Phi Beta Cons

Post Literacy

As George Leef mentioned Friday, Tom Bertonneau, an instructor at SUNY-Oswego, has written another series of articles about today’s youth. In 2009, Bertonneau argued that many students today are “post-literate,” unable to follow the sequence of facts and logic that must be grasped if a literary work is to be understood. In his latest essay, he challenges the popular view that those students, although weak in understanding the written word, can absorb “images, especially moving images, and the spoken word.” He persuasively reveals that they can’t follow movies any better than they can follow books.

The essay evoked some eerie memories for me. I have always wondered why, in college, I didn’t understand novels better, sometimes making grossly erroneous judgments. I wasn’t post-literate, but somehow I had slid through high school not recognizing that novels are like architectural constructions that build upon and incorporate many small pieces of material as they progress. With one detail contributing to the next, you have to pay attention at each stage of the process. Rather, I thought the idea was to “get the main point” — and otherwise just enjoy the story.

Add to that some laziness (which I had plenty of), and you have what may be the equivalent of today’s “slackers.” Their condition is worse, though: They come into college with a severe deficit of reading experience, and the constant influx of high-tech media makes intense concentration difficult and unattractive. Their state is therefore harder, perhaps impossible, to reverse.

Jane S. ShawJane S. Shaw retired as president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in 2015. Before joining the Pope Center in 2006, Shaw spent 22 years in ...

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