Thursday, February 4, 2010

Where Are the Hemingways of Tomorrow?

One of my favorite authors is J.R.R. Tolkien who wrote the wonderful "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, and the captivating prequel "The Hobbit". New fans of his work may not even know he authored these stories, but instead associate them with the recent film versions made by director Peter Jackson, who did a brilliant job by the way. Tolkien, an Oxford University Don, wrote the books between 1937 and 1949. The Hobbit was originally written as a children's story, but as the tales grew in scope, they took on a more serious tone as the mythical kingdoms and peoples created from Tolkien's fertile imagination engage in an epic power struggle between the forces of good and evil.

World literature offers many compelling stories told by men and women like Tolkien who had the gift of imagination and the skill with words to tell their tales. Giants like Shakespeare, Hemmingway, Tolstoy, Melville, Austen, Dickens and countless others enriched our lives with their books. As a child, the local public library was to me like an open doorway to knowledge and adventure. I can't help but wonder what will become of this legacy as the old masters die off. Will our modern-day society and its schools provide our children with the inspiration to write the literary masterpieces of tomorrow? Are there children sitting in classrooms today who will someday produce the equivalent of "Hamlet" or "Gone with the Wind"?

I saw a troubling show on PBS the other night about video game addiction. According to the National Institute on Media and Family, about one in 10 children is addicted to video and/or online games. Children and teens are becoming addicted to games where they assume a persona and take on a new identity. They feel they are earning respect from their gaming peers, and their self-esteem is improved. The show focused especially on tech-savvy South Korea, where the problem has become so acute that the government has opened hundreds of clinics to treat gaming and Internet addiction. The first U.S. Internet addiction center opened this summer and is located outside Seattle, Washington. One troubling finding of the study is that children who are so addicted lose interest in schoolwork and their grades suffer badly.

Other studies have concluded that the Internet and excessive television viewing have a negative effect on children's ability to write. They express their thoughts in brief paragraphs, almost like gleaning bits of information while surfing the Internet, but lack the ability to tie these paragraphs together into a cohesive narrative. A high school senior interviewed on the program said he couldn't remember the last complete book he had read. He uses online book summaries like Cliff Notes and Spark Notes for any book reports he needs to turn in. He did no reading outside what was required for school, prefering to spend his time video gaming or on social networking sites like Facebook.

I taught college for a number of years and can readily attest to the poor writing skills of students. Writing is a chore to them and they would rather do almost anything else than write an 8-10 page paper. Those with weak character were even inclined to boldly plagiarize entire papers from the Internet without even trying to disguise their theft. When confronted, they just shrugged their shoulders as if to say, well I tried. One of the things that drove me away from the classroom was the frustration of trying to deal with this lazy intellectual mentality. Teaching is hard work, and I refuse to waste my time on students who believe just showing up entitles them to a passing grade!

I hope I'm not crying wolf, but the trend I see emerging troubles me. The average kid spends 7 hours a day with digital media including the computer, television and cell/text phones. How many hours are being spent on homework? Schools seem to be pushing math and science and that's great, but let's not give up on literacy. I've mentioned the following reference before, but it makes my point so powerfully that it bears repeating. Ken Burns' great PBS mini-series on the Civil War featured the reading of letters written home by poor soldiers with an eighth grade education or less. The eloquence of these letters will take your breath away, and could never be written by today's college graduates. So hold on to that dog-earred copy of "Tale of Two Cities". We may never see its like again.


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The Whiner said...

And now we also have the ability to download entire books onto a handheld device like a Kindle. I don't think I could enjoy a book while reading it on a's not quite the same. I do wonder, though, what will happen in the next 20 years. Will paper books and newspapers be gone?

Jim Pantaleno said...

I agree about Kindle, but I'm afraid books will definitely take a hit. Maybe we can sell them on e-Bay as collectibles.

Joseph Del Broccolo said...

At first I too was unhappy about the concept of reading books on the internet. Then I realized that at least the masters would be available, maybe introduced for the first time. I hope so, since I too wonder where the next Hemingway will ever come from!