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Critical Thinking and the Persistent Story

In my last post, I discussed some of the reasons that I think we have probably passed the point of “peak literacy” in the regions formerly known as the Western world. This drew a very thoughtful response from my good friend and colleague Christopher Cocchiarella at Mindful Media Musing. In that post, he does an excellent job of describing in more detail the various levels of functional literacy and of collecting the statistics to show that shockingly low percentages of the US population exceed “basic” and “intermediate”. In identifying why he feels this is such a problem, however, he makes what I think is an interesting association, writing that “If we don’t have individuals with mathematical knowledge, creative reading and writing skills, critical thinking habits, etc., then we won’t have functioning businesses, governments, or communities.”

My first instinct is to object that, for most of human history, most of the human population lacked “creative reading and writing skills”, while building and maintaining businesses, governments, and communities that functioned as well, and often better, than ours. The Aztecs, for instance (while possessing a kind of mnemonic symbology) lacked a true writing system, which did not prevent them from articulating a theological and philosophical system as sophisticated as those found anywhere else in the world, governing most of central Mexico efficiently for over two centuries, or cultivating the arts with a magnificently rich tradition of theatre and poetry, generated from extensive musical conservatories in flourishing cities like Texcoco, which were themselves adorned with stone temples carefully aligned to the stars and served by sanitation systems the likes of which Europe would not equal until some four centuries after the fall of Tenochtitlan. The Incans lacked any kind of writing system altogether, and yet maintained an effective bureaucracy across hundreds of miles of the world’s most impassable terrain, fitted masonry with a precision unduplicated by any modern tools short of laser cutting, and performed successful brain surgery.

Writing, then, appears to be an adornment of higher culture, and not a prerequisite for it. Equally as astonishing as the number of places in which sophisticated civilizations have arisen in its entire absence, are the number of cases in which a writing system was developed, but used only for receipts, property markers, and/or divination for centuries. The runes were used for such purposes in Scandinavia for hundreds of years without giving rise to any body of written literature as we understand it. The same is true of the ogham in Ireland. Even societies which developed writing, then, often perceived it to be of no real advantage to them beyond a small number of tasks that fall squarely within the province of “basic” functional literacy. There are a variety of interesting reasons societies might take this view, and without rehearsing them all here I will refer you, dear reader, to an interesting analysis of Plato’s criticism of the art of writing as a nuisance to society.

One could certainly object to the historical examples I have given on the basis that the society we live in is much larger in scale than the ones mentioned, and dependent on more complex technical processes for its maintenance. One could even, perhaps, riposte Plato on the grounds that modern communications technology ends around some of his objections (as the author of Apartment 46, in fact, attempts to do). What is harder to do is to formulate a basis for the claim, more often assumed than repeated in modern discourse, that advanced reading and writing skills are a concomitant of “critical thinking habits”, or other important cognitive skills. Whether or not our society places greater demands on societal communication and coordination than those placed on the Aztecs or the runic Norse, there simply aren’t higher levels of critical thinking or cognitive ability to be achieved than those at which they had already arrived; the deepest thinkers among them were already operating at peak human capacity in this regard.

There appears to me, then, to be no positive correlation between literacy, functional or otherwise, and the cognitive skills we undoubtedly wish to see developed in our students and citizens. It does appear to me, however, that there may be several negative ones. Plato has already covered the issue of the atrophy of memory (which, as those familiar with the medieval ars memoria will recognize, has implications much deeper than simply impairing information recall), as well as the growing superficiality of the society’s understanding of what constitutes knowledge (as the category itself becomes truncated to what is transmissible as text). A point which Plato does not touch upon, however, but which is highly relevant to our society, is information overload.

I pass you for a moment, dear reader, to the American journalist Albert Nock, writing in 1934:

I spent some time last year in Portugal, where the status of literacy and the conditions of the book-market are about what they were in Mr. Jefferson’s America. One saw very little “popular literature” on sale, but an astonishingly large assortment of the better kind. I made my observations at the right moment, apparently, because, like all good modern republicans, the Portuguese have lately become infected with Mr. Jefferson’s ideas about literacy, and are trying to have everybody taught to read and write; and it interested me to see that they are setting about this quite in our own incurious, hand-over-head fashion, without betraying the faintest notion that anything like a natural law may be a factor in the situation.

