June 11th, 2004

color cycle (slow)

"READ 15 MINUTES EACH DAY" and other signs of the intellectual apocolypse

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?