Friday, September 24, 2010

* THE TIDBIT GENERATION: Thinking in Tidbits from Oprah's Digital Throne Room

A Hundred Million BUCKS!
The Smaller Picture (and Shorter Sound)

No one can criticize Oprah for not trying.  She has done more for reading than any person in the last century in America, perhaps exepting the married couple who owned Reader's Digest for most of the 1900's.  Her book club and her championing of kindle are notable, formidable contributions to literacy. (Even I bought a vintage Oprah-discount-special-kindle circa November, 2008 when she offered a 24 hour-only discount of $50.)

And now comes the founder of facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, (the very week an unflattering movie about his  golden-goose-invention, and his personal character, is to be  released) onto the Oprah show with a $100,000,000 check-in hand, offered to the Democractic Mayor of Newark, New Jersey and the Republican Governor of New Jersey, who, miracle of miracle, have agreed to COOPERATE in using Mr. Zuckerberg's hundred million dollar matching grant to "FIX"  Newark's "broken" education system, and make a model of that "FIX" for the rest of the country to emulate.

Both politicians agreed on Oprah's telecast today not to point fingers at parents, teachers, unions, or kids in blame for the "broken"  system, but instead to inspire cooperation from all those parties to rise to the challenge and throw off the bondage of failure.

Nice goal.

The problem is that the failure is a CULTURAL failure as much as it is an institutional one.  And you can't "FIX" a broken culture with matching grants.

I took a "Bibliography" course in graduate school and one of my assignments was to compare an 1869 Harper's Magazine with a 1969 Harper's Magazine and draw conclusions based solely on INTERNAL evidence from the texts of what had gone on in the 100 year interval between their publications.

One of the revealing conclusions was that the juxtapostion  of the two issues documented the increasing laziness and distraction of the human eye.

The 1869 version had narrow, uniform columns, with tiny black and white print and tiny 'headlines' spanning only one column at a time. The 1969 version had flashy headlines splashed across pages with colored ink and photographs, different sized print and text styles, and headings with catch-phrases to draw the reader into the article (as, admittedly, do I, here.)

The 1869 version (due to the primitive state of the printing press) ASSUMED that readers would read it from top to bottom, left to right, regardless of how many times the reader had to return to the issue, and that the reader  would put up with--indeed UNDERSTAND! -- complex sentences with subordinate clauses.

The 1969 version ASSUMED that the reader was BUSY, that his/her eye needed to be lured into and seduced to read the article and that the reader would not be so seduced by complex, subordinate clauses.  If anything, the sub-headline "blurbs' dis-assembled the subordinate clauses and used half of them to hook the reader's interest.)  

Tidbits for the Toothless Brain

Thus, the 1869 eye was required to perform DIFFERENT functions in reading the  text than was the 1969 eye. 

And the major differences were  expenditure of "time" and "concentration": DURATION OF ATTENTION.

Expected expenditures of both qualities had diminished in the readers over that 100 year period.

Now add to this observation new advances in BRAIN science and we can infer that the 1869 brain was exercising different regions of the cerebrum than the 1969 brain.

As with the eye, so too the ear.

Radio, television, the computer, and facebook with You-tube and other video clips, the ubiquitous cell phone,  have redirected the auditory circuitry of the brain, just as the evolution of print-journalism, inferred from Harper's magazines of 1869 and 1969, has redirected the ocular circuitry of the brain.

So inject all the MONEY you want into Newark schools: it will not address the fact that our brains  no longer exercise in lenthy processing of sound and sight inputs, but in a constant barrage of sound and eye-tidbits instead.

It is a telling indeed, that all guests on Oprah's show today announcing the hundred million dollar gift to Newark schools, spoke in short choppy, catch-phrase kind of sentences. That includes Arne Duncan, the pontificating U.S. Secretary of Education , who has given speechs which I have heard with MY OWN EARS in which he uses "infer" and "imply" incorrectly.  (Good goin' Arne! But boy, can he shoot hoops with the Bama!)

The poisonously empty prose documented in George Orwell's " Politics and the English Language" oozes into our brains constantly in ever shortened sound bytes and news headlines, even from the Self-Coronotaed Queen of American Reading's Digital Throne Room: Harpo Studios.

BRAINS simply aren't exercising with the same attention spans with which they used to be required to exercise.  Even Father Mapple's sermon in Moby Dick delivered to an 1841 congregation of rough and ready sailors and their wives and families, requires a level of concentration absent from any media presentations on commercial broadcasting today.

Our modern ears are being trained to stop listening to long sentences.

Brains today are slurping and spasming sounds and sights----not ingesting and aggregating them slowly, calmly and thoughtfully.

This change in brain use, and not  poor parenting or poor teaching or poor study habits or poverty itself, is what needs to be addressed in reversing the so-called education "crisis", not simply in Newark, New Jersey, but in living-rooms across America generally.

We need to unenculurate the unrelenting speed of sensory-inputs children are exposed to in our digitized world if we are to "FIX" the "broken" education system.

I'd say "Slow down and chew before you swallow" except the problem is that there's nothing to chew:

Just tidbits, uendingly competing for our appetites.


haehnela said...

An oversimplification, of course, but still a very important point. In truth, a complex web of circumstances has led to the broken-ness of our education system, and P.K. has pinpointed one of the key circumstances. The schools must be a place where students need to slow down, learn to meditate and concentrate; they must become a haven away from the madding crowds of technology. But that's only one issue.


PAUL D. KEANE said...

My point may be that you CAN'T concentrate if the culture has developed certain path ways in the brain to the exclusion of others----and that 6 hours a day, 189 days a year, may not be able to compete with the other ten or twelve hours a day 365 days a year when the brain is exercising the "tidbit" circuits.

PAUL D. KEANE said...


The same edition of the Oprah show asked for nationwide volunteers to "read to children 15 minutes a day". This USED TO BE a fundmental responsibility of parenting. Are we seeing the THIRD GENERATION of the Tidbit-babies? The first generation didn't learn to like reading. They did not read to THEIR BABIES. Now the BABIES of THOSE BABIES are being raised by beings who have no interest in reading.

WHOLE CEREBRAL CIRCUITS ARE NOT BEING DEVELOPED IN CHILDREN'S BRAINS and we are passing that legacy down now for a third generation.