Literary Learning in the Hyperdigital Age By Mark Bauerlein Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein is fighting to preserve literary thought in an age of digital distraction.

When the Boston Globe reported that an elite prep school in Massachusetts had set out to give away all its books and go 100% digital, most readers probably shrugged. This was just a sign of the times: Everyone now assumes a paperless future of learning through screens, not Norton anthologies and Penguin paperbacks. After all, the headmaster of the school told the Globe, “When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books.” Who wouldn’t believe that every school a decade hence will display a marvelous, wondrous array of technology in every classroom, in the library, in study hall?

It won’t go that far, though, not in every square foot of the campus and every minute of the school day. In 2020, schools will indeed sport fabulous gadgets, devices, and interfaces of learning, but each school will also have one contrary space, a small preserve that has no devices or access, no connectivity at all. There, students will study basic subjects without screens or keyboards present — only pencils, books, old newspapers and magazines, blackboards and slide rules. Students will compose paragraphs by hand, do percentages by long division, and look up a fact by opening a book, not checking Wikipedia. When they get a research assignment, they’ll head to the stacks, the reference room, and the microfilm drawers.

It sounds like a Luddite fantasy, but even the most pro-technology folks will, in fact, welcome the non-digital space as a crucial part of the curriculum. That’s because over the next 10 years, educators will recognize that certain aspects of intelligence are best developed with a mixture of digital and nondigital tools. Some understandings and dispositions evolve best the slow way. Once they mature, yes, students will implement digital technology to the full. But to reach that point, the occasional slowdown and log-off is essential.

Take writing. Today, students write more words than ever before. They write them faster, too. What happens, though, when teenagers write fast? They select the first words that come to mind, words that they hear and read and speak all the time. They have an idea, a thought to express, and the vocabulary and sentence patterns they are most accustomed to spring to mind; with the keyboard at hand, phrases go right up on the screen, and the next thought proceeds. In other words, the common language of their experience ends up on the page, yielding a flat, blank, conventional idiom of social exchange. I see it all the time in freshman papers, prose that passes along information in featureless, bland words.

English teachers want more. They know that good writing is pointed, angular, vivid, and forceful. A sharp metaphor strikes home, an unusual word catches a perceptive meaning, a long periodic sentence that holds the pieces together in elegant balance draws readers along. There are the ingredients of style, the cultivation of a signature. It happens, though, only when writers step outside the customary flow of words, especially those that tumble forth like Yosemite Falls. Because writing is a deep habit, when students sit down and compose on a keyboard, they slide into the mode of writing they do most of the time on a keyboard — texting (2,272 messages per month on average, according to Nielsen), social networking (nine hours per week, according to National School Boards Association), and blogging, commenting, IM, e-mail, and tweets.

It’s fast and easy, but good writing doesn’t happen that way. As more kids grow up writing in snatches and conforming to the conventional patter, problems will become impossible to overlook. Colleges will put more first-year students into remedial courses, and businesses will hire more writing coaches for their own employees. The trend is well under way, and educators will increasingly see the nondigital space as a way of countering it. For a small but critical part of the day, they will hand students a pencil, paper, dictionary, and thesaurus, and slow them down. Writing by hand, students will give more thought to the craft of composition. They will pause over a verb, review a transition, check sentence lengths, and say, “I can do better than that.”

The nondigital space will appear, then, not as an antitechnology reaction but as a nontechnology complement. Before the digital age, pen and paper were normal tools of writing, and students had no alternative to them. The personal computer and Web 2.0 have displaced these tools, creating a new technology and a whole new set of writing habits. This endows pen and paper with a new identity, a critical, even adversarial one. In the nondigital space, students learn to resist the pressures of conformity and custom, to think and write against the fast and faster modes of the Web. Disconnectivity, then, serves a crucial educational purpose, forcing students to recognize the technology everywhere around them and to see it from a critical distance.

This is but one aspect of the curriculum of the future. It allows a better balance of digital and nondigital outlooks. Yes, there will be tension between the nondigital space and the rest of the school, but it will be understood as a productive tension, not one to be overcome. The Web is, indeed, a force of empowerment and expression, but like all such forces, it also fosters conformity and stale behaviors. The nondigital space will stay the powers of convention and keep Web 2.0 (and 3.0 and 4.0 ) a fresh and illuminating medium.

About the Author

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory University. He’s served as a director of the Office of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts, where he oversaw studies about culture and American life. He’s published in the Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Washington Post, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. His latest book, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future; Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30, was published in May 2008 by Penguin. Web site