What is this “natural law” to which Mr. Nock alludes? It is a form of Gresham’s Law, which essentially states that if two different transactional commodities are established as having the same de jure value, then the one possessing greater de facto value will disappear from circulation—i.e. “bad money drives out good”. Nock’s insight was that this occurs with cultural commodities as well:

The development of the gramophone and the radio has encouraged the notion that by keeping a great deal of poor music in circulation one creates a larger demand for good music and helps a taste for good music to prevail. But we are discovering that things do not go that way; and the reason is that a “natural law” is moving them in a direction exactly opposite.

In precisely the same way, the expansion of literacy to a large portion of the population has flooded our literary markets with low-value consumer output designed to satiate the most basic of demands at the most profitable price with the highest possible product turnover. This was true even when literacy rates were still relatively low; Cervantes’ Don Quixote is a scathing indictment of the incipient beginnings of this “popular literature” at the beginning of the modern period, and any seventeenth-century romance Cervantes had at hand to criticize would be found a literary masterpiece when examined next to Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey.

This, of course, is not to say that great works of literature have not been produced over the last four hundred years; they certainly have. It is to suggest that they have been a small fraction of the overall output, but it is even more to point out that, from The Epic of Gilgamesh to The Little Prince, we now have some six thousand years of enduring masterpieces amounting to vastly more literature than any human being could hope to read in a lifetime, and yet we continue to produce more than 2.2 million new books every year. The result is that the canon of great literature is diluted to a smaller and smaller fraction of available printed material and is significantly less promoted by publishers than untested new titles with higher profit margins. Vast and priceless portions of the cultural heritage of humanity never manage to fight their way through this torrent to get into our young (and old) readers’ hands.

The resulting problem, however, is not simply that my students are reading The Hunger Games instead of the The Tale of Genji. The problem is that they are reading The Hunger Games instead of reading Anne of Green Gables for a second time. Through most of history, most people were exposed to a relatively small number of stories repeatedly throughout their lives. The same stories from Scripture, the same folk tales, the same traditional ballads would be returned to, in varying forms (from books, to tellings by the fire, to dramatic performances, to depictions in stained glass), many thousands of times through the course of an individual’s life, perpetually revisited in light of new experiences, new stages of personal growth, and new understandings of the world. It was this persistent engagement with stories that became deeply internalized (*pauses for quick nod to Plato on the importance of memory*) that produced real growth in understanding and what we now call “critical thinking”. Cursory acquaintance with large numbers of stories visited once, or even twice, only to be discarded in favor of some new release does not achieve this same end.

Thus we fall victim, as a society, to a kind of “literacy inflation”, in which the overall value of the skill of reading decreases as it is extended to more and more people, both because the skill is less rare in purely economic terms, but more importantly because its democratization gives rise to an industry of cheap mass-produced literature that crowds more substantive offerings out of the marketplace and inhibits re-exposure to time-tested material, thus decreasing the actual value both of the reading and of what is being read. At the heart of our educational system, in English classrooms where curricula are now designed around whatever YA titles the big publishing houses are pushing that year, we have created the literary equivalent of a food desert, and begging our children to read by stuffing them full of whatever drivel they are willing to consume has put us in the position of a mother so desperate to get a fussy toddler to eat anything at all that she lets Twinkies pass for dinner. Mindless escapism does not cease to be escapism just because we print it on a page instead of projecting it on a screen.

There is tremendous value in reading, but it is value which, today as in all prior ages, only a minority are really willing or able to capitalize upon. For the majority of our students, and of the population as a whole, “basic” and “intermediate” functional literacy suffice for their purposes, and the attempt to raise their level further, whether by simple coercion or by pablum incentive, probably does more harm than good. If we are interested in seeing them develop real critical thinking skills and real gains in cognitive ability, let us stop forcing their noses back down into mostly second-rate books and instead find ways to get them out into nature, to get them out onto a worksite, or just to get them out into the marketplace, interacting with real people in real situations. If the learning to be done in those settings was good enough for Aztec poets and Incan brain surgeons, I dare say it is good enough for most of us.

