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Kistaro Windrider, Reptillian Situation Assessor

Unfortunately, I Really Am That Nerdy

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"READ 15 MINUTES EACH DAY" and other signs of the intellectual apocolypse
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So there's this campaign going on in public elementary schools, as shown by the large number of banners referring to it. Television advertising, Internet advertising, but mostly signboards outside schools, and they all say the same thing.


This is not an encouraging sign in the least. (Pardon the pun.) I can think of several things wrong with it offhand, and I do hope that many of you can contribute more.

The most obvious thing is first: Only fifteen minutes? If you entirely ignore the time I spend reading things on the Internet, and only look at thinly sliced dead trees glued together at an edge, I spend over an hour a day reading for recreation. That's ignoring time I'm reading a textbook that I need to read, but counting time I'm reading a textbook that hasn't been assigned to me. (So I read "Algorithms and Data Structures" for recreation. Does that make me a nerd? Wait, I might not like this answer.) That's not counting my reading Black Box Voting as an eBook on Adobe Acrobat for WinCE, either. And I do that because I feel like it- I like to read. It's fun. Whether it's a good story I can let my imagination fall into, a bad story I can enjoy in that perverse way one can enjoy a farce, or a textbook I can think about, learn on, and go "ooh, cool", I like reading. It is fun. It is not an unpleasant thing.

Perhaps its how I was raised. Most people finding this house for the first time are immediately struck by the fact that the walls appear to be leaking books. There are very, very few flat surfaces in this house that do not have at least one book on it, and there are no rooms- even including the bathrooms- without at least five books. Throughout this (admittedly large) house, there are at least 10,000 books. That's not exaggeration- that's a conservative estimate. I was raised on reading- I started to read by age 2 (according to my mother's records), and at about two and a half it finally "clicked" that I could read anything. Then there was no stopping me; by age 7, I was reading through large portions of my father's science fiction collection. (It's amazing the strange looks one can get by reading Sentenced to Prism (Foster, Alan Dean) at age 9 while waiting to be served at a restaurant.) Reading was fun. It was not a chore. It was not something I needed to be told to do.

I've seen that to be the general normal reaction for a child learning to read- whether the age be six months or six years, my (admittedly limited) experience is that the child in question is going to want to read everything within six miles.

And now, elementary school: they are having to beg children to read. They are putting up big bold-face signs begging children to read.


Pardon my outburst, but only caps bold italic underline effectively expresses my opinion. What happens in that time that causes children to have a clear aversion to reading? And I've seen it- this isn't just the school trying to encourage it because it's a good thing, it is the school desparately trying to make literate people. There is this aversion to reading, this general feeling of "yuck" among those of that age that disturbs me in ways I cannot describe.

This is not limited to children. It has come to my attention (through work at the Science Center- albeit staledated, I haven't gotten to get back to work this summer yet) that many adults eschew reading for television and video games. I don't like to be one of those people panicing over "The Video Games and the Television are RUINING US ALL", especially as I don't think that's the problem, but it's got to be brought up. I don't think the problem is the presence of TV or computers driving people to this- it's a strong disrespect for intellectualism in society.

Well, think about it. The kid with straight As is the kid who gets picked on. "That's the geekiest thing I've ever heard in my life" is all well and good when I describe TopCoder to people, but why is that somehow bad? Why has it become a bad thing to want to think?

It's the intellectual apocolypse, although it's nothing new. An aversion to reading is only a symptom- an aversion to reading because "that's nerd shit" (exact words from one of my most worthless relatives, considered worthlesss by pretty much the entire family, and raising possibly the most fucked-up kid I've ever met in my life; it pains me for me to be so powerless to help Tyler, but I'm just not there often enough. I do what I can when I'm out in Indiana and get to see him- and I see it making a difference, even my being there maybe three times a year- but it's not enough) is a really bad symptom. I just see disrespect for thought in general, permeating society. Is not the creative one the mocked one? Is not the imagination considered "childish?" Why is reading such an infrequent activity?

What is it that is so terribly broken? Where does it all fall down? Children aren't born like this- it's trained in the society. In my work at the Science Center, I've never found a non-curious child who wasn't ruined by society or public schooling- never a naturally un-curious one. I am not excepting the mentally ill- some of them are some of our best visitors.

But the most important question: Where can it be fixed, and how?

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This is a naturally depressing issue. I was brought up in an environment which pushed me to do things, especially math. And I read a whole lot back then. (Less now, but probably more than most people out there.) So I probably don't have any better view of things than you do.

