Books are still best

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On campus, in the media, and in academic literature, there has been a growing concern about the shrinking attention spans of modern Americans. The evidence is everywhere. Facebook ads fly by at record rates. Students ignore their professors’ lectures so they can check their text messages. And the length of news articles has dwindled so much that they’re hardly recognizable.

But there are some detractors. In 2017, the reporters for the BBC podcast More or Less, which “explains the numbers and statistics in the news and in life,” tried to track down the source of a  much-cited statistic on our shrinking attention spans, but hit a dead end. And a recent report from the makers of Prezi makes the case that “attention spans aren’t shrinking—they’re simply evolving.”

So which is it? The topic should be a grave concern to anyone interested in the pursuit of quality teaching and meaningful learning, i.e. to anyone interested in education. Two books—one classic and one fairly recent—are required reading to fully understand the topic.

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, by Neil Postman, was first published in 1985. But it has been prophetic. As television—and, later, the internet—supplanted newspapers as consumers’ preferred news source, “news” began to look more like entertainment than edification. Today’s 24-hour news cycle, with its focus on “breaking” news, no matter how unimportant, is a testament to Americans’ appetite for novelty and amusement instead of substance.

Postman makes a strong argument that engaging with the written word gives humans a distinct ability to reason closely, analyze, and understand complex ideas. This is lost, he says, when we substitute television (or even radio) for books. As professors change their courses to be more “exciting,” students’ attention spans may not suffer, but their understanding likely will.

Nicholas Carr takes up Postman’s theme in his 2011 book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. He argues that “the use of intellectual technologies”—from hieroglyphics to podcasts— has “shaped and reshaped the circuitry in our heads.” Reading, he says, feeds our brains in different ways than other ways of learning information.

Both books make the case that we should be concerned about the modern appetite for excitement, novelty, and entertainment. They come at the expense of memory, reasoning, and deep understanding. To professors teaching Generation Z, or “iGen” as they are sometimes called, assigning books and long essays to students who are uninterested in them probably feels like swimming against a powerful current. But they should persist. Reading—deeply, regularly, and widely—is good for our brains and good for society.

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