Feminism & Religion has a new piece from me today on Coeducation and the Virtue Gap.

Peak Literacy

I was recently invited to interview for a gig answering questions via live chat for fifty cents a minute. What struck me about this was that I was contacted in my capacity as a scholar of world religions and, indeed, my interview included me responding to a number of prompts such as “What caused the Sunni/Shiite split?” Who, I wondered, is paying something, perhaps, on the order of a dollar a minute to ask these kinds of questions? I could see spending that money to ask a medical professional if your problem warrants seeing a doctor (who will charge you much more), or a legal professional if you should involve an attorney (who will also charge you much more) in your case. This would be prudent fact finding. I could also see the independently wealthy and idly curious taking a moment at a bus stop to ask things like “What makes storm clouds so dark?” or “Who invented windshield wipers?” but nobody idly wonders about Islamic history at bus stops—at least, nobody who isn’t the kind of person you would be interviewing to be on the answering end of such a service anyway.

The answer to my idle wondering, I figured, is probably students—students getting way too much money at college from mommy and daddy and having been sent there with a tragic deficit in functional literacy. I described these students at high school in my last post, utterly dependent on a search engine to answer a question for them, and ultimately unable to determine for themselves if the answer they have received is even relevant. The collapse of functional literacy had been an anecdotal observation on my part; here, in this interview, was somebody whose market research had suggested it would be an enduring business opportunity.

I don’t wish to be misunderstood. Basic literacy—the ability to decode letters for their sounds and determine what word is represented—will probably remain at the 99+% mark in the “first world” for many, many years to come. Functional literacy is something deeper—the ability to really understand what you have read, to parse the argument an author is making, to relate its constituent parts to your own pre-existing knowledge, to rework the ideas offered in light of your own reasoning and respond to them effectively. Basic literacy is about whether you know what words have been written; functional literacy is about whether you understand why they have been written, and can give an informed opinion about whether they could, or should, be written differently.

It is this skill that my high schoolers lack, and that some portion of the users of this new app apparently lack as well. All of which prompted me to wonder, have we passed the point of peak literacy? Will this skill ever return to the broadly distributed societal levels we saw between the late 19th century and the two World Wars? There are a few reasons that I think the answer may well be no.

  1. Outsourcing and Automation of Intellectual Labor

    Broad-based literacy is a necessity of societies where large amounts of intellectual labor have to be performed by significant swathes of the population. By this I don’t just mean classically “thinking professions”, but demanding intellectual tasks more broadly. With the advent of industrialization came a need for ordinary people to routinely consult timetables, for example, which were novel in a society where most people had formerly approximated times of day based on the position of the sun. The displacement of huge numbers of people from the countryside to the societies in an age before the telephone prompted a massive surge in letter writing (most modern postal systems come from this time) and also led, in conjunction with the expansion of business interests  to a level of international operations never before achieved on such a scale, to the development of modern mass media news services, which informed people in the country as to the happenings in the cities their relatives had gone to, and people in the cities as to what was happening in the colonies that their businesses depended on. Many more examples could show how processing large volumes of written information in a variety of forms became a task repeated, on large scales and small, by ordinary people dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of times per day.

    What networked computer systems have done is to automate and outsource a large number of these processes. An app on your phone spits your train’s departure time out when you speak into it. There is no longer a need for you to consult or decode the whole timetable. News aggregators sift reams of newspapers to bring the narrow selection of things you are interested in. Consequently, you no longer skim the same diversity of information trying to find what you want. Computers now do much of the information sorting and retrieval that the ordinary person’s brain was once taxed for.

