Today my dad handed me an article he had torn out of Newsweek in September and said, “This made me think of you, so I saved it.” As I read the title, I groaned. The article was written by a professor of history at Harvard (and yes, I deign to disagree with a Harvard professor), entitled “Texting Makes U Stupid.”
From the title alone, I had the article outlined in my head, point by point, before I read the rest of his words. Bring in stats about how much teenagers tweet. Make snide quips about the inanity of the text message (because nothing important or beautiful or poetic or smart could possibly fit into the format of a text message). Queue stats, mourning the loss of literacy in the United States. Boldly state at the end of the article that we should read more! Of course the author states this to an audience currently reading Newsweek, patting themselves on the back for dodging the scourge of the text message, understanding the value of reading, and being from a generation who understands the elusive “good ol’ days.”
It’s disconcerting that a professor from Harvard would write an article falling into post hoc fallacies and blaming something as complex as our illiteracy epidemic on the invention of the text message. When the novel itself first came to be (yes, it’s a fairly new invention that didn’t emerge until the Victorian period), people thought the same thing. A novel was thought to be a waste of time, an unintelligent hobby. And later, with the widespread popularity of television, people worried that the novel would die. And yet we have a professor of history crying that the sky is falling when teens are texting.
I do not think that falling literacy rates are great. What I do think is great: teens write more now every day than they ever have in the past. Kids write emails, text messages, tweets, and facebook statuses. Are they always spelled correctly? No, but it means that several times a day, they’re thinking about writing. They’re stringing words and sentences together and thinking about how to express ideas. They’re thinking about concision, clarity, and audience. They’re thinking about communication and its value. I don’t think any of these things are bad, and I don’t think that’s what’s to blame for a falling interest in reading. I think it’s an easy answer and a scapegoat.
It’s silly, unfair, and archaic to define reading a novel as the only kind of reading that merits worth. Teens and college students now have information, news, and updates at their fingertips, which adds up to quite a bit of reading. Is all of it good? No, but neither are all novels. Yes, teach our kids to be smart. Teach our kids to appreciate art and words and nuances of meaning. But don’t sit around telling kids that texting is bad or leading them to a disinterest of the world around them, because that just validates the phrase they’ll spout back at you, which is “you just don’t get it.”
P.S. I teach Writing and Rhetoric to college freshmen. I’m very much concerned about the reading and writing habits of our youth. I just don’t agree with the leaps of cause and effect in this article.