I love words, their heft and shapes and textures, the ways they fit together to form patterns of sound and meaning. I love sentences and paragraphs that play like music in my head. I love books, the vessels on which words sail, the feel of a book in hand, the smell and texture of paper. A simple, brilliant technology that doesn't run out of juice after two hours, boots up and downloads instantaneously, never crashes, and requires no backlighting, charging, plugs, cables, or outlets.
The world is moving in a different direction, though, pixels in place of print. And not necessarily for the better, it seems.
A recent New York Times cover story (9/4/11) reported on the results of an ambitious experiment to transform the public schools in one Arizona district into 21st century digital classrooms. The Kyrene School District, which covers the cities of Prescott, Phoenix, and Chandler, has invested $33 billion since 2005 in laptops, interactive Smart Boards, "teaching" software, and "educational" games, and is asking voters this November to approve $46.3 more in taxes to keep investing in technology. Seventh grade students studying Shakespeare's "As You Like It" during the NYT reporter's visit were bent over laptops, blogging, building Facebook pages for Shakespeare's characters, or compiling song lists from the Internet, including a tune by rapper Kanye West, to supposedly represent the emotions expressed by the play. No mention was made of books as part of the educational mix.
Over the six years since this transition began, students' performance in the Kyrene District have stagnated or fallen. While Kyrene's educators argue that perhaps their students' test scores were already so high that it would be difficult to push them significantly higher (which raises the interesting question of why the massive investment was needed in the first place), many have pointed out the dearth of any evidence showing that allowing students to battle aliens on a computer screen in the classroom (yes, really) has any relationship to learning.
The decline in student performance is widespread. The SAT reading scores for the high school class of 2011 dropped to 497, the lowest average on record. Test reports consistently show a steady erosion of reading proficiency over the last 40 years. And, not coincidentally, study after study shows a precipitous drop in the number of young Americans who read, and in how much they read.
The drive toward digital education is powered by a high-tech industry hungry for new markets and consumers. Getting our kids video-addicted in kindergarten is a brilliant marketing strategy. As an educational strategy - not so much. Independent research has found that schools which spent more on their library stock than on new technology were much more likely to improve student performance. But since 2005, as technology investment has soared, textbook purchases have plummeted, and classrooms lack basic materials such as paper, pens, and pencils.
I'm no Luddite. I use technology in my personal and professional activities. In the right measure, technology has been a boon, turning my laptop, iPad, or smartphone into a doorway into the world's largest, fastest library.
But books have proven to be an enduring method of transmitting information. Reading helps children learn speech, vocabulary, grammar, and spelling - without tedious drills. Books accelerate children's emotional development, improve their attention spans, foster their natural curiosity, and, perhaps most importantly, stimulate their imaginations - a reader creates his or her own minds' eye version of a story, complete with sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures, far richer than any digital offering. Books promote positive socialization - young readers can share the stories with their parents or teachers, then ask questions that help them find out more about the world. Books are cheap, or free to anyone with access to a public library.
Reading is a deeply satisfying source of entertainment. The physical substance of a book offers tranquility. The text does not move on the page like it does on a screen; no clicking or scrolling is required. Reading increases children's knowledge on a multitude of subjects that are encountered by chance in the course of a story. A book demands patience and effort, but rewards the reader with the depth of understanding that can only come from careful and intensive study and reflection. It deserves a place of honor in the classroom.
THERE is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!