Wednesday, May 14, 2014

World's best final exam question


"...the Internet has made the teaching of literature a sad and disheartening mess.
Search engines and electronic information storage have made us all empty and stupid. Memory is externalized and disembodied in the cloud; imagining is externalized in film, TV, and Google images. As a result, many students find reading uncomfortable because they have been fed images all their lives and can no longer “make pictures” in their heads. Diverted by entertainment, gaming, and social media, students no longer develop the religious, historical, or cultural knowledge essential for literary study. The “laterally associative” nature of electronic linking replaces the “vertically cumulative” richness and linearity of print. When that happens, everything that depends on the linear disappears: grammar, logic, history, narrative, and morality. Nor do students develop the necessary vocabulary from using email, Twitter, blog posts, and comment threads. These losses make literary comprehension and appreciation, much less literary interpretation, impossible. Mark Edmundson relates a story “about a Columbia University instructor who issued a two-part question at the end of his literature course.  
Part one: What book in the course did you most dislike?   
Part two: What flaws of intellect or character does that dislike point up in you?” 
The format and content of the Internet creates an environment seemingly designed to cause students to fail as readers, to dislike books and, consequently, to suffer from books’ demands."

What is most sad about all this is that the functionally illiterate college graduates of today don't even realize that they are illiterate. They actually think that they "read" the books assigned (because they googled a synopsis of it, or watched a movie version, or kinda listened to a few minutes of a class lecture on it). Ask any college student, "When is the last time you sat down, alone in a room, with no phone, or earbuds, or music, or other distractions, and read a difficult, worthwhile book -- what some professor around here might call "a classic" -- without interruption, for at least an hour?"

In my experience, unless the student is religious and the book is the Bible, the typical response to that question is incredulity.

The thing today's students have got to realize is illustrated in the (hopefully genuine) final exam question above: The problem isn't that the books are boring or the authors irrelevant -- it's that you don't have the cognitive abilities necessary to read and understand challenging material. You can't pay attention to anything for more than seven minutes. You have an arid vocabulary and are largely ignorant of the cultural knowledge necessary to read great works. You don't have the capacity to tell something of value from crap. Thinking is painful to you, so you avoid it all costs.

Want a gut-check? Go check out J.S. Mill's On Liberty (1869) from the library, or better yet buy a copy on Amazon. Here's an on-line version you can peruse until your copy arrives. Print out a few pages, sit down, and read it for 15 minutes straight. Difficult? For most college students, it's impossible, like a young adult version of the marshmallow test. If you were able to read it for a whole quarter hour, how do you think you would do on an oral exam of the content? Remember, Mr. Mill is neither stupid nor boring -- and if you think he is, then You Are.

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