from the Christian Monitor and the Washington Post
We’re on information overload
Kids can’t focus these days, and neither can I.
By Thomas Washington
from the February 6, 2008 edition
As a school librarian, I wind up reading all sorts of damning reports on students’ lack of reading skills… But despite the ominous reports, it’s business as usual for students today, at least the ones I’m talking to. So what gives?
Educators or parents might start by framing the questions differently. Who isn’t having trouble concentrating these days? Who doesn’t find it nearly impossible to stick with a 450-page novel?
… I suspect that the tipping point in information overload has tipped. Students’ aversion to reading does not necessarily signal a weakness, much less a dislike of reading. For them, and now maybe for me, moving on to something else is an adaptive tactic for negotiating the jungle that is our information-besotted culture of verbiage.
These kids manage to survive by bushwhacking through the muddle – while seamlessly dealing with an e-mail, a Word document, or a 50-page PDF from the scholarly database JSTOR. It’s taken them just a few years to arrive at the same conclusion that I’ve reached after a lifetime of sustained reading: The pursuit of knowledge in the age of information overload is less about a process of acquisition than about proficiency in tossing stuff out. By necessity, we spend more time quickly scanning manuals, king-size novels, the blogosphere, and poems in The New Yorker than we do scrutinizing their contents for deeper meaning.
This is the price we pay for the changed demands in reading. Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Stacy Schiff defines this new reading terrain as “the paradox of our age.” We’ve grown into a culture of searchers, not readers. “Surely, we have never read, or written, so many words a day,” Schiff writes. “Yet increasingly we deal in atomized bits of information, the hors d’oeuvres of education.”
… Living in the era of information overload forces a few key questions on all readers. What do we need to know? Why do we need to know it? And, given that by the end of our lives we will have absorbed and converted to knowledge only a sliver of the information available, should we bother knowing it?
• Thomas Washington is head librarian at the Potomac School in McLean, Va.©2008 The Washington Post.