Making the Grade

by Andrew Reiner

One of my students hands me a report last week and tells me not to worry. The misspelled words and grammatical errors that usually riddled his paper with the abandon of a drive-by shooting were gone, courtesy of software programs that check spelling and compositional snafus.
But before I jump on the bandwagon with this student and many educators who hail computers and their ilk as the oracle's answer to what will keep our children interested in learning, let me say this. In the words of my sixth graders. the Information Age is not all that.
I say this because after checking over this particular student's paper w1th the T's crossed and commas dropped in the right places, he still had no idea as to what some of his words meant (or how to spell them) and why a comma shouldn't be used like a period. I say this because the stronger our commitment to the Information Age, the weaker our children's critical thinking skills. And the weaker their critical thinking, the weaker their literacy.
This disturbing relationship is illuminated by this paradox: in the same age when we can blip news across the world in seconds, 40 million Americans, says the U.S. Department of Education, are functionally illiterate-meaning they can't read something as basic as a road sign.
Sure, the conduits of high technology we rely on so heavily, such as fax machines and modems, allow us to share important information quicker and to farther reaches. But the frenzied pace required to transmit such breakthroughs is leading to a degeneration of the message; read USA Today or watch the nightly news. Our mass media diet consists of oversimplified, pablum-like prose in the form of catchy soundbites which are ruining our appetite for literacy.
The problem with this trend is that school-aged children learn by imitation. Even the brightest of my students, both sixth graders and those in college to whom I taught composition a few years ago, hurry past thoughtful analysis and opt for a superficial language that condenses many thoughts into one cryptic phrase. But my students are not an anomaly.
Instead of expressing their thoughts clearly, says Lewis Lapham in a recent Harper's magazine article, many students today write in a coded shorthand more like the oblique icons on their computer screens or the images on Nike commercials. These young writers are more effective at creating image-driven marketing mantras like "Just Do It" than expressing exactly what this means in a paragraph.
The result of this shift to a visually-obsessed society is that our children's ability to think deeply and logically is at risk. The bombarding frenzy of constantly changing, jump-cut images that rarely logically relate to each other, from mediums like MTV, computer games and CD-ROM, are turning our children into addicts.
They are craving higher and higher doses of immediate gratification in order to get the fix needed for their over-stimulated brains to function, The fallout from all of this, says Lapham, is that our children are becoming "increasingly more impatient, easily bored, geared toward increasingly short bursts of attention..."
It's the great irony of the Information Age. While trying to prepare our children for an adulthood of competing globally-by relying on high-tech conduits that help them absorb more information faster-we are doing just the opposite.
We are in danger of creating a generation of under-thinking, over-stimulated high-tech junkies that cannot slow down long enough to read or write closely; a generation that cannot think critically enough to solve the problems which require these very skills.
Unless we figure out how to temper our growing dependence on a technology that is dumbing us down by re-circuiting the way we think, we will lose the lifeblood essential to advancing 1n an Information Age.

FOOTNOTE: You've heard me rant and rave, and now I'd like to hear your side of the issue. Send your insights about why you feel that the Information Age is a help or hindrance to our children's ability to think critically to: Andrew Reiner, c/o Baltimore Chronicle, 30 West 25th St., Baltimore 21218; or e-mail to: I'd like to share your views in a future column. Thanks.

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This story was published on May 7, 1997.