  2. The Growth of Multimedia

    Jamaica’s literacy rate is still below 90%, despite nearly a century of determined government efforts to increase it. Why? Because the government’s literacy program had extremely unfortunate timing, pushing a predominately oral culture to become literate at the very same moment that the radio was introduced. Once upon a time, in villages all over the island, the one literate person in town would go out into the square on a Saturday morning and read the paper to everyone. Suddenly, in the 1920s and 1930s, the radio put a designated reader in homes all over the island. the incentive to read did not disappear, but it was greatly reduced.

    Those of you who are hip to what the kids are up to these days may have noticed that the blogging of the 1990s and 2000s has been slowly giving way to “vlogging”, with YouTube becoming a place of conversation and exchange of ideas through extended self-recorded discourses on various topics. It has to be remembered that, like the Jamaica of a century ago, all cultures were once purely oral cultures, and remained predominately oral for most of history. That is a natural condition of human society, and where the technology (broadly conceived) of that society permits the continuation of orality, it will remain in that condition. The advent of multimedia recording significantly decreased incentives to read and write (consider how the telephone impacted letter writing, and the phonograph destroyed a formerly widespread capacity to read music). The advent of easy capture and transmission of those recordings has simply intensified this process.

    What about texting? someone will surely exclaim. The kids still do that, don’t they? Yes, yes they do, but it is a format that works in short bursts of information and is primarily engaged in the discussion of correspondingly simple ideas (like most social media… think Twitter). Hence, it does not significantly engage abilities to follow extended arguments or to analyze complex textual structures or forms, which are skills essential to the kind of functional literacy that makes long-form articles, essays, and books accessible to a reader. (Besides, dear questioner, have you ever actually tried to read a text from someone under 30?)

  3. Slipping Educational Standards

    Some months back I heard a roundtable discussion on public education reform on NPR, with one guest making a very important point. He noted that the best-performing schools in America by a variety of metrics are private. These vary wildly from one another in pedagogical philosophy, construction of curriculum, location, ethnic and socioeconomic composition of the student body, training and remuneration of teachers, and a thousand other factors, but they have one significant thing in common—they conceive a primary facet of their mission as weeding students out. This sounds horrific to most contemporary people used to the inclusive ideology of the public school system, but even public schools for much of their history viewed it as part of their job to determine when a given student had reached the limit of their academic potential and would be better served by being moved out into some kind of apprenticeship or other opportunity. It was quite common before the Wars for a student to graduate what we now call middle school and take “working papers” to get a job instead of going on to high school. There were certainly sad cases of economic necessity forcing bright and promising students to do this, but it was more often an outlet for kids who didn’t like school and weren’t accomplishing much by being there anyway to go get real-world experience and build a sense of dignity and self-worth making their own way in life, instead of developing the neurotic behaviors of caged animals in some classroom parsing the structure of Shakespearean sonnets. (It is worth noting that not all states even had compulsory education laws until 1918, and that the Supreme Court determined in 1972 that Amish children could not be subjected to compulsory education laws past the eighth grade.)

    This began to change significantly after the Second World War, when a new emphasis was placed on mass mobilization in education as a means of softening the blow of mass demobilization of millions of fighting men. The GED was created to enable many of them, who had not graduated high school, to take an equivalency, and the idea quickly spread that high school graduation (or equivalency) should be universal. This idea, intersecting with social justice movements focused on access for previously excluded populations (beginning with the campaign for school desegregation) fundamentally altered perceptions of the purpose of the school system―a reform reaching its crescendo with the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (now known in a revised form as the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act) originally passed in 1975, which made special education programs mandatory and, in the process, ensconced the principle among educators that their mission was to ensure the ability of all students to remain engaged in the system as long as possible. The mission of a school was thus transformed from sifting students to determine their abilities and potential suitability for various kinds of vocation to ensuring that no one ever fails—an idea now so dominant that it actually named the centerpiece education bill of the last thirty years, No Child Left Behind.

