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“Learning is not to be found on a printout.”

Posted by: on Jul 28, 2008 | No Comments

Others have already piled onto the Sunday NYT article about the so-called literacy debate: whether reading online counts as reading. The vignette that starts this debate involves a high school student who spends six hours a day reading online. But does it count?

Peter Merholz sharply eviscerates this quote:

“Learning is not to be found on a printout,” David McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, said in a commencement address at Boston College in May. “It’s not on call at the touch of the finger. Learning is acquired mainly from books, and most readily from great books.”

Merholz points out that

Learning is “acquired” (if that’s even the right word… it makes it sound like something you can get at the store) through doing. Through processing. Through acting.

True enough, I think. But I should also point out that McCullough is not spontaneously generating an argument against online reading. This is the same argument that has been leveled against all of the “low genres,” i.e., all genres that are not great literature. We in rhet-comp are fairly familiar with this unsupportable argument, which is sometimes trotted out to oppose composition and professional writing programs. It doesn’t get much play across campus, though: imagine how this great books argument would be received by engineering, physics, microbiology, or business administration — let alone the College of Education, where actual empirical research suggests a viewpoint closer to Merholz’.

But I digress. I found it interesting that when McCullough tries to translate this argument into an attack on online texts, he mixes up genres with media. So he ends up making a really muddled argument: learning isn’t acquired on a printout, but in the pages of a book. These days, of course, books are essentially printouts. And printed-out websites are themselves frozen, rendered inactive and inert — booklike.

As people like McCullough try to command the waves, others are interested in how new media and new genres translate into new competencies. One study involved examining how high school students’ online reading affected their grades.

Elizabeth Birr Moje, a professor at the University of Michigan who led the study, said novel reading was similar to what schools demand already. But on the Internet, she said, students are developing new reading skills that are neither taught nor evaluated in school.

One early study showed that giving home Internet access to low-income students appeared to improve standardized reading test scores and school grades. “These were kids who would typically not be reading in their free time,” said Linda A. Jackson, a psychology professor at Michigan State who led the research. “Once they’re on the Internet, they’re reading.”

Jackson doesn’t say whether she thinks that students would be better served by reading Jane Eyre in their spare time, but the question seems moot: she indicates that they will read online, and they won’t read books. Furthermore, the sort of reading they do online — active reading, engaged with those low nonliterary genres, those interactive texts, those snippets of information that must be assembled into new arguments — looks a lot more like the sort of reading and writing they will continue to do in their academic life, their postacademic careers, their leisure time as adults, and arguably their civic engagement.

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