Society teaches people not to think. It makes them better sheep. And as we all know, Sheep go to heaven / Goats go to hell.

I will have more coherent thoughts on this later, when I am not as brain-dead, and when I put more processing cycles into it.

[The world out there is a scary place. It is good not to forget this fact.]

I don't want to sound like some anti-tech Luddite (because I'm certainly not one), but, I honestly think computers and video-games might have something to do with it, using myself as an example. I'm not adverse to reading or intellectualism in the least, however, I think the internet, multi-tasking, and pretty graphics on video games have spoiled me to an extent. Whenever I try to read fiction, fanfiction, or just something with a lot of text online anymore, I will go to one of my other open websites and read a bit from a science report, and then look at some LJ entries, and then see what new PC games are coming out, etc. I'm not apparently in the habit of saturating myself with info whenever I try to read, and it's a bit frustrating when I'm trying to read a book because then I have to set it down after some reading to listen to music and have these craazy imagining sessions (which lends me to think that I'm a wee bit different from my peers; and the imagining sessions tend to be focussed on fiction stuff I'm trying to do or stuff like scenarios for Warhammer 40k or whatever) or something. And it's not like I can't pay attention to something; when I was in class for high school, I could pay attention to a whole lesson without needing to chat with my friends or whatever, and I can play tactical/strategy/rpg games for hours on end. But, for some reason, words on a page don't hold my attention as well as they once did.

I think that philistinism is the main cause, though. I would rather not write more on it, though, because I tried it already and it failed miserably. It was a convoluted, rambling mess.

Reading books ain't cool in da ghetto, man?

Unfortunately, people today don't really seem to look up to thinkers; their heroes are mostly sportspeople and celebrities, who might (sometimes) be good at what they do, but they're not activities that require education or inquisitiveness, they mostly require a certain degree of genetics and a whole lot of practice.

*Good* acting certainly requires education (not necessarily formal) and inquisitiveness, as well as practice, genes, and talent. How do these kids think celebrities get these movie roles? They gotta read the script, at least.

I am another of the children who intellectually understand the worth and fun of reading a book, but when you put that book side-by-side next to a console with a good Final Fantasy loaded into it, you might as well be asking me if I want a slice of pie or a hepatitis booster shot.

And you know, once I've drilled down beyond the outer crust of the book, when things start getting fast and furious and the book sticks to my fingers like a caramel apple, it's a right fine time. In that sense, the fifteen-minutes-a-day rule is a good idea, because once those stubborn FPS Kiddies bite and kick their way down beyond the surface of the book they will, assuredly, get picked up in the current and be taken along for the ride. It's easy and natural to enjoy a good book once you're in it, so assumedly fifteen minutes gets blown up in short order to hours a day once you hook yourself, assuming you aren't actively trying to hate the book (which apparently is more common than I thought. I don't have any ideas on how to deal with the anti-intellectuals).

I think I need a permanent hotkey that pastes "Warning - This Post Won't Make Any Goddamn Sense" at the top of whatever textbox I'm currently in.

totally off-topic, but your icon enthralls me

the world went and got itself into a big damn rush

it's so much easier to play sports/games/etc than to work at something

Well, if it makes you feel any better about the "next generation", my son (2nd grade, public "gasp" school), would read from morning until night if we would let him.

We actually have to pry the book from his hands most nights to turn out the light at night.

My parents say that I wouldn;'t go to sleep at night if I didn't have a certain number of books in my crib. They were also called in to speak with my preschool principal, because I preferred to read instead of socializing with classmates (with whom I gladly played at recess) at "free time".

When I saw this post a couple of days ago, I was bound and determined to leave an informative comment outlining my views and a thesis, based on my upbringning... but it's been two days, and my point has gone and left me.

When it comes to reading, one of the things that got me into it (my current collection of books, those that I've collected over the past few years) is somewhere upwards of 500lbs. It takes four footlockers to move, and Uncle Sam gives me no place to keep them :(

My father began teaching me how to read (as far as I can remember) before I was four. By the time I was four, I could keep up with the joe average first grader. One of the biggest things when it comes to teaching children is to just do it. Most parents might treat it as a chore they don't want to do, or they are so dragged down by keeping a job, being a parent, and just being - that they don't feel they have the time.

Kids tend to have short attention spans. Teaching for half an hour a day while they're still toddlers might put them well ahead of those who don't get that education. It isn't a mark of intelligence, but a mark of preparation.

The rest of my point is completely left to the ether... my apologies.

