Thursday, April 28, 2005

The OTH Generation

Some years ago the New York Times (perhaps the Book Review section, I can't recall) did a Special called "Writers on Writing." When those pieces were coming out, I thought them really excellent and a potential model for our own faculty to produce something similar, some insight into how they write, or how they teach, or how they go about their research. I did such a piece myself but wasn't able to generate any coattails. So I lost interest in that particular project. But I still liked those articles and think they are really great. The are very readable in the sense of not being over my head and only a page or two of text. And they are fascinating. I thought the Times had taken them down (to be published for $$ someplace else) but lo and behold the archive is online. What a delightful discovery.

I came to search for that archive because I started to read a piece by Diana and James Oblinger from the book they have edited called Educating the Net Generation. (Readers of this blog may recall a prior post on learning styles to acknowledge that I'm disposed against making teaching and learning arguments based on generational assumptions. I chose the title of this post to make the point that I'm part of the OTH (over the hill) generation and since I am I can make some crotchety arguments, which is what I intend to do in the rest of this post.) That the Oblingers try to typify a generation of students brought to mind a particular piece by Saul Bellow in the On Writing series.

Bellow was taking on the argument that reading is dead; it was killed off by the movies and other technological marvels. Bellow started off by saying for him as kid, self described as bookish, he nonetheless went to the movies and liked them. For him they were a different activty from reading. They didn't compete with each other. (Incidentally, I think this is true for my older son, 12, who does plenty of TV and video games, but also reads.)

Bellow then argues that even if the masses don't read, some people do. And they are whom he writes for. He quotes Cheever on the importance of the readers for the writer and the relationship that adoring readers have with the writer. Certainly, that there are readers sustains the writer. That not everyone is a reader is of no concern to the writer as long as there are some who are. This is not a utilitarian argument. This is an argument about excellence via making genuine reflections and observations. The good writer can do that where the film maker, particularly of commercial films aimed to make a buck, can't.

Bellow's antagonist is a man named Teachout who apparently was following in the tradition of Spengler. Out with the old, in with the new. reading is out, video is in. Teachout argued about the masses and the inevitability of progress. That argument notwithstanding, Bellow and his cronies kept on writing for their small group who cared about writing. They pleased themselves, they survived, and of course they produced some very good stuff.

I fear the Oblingers are like Teachout. Especially on points regarding visual learning. Video games are popular. That doesn't mean they are the only path to conveing rich ideas. On some of their other points I, a defining member of the OTH Generation, am just like members of the Net Generation. We like to learn things by figuring them out on our own rather than being told. Please, that is not a generational defining characteristic. That is a characteristic of being a thinking human being.

There is another point that needs to be raised. Students differ in their abilities and some universities are harder than others in their intellectual demands placed on the students. We're seeing that issue raised big time in Texas now with the top 10% of the high school class issue. There is a thought that because education has to be good and relevant (I share that thought), the university targeted at students of more modest ability should produce educational outcomes comparable to those at more elite universities and that the way to do this is by making the pedagogic approach better situated for the the students (I do not share this thought). There is a real problem of dumbing down the content, especially if that is to solve the "visual learner" issue. Kids should still read in college. I've said it before. We should not cave in on that. There are certainly graphical ways to illustrate complex ideas, but those should complement rather than replace the written word to describe and analyze those ideas.

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