemed not worthy of being taught at university, what next?
    Sociology? English Literature? History? Art History? Then fine art? Photography?
    Media studies should be supported by all of the arts and social science and let’s not scapegoat one art subject media studies vs english lit, sociology vs photography) against another because of the cuts.

    I think ‘ConDem’ government has ‘twisted’ the idea of ‘context’ to be about nothing but
    employability! ‘Context’ should be about ‘higher thinking’ not about what ‘band’ of pay you will be on after Uni! ‘Context’ should be seen as a sign (signifier) of being able to think for yourself and create an original thought or observation and not as moron David Cameron believes as ‘irrelevant’ or useless

    Personally I am against tuition fees full stop but is for ‘me’ a mute point as after college I had to find work because I really needed too. I teach myself photography on my days off and use at least 60% of my wages on photographic equipment so I can work my way out of a boring dead end work.

    I went to a talk by a photographer called Brian griffin in Walsall and he had to postpone his dream as a ‘photographer’ too, like myself! After hearing this I firmly believe being ‘working class’ does affect your outcomes in life and sadly in education. I was rejected for a photography degree NOT because of my grades but because “I was too long out of education and was not sure If I had commitment!” Talk about patronising! Just because I am in a dead end ‘unskillled job’ does not mean I am an idiot! Look at me as I am evidence. Lecturers should look into the background and personal circumstances of WHY mature students were out of education before making snap judgements! I thought academics were NOT to make snap judgements. My ‘personal circumstances’ should not be used as an assessment of my aptitude!

    I want to hear about forgotten working class hero’s in the arts like James Whale,
    Don McCullin, Brian Griffin, Tom Hunter and so on!

    Yours blogs are a treasure trove of information!

    I plan to look at politics and issues relating to media studies and culture through the theme of ‘Doctor Who’ like my ‘Save the NHS’ video. I did another video recently about the
    ‘slut walk’ demos on youtube. Links related to my comments:

  20. Rab permalink*
    June 30, 2011 7:13 pm

    Hi Chris,
    Good to hear from you.

    I was a mature student also and can appreciate that it’s a struggle. Actually it’s getting harder these days, so I don’t envy you. One of the consequences of fees is that it has mde it extremely difficult for adult learners to enter HE, which is a tremendous petty and very frustrating because these are exactly the sort of students who are most dedicated and a real asset to a course.

    Interestingly, it’s not just media studies that is suffering at the hands of the government, although this is a subject they like to bash regularly. It’s the whole of the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences that are at risk. The future looks very uncertain.

    I’ll check out the links you’ve left.

    Best Wishes,

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