I’ve seen a few interesting discussions recently on the decline of performance on the SAT, particularly in its verbal section. Even with the renorming of the test in 1995 (pushing its score up 100 or so points), as well as the addition of various subjective sections, scores are on the down swing across nearly all demographic cohorts, particularly in verbal.
To me the answer is quite simple, and it’s been a visible change that I’ve seen among young people in my own lifetime. While you can teach math in school, most reading takes place in your spare time. And most people, particularly young people, don’t read much anymore, even when they’re bright. And what they do read mostly is an atrocity. It’s the equivalent of reading those little gossipy notes that the future sorority girls would pass around in high school, at least that was the habit back in the 90s. Indeed, twitter is even displacing blogging, because who has time to read more than 140 characters at a time!
This is barely noticed. If you’re only exposed to your peers and incessant texting, you’ll be inclined to overestimate yourself and your abilities. We have a whole generation like that poor, schlubby kid in Todd Solondz’s creepy flick Storytelling who imagined that he might someday be a talk show host.
Here is some living history. Once upon a time, as in the 1980s, young people had hardly any decent TV shows to watch or video games to play. Most families, even middle class ones, had one TV in the whole house. Cable had 30 channels at best, many unwatchable public access shows. We either went outside to play, played board games, or read books. . . . the latter two activities particularly at night or on rainy days. We didn’t text endlessly or surf the net. “We didn’t have no internet” as Kid Rock says! In other words, we had exposure to many literary sources and a growing vocabulary in the form of whatever it is that we read. Obviously, smarter kids read more. There were still choices then. But there were also fewer interesting distractions.
Today young minds, even naturally talented ones, are afrenzy. But they’re mostly engaged in puerile, juvenile, and meaningless banter. They’re becoming timid, both socially and otherwise. It’s easier to text than to risk face-to-face rejection. So they’re texting. A lot. Thousands a month. Or they’re gaming non-stop. I know. I was there as this world first emerged. I played my share of Ghost Recon and, before that, Golden Eye. I’ve done some recreational texting. And I had the misfortune to read those of others. But, in truth, it’s all rather dull and self-satisfied. And it makes everyone a bit deprived of that learned skill called “concentration.”
I’m not sure what beyond an EMP Event will reverse this trend. Like other declining skills–Latin or basic manners–we may just view literacy as another quaint and old fashioned habit to distract us from the real business of living. And that business will be defined in an increasingly vulgar way.
I can hear it now, the reflexive and thoughtless rejoinder, “The old always say that about the young.” Brilliant. First, this is not exactly true. Sometimes the old admire the young, as in times of great social revolution. But, even if it were a common trope, one would expect exactly that pattern in a society that is undergoing major decline. Each generation would get worse. And their predecessors, already damaged, would see the new damage as uniquely bad . . . and they would be right!