There is an argument to make that the web and the “infotention” problems it has created may be eroding our capacity to read and write, especially in extended forms. Some years ago I was presenting a paper at a conference at Columbia University and had occasion to talk to a professor of Russian literature who said she could no longer teach as she had before because her graduate students could no longer sustain a reading of War and Peace. (Morgan Meis, at Drexel University, raises an interesting counterpoint in The Return of the Epigram: Can 21st-century Twitter rescue the wordplay mastered by 1st century Romans?)
I wonder, however, if we aren’t seeing the edges of the Gutenberg Parenthesis, the idea put forward by Professor Sauerberg of the University of Denmark that the past 500 years or so might be viewed as an interlude strangely dominated by printed texts. I hope so. And I hope that what comes next is a return to the spoken word–a more social medium than print.
Now I am a great lover of books and reading and writing. I worry though that print currently has a privileged position in our schools when there is nothing inherent in it to suggest that it is the be all and end all of communication. Indeed, our nearly exclusive use of text in schools may disenfranchise large numbers of students who struggle with written language for one reason or another.
As I said, print is not inherently good. Indeed, it killed off the high art of oratory. In Cicero’s day the measure of a man was his ability orate. If you want to hear what a good speaker once could do read Regicide and Revolution: Speeches at the Trial of Louis XVI and remember that these were mostly extemporaneous. I submit that if our students could do this, we’d be pleased indeed. (I’m thinking of making my final exams this year oral exams. I think they are a much better way to measure knowledge and skill. It’s much harder to cheat in an oral exam, too. Really, all an essay evaluates is one’s ability to write an essay. That’s not a bad thing, not at all. But it may be a limited and limiting lens.)
So maybe, just maybe, the web and social media and tools like SocialCam and podcasts will help us build a revival of the great art oratory, not at the expense of print, but to augment it.