You ask a very important question, and one that has no simple answer. As a librarian and sometime teacher, I've been pondering this one for a very long time now, perhaps longer than you've been reading. [grin]

Measured literacy levels in the US are declining. They have been dropping slowly for quite a few years now. At first we thought this was caused by the influx of immigrants from poorer countries with less developed educational systems and different cultural values, but now we know that it is endemic. There seem to be a lot of factors that contribute to the situation, and, consequently, there is no simple answer.

Many technological forces do enter into the equation. Television (not in and of itself, but in the nature of what it presents, which has changed significantly since it became widely accepted after World War II), action video games (what I call shoot-em-ups, as opposed to the adventure types that require reading and puzzle solving), computers and the internet (which are in many respects promoters of basic literacy, this very medium that you are reading being a good example of that, but which do not encourage the depth of reading and writing typified by Hemingway or Gertrude Stein, let alone the complexities of Whitman or Melville), and cell phones and instant messaging (which I consider detrimental: HW R U? does not constitute literacy in my view).

As a society, we have developed attention deficit disorder and refined it until it is a high art. Our cultural media, our educational system, even our politics have come to promote and encourage this. Add to that the fact that 20th century Americans were always, for the most part, anti-intellectual, and you can see the funnel that leads downward to our present situation.

Librarians and educators jumped on the Harry Potter bandwagon three or four years ago because it seemed that Rowling's books possessed some magic (pun intended?) that could make even the most hyper and inattentive 11-year-old want to read. In the long run, though, that has failed to work out. Those kids may actually finish a Harry Potter book or two, but many of them are just waiting for the next movie version to come out now. Why concentrate on reading an 800 page book when you can just see it as a two hour film, with special effects even, and deafening sound, and as soon as it's finished walk into the next auditorium to see The Matrix Reloaded or Hellboy or some other flickering, focusless, ever-changing distraction? Our commercial institutions play on this as well. Look at the brief, flashing, conclusionless advertisements that fill broadcast TV now. And the content of the programming is hardly better. Most of it is contextless, featuring the Freudian laugh of the moment or this instant's explosion or gunshots, to be forgotten in mere seconds as the next disconnected vignette appears.

All this stuff acts on the human mind like some kind of drug, deadening it and at the same time stirring it into restlessness, constant boredom, and irritability.

We are now at the point where teachers are saying that if the kids will only read the adventures of Captain Underpants, at least they are reading something. But the truth is, my father was expected to read and comprehend Herman Melville when he was in high school. By the time I was that age, Shakespeare was the most that was expected. In today's high schools, even Shakespeare is considered too difficult unless presented in some kind of abbreviated paraphrase.

For an American of your age, my friend, you are now the exception rather than the rule. Today's school kids are non-readers because their parents are non-readers too. The example, the inspiration, the encouragement have disappeared now. My mother and father read to their children daily. They also read books, magazines and newspapers themselves. Today, not even the TV guide is read in most households. I think you can see the trend well enough.

I heard somewhere that the average length of one shot in feature films (and probably TV shows) today is under 15 seconds. Contrast this with the beautiful long takes in Hitchcock (the "Touch of Evil" opening has to be 2 minutes long) and earlier. People just don't have the attention span anymore. (Though the most recent Harry Potter had some absolutely beautiful cinematography, including a lot of long takes - but it's the exception.)

For the record, I'm a reader, though life seems to be getting in the way recently. I learned before I was four, and immediately started racing through anything available - I managed to finish The Black Stallion by the end of kindergarden, and by time I was about 10 was reading books from the adult section. (Star Wars spinoffs, specifically - I loved the movies so much, I went and found the books! A little backwards from usual.)

Movies can indirectly help create literacy through an odd medium - fanfiction. Fanfiction.net hosts thousands, perhaps millions, of stories, all written simply because the writer wanted to. No money, no incentive other than "I want to write a story about my favorite characters and share it with people!" Granted, about 75% or more are rather poorly written - but the review system allows others to comment, and hopefully improve a great number of writers.

I think that instant messaging is what you make of it - I've run into a large number of intelligent, well-spoken people online who challenge both my way of thinking and my writing habits. I find that banging out text can sometimes be more useful in clarifying an idea than talking on the phone, simply because the words become so much more important - "do I mean probable or possible here? What are the nuances of definition and connotation that will affect how this is perceived?" However, while this is effective for me, it probably isn't for a lot of people, simply because they don't have the vocabulary, understanding of the language, or willingness to type out whole words when single letters would do.

I'm not sure where I was going with this. Just leaving thoughts, I guess.

It took me 15 minutes to read that.. looks like I'm done for the day.. =)

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