    Once again, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to anything in education. These changes have enabled the participation of many students who had been wrongly excluded and who have greatly benefited from their inclusion. Nonetheless, this basic shift in educational philosophy, undertaken with a totalizing lack of nuance, has demonstrably eroded the standards of public education, to the point that it is now a truism that our high school graduates could not pass the eighth grade exit examinations once taken by those “drop-outs” (who did not so think of themselves and were not so stigmatized at the time) who once took working papers and left the system. It is this change in conceptualizing the mission of our schools that permits my functionally illiterate high schoolers to continue to matriculate grade after grade and ultimately receive a diploma (and which, incidentally, makes that diploma so worthless as a guarantee of ability that students wishing to go on to jobs that used to require only a high school education now have to plunge themselves into tens of thousands of dollars of debt to obtain a college degree).

A successful reinvigoration of functional literacy in our society would thus require either a social revolution in education or the collapse of much of our modern technological infrastructure (neither of which is especially likely to happen without the other). Conversely, both the success of experiments in universal basic income (on the social side) or the development of true artificial intelligence (on the technological side) would guarantee its permanent waning. In that case, H.G. Wells will have proved remarkably prescient in a book that no one will read anymore (I said, linking to a YouTube clip from the 1960 film).


It’s going to be a busy fortnight for me, and to kick it off I have two new articles out.

Over at the Religious Studies Project, you can read my response to their interview with Dr. Caroline Blyth on the subject of gendered violence.

Meanwhile, over at Feminism & Religion, you can find some of my recent thoughts on the possibility of a feminism of the right.

There’s a Sheep Loose in the Lane

Every week, I help high schoolers with their research projects. I watch them take the assignment, type its prompt questions exactly into Google, and then copy-paste the answer from the search result preview box into their slideshow/paper/spreadsheet. They evince no awareness of whether the text they are plagiarizing is thematically compatible with what they have already copied, or even whether it is grammatically consistent with the previously stolen sentence. On those rare occasions when it does dawn on them that what is in the box may not be what they need, they look at me like I’ve started speaking Welsh when I actually click through to follow a link to a website, or try to explain to them how they can skim through that page to find a relevant section by looking for keywords (precisely the job they use Google to do for them). The moment we leave that preview box, they are utterly lost.

I know why they are, too, because every week I sit in meetings with teachers talking about how “everything is on the Internet now” and “anything they need to know they can just look up on Google,” and why, in consequence, we need to shift our focus from teaching them “mere” facts to focusing on “critical thinking skills” and the ability to “evaluate sources”. The trouble is that, as Carl Hendrick has recently written in an essay that absolutely everyone in education should be forced to read with their eyelids peeled back, decades of psychological research has shown that there are no such things as generic “critical thinking skills” abstracted from subject-specific knowledge contexts. Cognitive abilities developed in one domain or in one activity do not automatically translate into other areas. Champions of Pi memorization competitions are no better at memorizing long strings of letters than a random person on the street.

The further trouble is that the “evaluation of sources” depends ultimately on being able to judge claims against prior background knowledge. Our present focus on source evaluation is, ironically, being rapidly rendered obsolete by the same digital information culture that prompted it in the first place, as the widening availability of ever more sophisticated tools in both desktop publishing and web design makes it increasingly easy to imitate the appearance of professional sources. Thus, we are pushing students with less and less facts at their disposal to trust more and more in traditional indicators of source reliability at the very same time that we are witnessing a massive proliferation of so-called “predatory publishers“. These academic scams work by convincing trained scholars that they are legitimate sources, and thus persuading them to submit papers and to pay for open access publication. What is more, these sources are increasingly showing up as citations in legitimate research (they are open access, after all), threatening the integrity of the whole academic chain. How do they eventually get found out? A specialist in the field perceives discrepancies in their facts, which my fact-starved students could never hope to notice.

Simply put, we are producing an entire generation powerless to detect rapidly proliferating academic fraud and “fake news”, and arming them only with extensive training in general cognitive and critical thinking skills that our research shows do not actually exist.

