Nick Carr has a highly thought provoking piece in the Atlantic this month titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” that raises some challenging questions about what the Web is doing to our reading skills and to our intellects. As with many of these types of pieces, it’s really hard not to read this through the lens of what this means for our teaching and our curriculum, and I think there is little doubt it means a lot. Carr actually makes several similar points to Mark Bauerline in “The Dumbest Generation” (which I’m almost finished with, btw) with the difference that I honestly think he wants us to think deeply about what all of this means. (Bauerline just wants to call names and toss around blame, for the most part.)
Let me say that Carr’s description of how his own reading habits have changed resonate deeply:
Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.
Describes me to a tee, though I have to say there are still longer works (Shirky’s book most recently) that I find hard to put down. But the denser stuff, Wealth of Networks, for one example, I find tough any more. And there are some prominent edbloggers who I simply don’t read because of the length of their posts. In many ways, my own angst about this is why I am so thrilled that my own kids are reading books, that they are at least getting a sense of that extended, deep reading that longer works provide, even though I know that once they start really reading more online, that may change.
While there is little research to clearly paint a picture of what is going on in our heads, something is most definitely afoot. Carr cites a study that says
It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.
(Read the comment thread to my earlier post to get a sense of that debate.)
There’s more that’s equally compelling in terms of making the case that in all likelihood, the Web is changing the way we read. But the obvious question here is, what are the implications for us as educators whose students are reading more and more in online environments? I’m not suggesting that this type of reading is necessarily better or worse than our pre-Web worlds. I don’t think Carr is either; in fact he takes pains to point to moments in history when new technologies were created and roundly denounced only to see great gains in ways few could have predicted. Perhaps this is a step in our evolution as thinkers and learners. Who knows? But what I do know is that very few schools are thinking deeply about what this all means in terms of reading development and practice.
Maybe this article will jump start some conversations.
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