“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one…. Orwell feared the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.” – Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death
Postman published his book in 1985, a year after George Orwell’s temporal setting for his dystopian novel, 1984, but ironically, the culture of surveillance that Orwell so abhorred is a circumstance our post-millennium citizens largely welcome. We have devolved into a celebrity culture in which it is normal, desirable even, to be relentlessly observed, and we tally our social success using tweets and twitters and likes on Facebook, where we blithely post huge swaths of our lives with nary a concern for personal privacy. It doesn’t occur to us that much of what happens on Facebook is stalking behavior, any more than it occurs to us to worry about highly networked government data banks or corporate computer surveillance. In a culture where a Paparazzi tail is the sincerest form of flattery and renegade civil libertarians are the new social pariahs, we have invited the brazen and unremitting violation of what used to be our constitutional right to privacy.
The implications for pedagogy are profound. As we move deeper into the digital age, trading the printed word for the glittering image, we find ourselves straddling the divide between process and result with regard to literacy development. Studies indicate not only that children learn to read most effectively by reading, but also that they can be most easily enticed towards literacy by reading what they like. This creates a catch-22 for teachers, as research demonstrates that texts that reflect and incorporate popular celebrity culture do not facilitate higher order thinking skills to the same degree as more challenging literary texts, an unintended consequence of which appears to be the systematic loss of the linguistic and intellectual tools needed to separate political truth from illusion. As a result, teachers find themselves in the unenviable position of choosing between literacy and those who choose to function as illiterate.
Notwithstanding the eternal vitriol raging between highbrow scholars and the literary déclassé, the benefits of non-literary fiction are myriad, for children – like adults – tend to resist what is forced upon them. They crave personal autonomy and control over what they read. Choice in turn is affected by interest, which is itself influenced (though not fully determined) by individual taste, need and background, and – more often than not – involves selections damningly defined as “pop fiction”.
(As an aside, the very notion of self-selecting anything from popular culture itself raises intriguing philosophical questions. There is a tendency for students and teachers alike to conclude that when students choose their own reading material, they are in fact expressing individual preference, thereby creating a sense of empowerment by bringing to the classroom literary content that their teachers would rather not legitimize. In many instances, however, children are influenced to choose materials that are imposed upon them by the social and cultural norms that surround them. Indeed, this same social determinism could be attributed to self-selection in music, food, art and clothing:)
Yes. Well. Meandering down the path of inquiry again… sorry about that.
Ultimately, however, the fallout from the pop-fiction/literature debate lands far beyond mere pedagogy. Western democracy cannot, by definition, flourish without a fully literate electorate, and if schools are graduating citizens who are incapable of distinguishing between verbal claims and published facts, then political leaders no longer need to be competent, sincere or honest, but only to appear as such. We tend not to pay attention to a political candidate or government minister based on issues, but rather on popularity and newsworthiness: a federal aide with a money-laundering, ex-hooker in his past is newsworthy; a charismatic foreign president with a glamorous, fashion-forward wife is newsworthy; a local politician who proposes serious regulatory reform regarding cross-country oil pipelines, on the other hand, is boring.
As a culture, we have been hooked by what is easy: theatre, full-size (non-tabloid) newspapers and literature have been relegated to the margins of cultural life, where they are ignored as elitist or intractable because they do not provide effortless entertainment. This popularization of culture as mere amusement leads to social “decay”, writes philosopher Hannah Arendt, “and those who promote it are not the Tin Pan Alley composers, but a special kind of intellectual… whose sole function is to organize, disseminate and change cultural objects in order to persuade the masses that Hamlet can be as entertaining as My Fair Lady, and perhaps as educational as well. There are many great authors of the past who have survived centuries of oblivion and neglect, but it is still an open question whether they will be able to survive an entertaining (emphasis mine) version of what they have to say.”
If school is a microcosm of the larger political perspective, then we pander to our children’s need for entertainment in the classroom at a serious social cost. In a cultural age where reality television reigns supreme, and popularity, thinly disguised as “google-hits”, dictates newsworthiness, it behooves us to re-establish complexity in our classrooms and to re-connect our children with the literate, print-based world of ideas.
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