On the purely quantitative level of the sciences, there can be said to be such a thing as “progress”. We are, collectively, more knowledgeable about the processes of the material world and more skilled at the manipulation of our physical environment than any generation to precede us (and, not coincidentally, more in danger of catastrophic environmental failure than any generation to precede us). In the qualitative realms of the humanities, however, human nature is enduring and the limits of its reconfiguration are narrow. In education, as in politics or philosophy, there are changing fashions, but nothing truly to be known that was not known a thousand years ago. The best preparation for our students in this rapidly shifting age of Google is still classical—a foundation of many years’ training in grammar (which to the ancients meant not just the rules of language, but the raw facts that formed the basis of understanding in any field). This, as cultures from first century Gaul to fifteenth century Mesoamerica recognized, is an indispensable preparation for the critical discipline of logic that engages new data to solve new problems, as well as for the subtle art of rhetoric that unmasks fallacies and sophistry.

To so many progressive educators of the past hundred years, the nineteenth century’s drone of Windsor-knotted elementary schoolers reciting Latin conjugations seemed little more than the bleating of imperial sheep. Thinking to free such pupils from their pen, the reformers pulled out their sledgehammers and knocked out the posts. I can’t help but feel, though, as I watch my high schoolers in the computer lab today, that what the progressives thought was Pink Floyd’s wall was actually Chesterton’s fence.

APCs and the Independent Scholar

As Katie Shamash says in her recent review of the impact of article processing charges on libraries, “We’re part way down the road to open access.” This road has been long and perilous, and like most roads leading to terrible unintended consequences, paved with good intentions.

The dream of open access academic publishing has been to facilitate scholarly communication and open its channels to wider participation. Subscription charges to academic journals were (correctly) identified as one of the major barriers to participation in research and targeted for elimination. It is a testament to the goodwill and energy of many in academia, publishing, and the tech industry that massive quantities of research and other data are now freely available in ways that could not have been conceived only ten or twenty years ago.

Research, however, is not free to produce, and so can never be truly free to distribute. If the cost of its production isn’t being made up at the consumer’s end in subscription fees, it gets made up at the producer’s end in article processing charges (APCs), paid by the author of an article to secure its publication. This model is called “gold” open access, and represents an ever growing share of the total academic publishing market. As gold open access has grown, APCs have grown also. As Shamash notes, “The current average APC is £1,737, up over £100 from £1,632 in 2013.”

Most of the analysis has revolved around the problems this poses for libraries, with budgets not keeping up with inflation being spliced in the midst of the open access transition, still having to shell out for subscription costs to journals on the old model while also coming up with money for APCs. This is because most universities have treated APCs as an institutional cost to be funded out of the budgets libraries already held for securing access to research through subscriptions. It costs over 1700 quid to see your article in print but, if you hold a tenured post, that doesn’t come out of your pocket.

An ever-increasing number of faculty are adjuncts, however, with slight and shifting connections to the institutions that employ them. Fully 76% of all instructional positions in the US are now contingent. These are people who, as Lee Hall writes, are generally not even included in faculty meetings, let alone covered for their APCs out of the university’s research budget. I know many of these people personally; they are my fellow members of the National Coalition of Independent Scholars (NCIS)—a mutual aid association for all of us clinging to the margins of the academic community. The NCIS struggles along on the donations possible from people working multiple jobs to make, generally, less than $30,000 a year. Every once in a while, we manage to toss someone a couple hundred dollars to help get them to a conference. We certainly can’t cover 1700 pounds sterling a piece to help them get published.

For an ever-increasing share of the academic community—indeed, a share that quadrupled between 1975 and 2011 and has been growing quickly ever since—gold open access is a cone of silence. It is a door slamming in our faces, scattering the pages of our carefully researched articles all across the floor of hallways in colleges that will not hire us for even two to three thousand dollars a class unless we can show publication credits and engagement in research, but which will never pay to help us publish that research, no matter how long we serve or how many students we take on. It is a new kind of gap, strikingly parallel to the digital divide, which increasingly makes the generation of knowledge, and with it the opportunity to define the terms of our societal conversations on a plethora of issues, an exclusive province of an ever-shrinking élite.

What is the answer? I don’t know yet (green open access has its own issues). All I know is that I will keep looking, but also that, when I do find a solution, I won’t be able to afford to let anyone know.