Thursday, September 24, 2009

A digital letter from a bookless man

James Tracy, the headmaster of the Cushing Academy who decided to go with the bookless library for his school, posted a letter dated Sept. 10 on the school's site. There's a couple of disturbing things about this particular bit of newspeak. (Here's an interview with Cushing on Here and Now)
"Moreover, many teachers continue to assign printed books in their courses, and students are encouraged to read literature in any format they find most convenient." It is interesting to note the library's transformation from a historical understanding of it into a building that is specifically designed as a meeting place. The question raised from my reading of this is wehre are the students to get these print books. (As a side note the Kindle doesn't have any pages so in citing it as a source you have to use its location numbers-according to CMOS) This may seem simply like a dusty bibliophile complaint but it is more a request for some logical arguement from Tracy.
Probably the most illuminating, albeit disturbing, aspect of Tracy's letter comes towards the end of the document. Tracyattempts to defend his choice by briefly referencing his 'incurable bibliophilia' but finishes with this statement. "... the younger generation as a rule does not share my nostalgia for the printed book, and they are discovering capabilities and aesthetics in the electronic world that my generation can scarcely fathom.The future of learning is electronic..." This is an incredibly telling statement. First because Tracy implies that learning is not a continual exercise we are constatnly engaging in as humans but that learning requires a specific medium in which to occur. Tracy's statement also highlights the continual difficulty of one generation to talk to another about the efficacy of the printed word. In this letter Tracy seems unwilling or unable to recognize that his stance on physical books is ultimately hypocritical. He states that he loves seeing students read but is filling the former library building with screens of news feeds composed of data that is constantly changing. While the school is supposedly giving out Kindles, it is a limited number so where are the students going to go and get these books?
I wonder if this approach does a severe disservice to these students by eliminating their chance to experience any interaction with books. How does this affect them going to college? Does this mean that these students will have no interaction with a university library or even a desire to? It seems, based solely on my anecdotal experience, that students exposed to databases in high school are more likely to use them in college. Is it possible that the possibility of exposure to books, which Tracy has decided is no longer necessary, being removed from these students which help to keep them from ever experiencing the breadth of a library.
In some way Tracy may be right that technology is going drive future literacy. In a recent article entitled So Maybe Not the Dumbest Generation (a play on a dubious book title of recent publication) the author deatils some of the results revealed by the Stanford Study of Writing as conducted by Andrea Lunsford with 14,672 Stanford students over a five year period. The results seem to indicate that there is an actual increase in literacy but that different tools and methods are required to do this well. In a review of the same study Clive Thompson at appluads the results seeing the study as proof of students developing tools and skills that are necessary to communicate effecitvely and with brevity because of the interaction with social netowrking, texting and Powerpoint. It's difficult to tell whether this is a new re-hashing of the old 'texting-as-new-language' arguement or if students really are writing better.
At the very least we need to be thinking about literacy in new ways; as a combination of new and old technologies in order to provide perspective and context to the study of this world through the process which we call education. Tracy's claim that nostalgia doesn't cause student to use books is right-on however he fails to attempt to concern himself with helping his students establish perspective of understanding and encountering the past in a way that helps to manage/understand the present and map out (a) future road.
**There's also the question, as raised by of where the library director is in all of this hoopla.**

No comments: