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