Proof! Books made you smart; digital media make you stupid
At a time when the iPad is changing publishing as we know it (right?) and e-books are the fastest growing part of the business, a new study has identified the single greatest influence on a child’s education: The number of books in the home.
That’s dead-tree books, let me add. And how many books? A minimum of 500, reports LiveScience.Com. And they have to be physical books that a child can see on the shelves. An iPad or Kindle nestling 3,000 books in its innards is, to a child, just another electronic gadget.
“You get a lot of ‘bang for your book,'” said study researcher Mariah Evans, a sociologist at the University of Nevada, Reno. “It’s quite a good return-on-investment in a time of scarce resources.”
University of Nevada sociologists collected data from 73,249 people in 27 countries before concluding that having a 500-book library in the home advanced a child’s education by an average of 3.2 years.
Indeed, the presence of books in the home is twice as important as the father’s education level, and more significant than whether the child grows up in China or the United States.
And if you can’t have 500 books, even a few are better than none. Having as few as 20 books in the home exerts a positive impact on a child’s educational achievement. But the more the better.
This news gives me a frisson of smug self-righteousness. For awhile now I’ve laid off preaching the perils of the Internet, e-books and digital culture in general. After all prophets of doom grow tiresome, even if they’re right. Jeremiah’s own brothers beat him up, and Cassandra wore out her welcome in Troy long before the wooden horse showed up.
Nicholas Carr has no such worries. In the last few years, he’s emerged from a pack of Jeremiahs (Sven Birkerts, Neil Postman) to become our leading anti-digital doomsayer.
Carr believes, as I do, that computers, e-books and especially the Internet and hyperlinks are rewiring the brain to be more agile but less capable of immersive reading, deep thought, or contemplation — hence the title of his new book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.
The Shallows, just out, already has thoughtful, mostly favorable reviews from Julia Carr at the Chicago Tribune and Robert Burton at the San Francisco Chronicle. Carr has a decent website (and no, this is no more ironic than an environmentalist owning a car) at RoughType.com.
Of course, a lot of smart people disagree with Carr. A report by the Pew Research Center concluded the Internet doesn’t make us dumb — but it was based on a poll of scientists and researchers, not on new data. For more, see Switched.com. More impressively, Maria Bustillos attacks Carr’s thesis on multiple fronts in The Awl.com, concluding “the Internet makes you smarter!”
To help you decide (obviously you don’t have time to read an actual book, right?), consider this quote from a recent Carr essay in Wired magazine and see if it doesn’t strike home:
“What kind of brain is the Web giving us? That question will no doubt be the subject of a great deal of research in the years ahead. Already, though, there is much we know or can surmise—and the news is quite disturbing. Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, and educators point to the same conclusion: When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.”
Even if Carr is right (and he is, so there), can anything be done abut it? Or is technology, as my friend, poet Edmund Skellings says, an unstoppable — even evolutionary– force?
Funny you should ask, because I just happen to be reading a fascinating book called Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization, by Spencer Wells, a biologist and genetics researcher. Fascinating book about the unintended consequences of progress.
Take the development of agriculture — one of the signal events in human history, like the invention of the wheel, the development of writing, and now, possibly, the spread of digital technology. Agriculture: A good thing, right?
Well, yes, dependable food sources ended the Stone Age and soon gave rise to cities, civilizations and other benefits. But did you know that almost all disease was absent from our hunter-gatherer forebears? Everything from measles to malaria to small pox began afflicting human kind when we domesticated animals, fostering close contact that allowed germs to leap the species barrier.
Indeed, cave men were healthier, ate more nutritious foods (and much greater variety), lived longer and had almost no dental cavities compared to their children, only a few generations down the line.
So open that iPad, buy that Kindle, get your books online instead of at a local store. Convenient as hell, sure — but it shortchanges your children, and it might be making you stupid. And it’s a Pandora’s Box of consequences yet to be seen. I don’t think they’re going to be pretty.