TOO MUCH INFORMATION

Kids Can't Focus These Days. Then Again, Neither Can I.

By Thomas Washington
Sunday, February 3, 2008

As a school librarian, I wind up reading all sorts of damning reports on students' lack of reading skills. The latest dire news came from the National Endowment for the Arts' recent "To Read or Not to Read" study, which warned that "less than one-third of 13-year-olds are daily readers, a 14 percent decline from 20 years earlier." High school students are faring even worse: Among 17-year-olds, the percentage of "non-readers" has doubled over a 20-year period, from 9 percent in 1984 to 19 percent in 2004. This multitasking generation, we're led to believe, can't focus on any item for longer than nine minutes.

But despite the ominous reports, it's business as usual for students today, at least the ones I'm talking to. Like many of their peers throughout the country, the students at my school are college-bound, AP-saturated and upwardly mobile, with plenty of homework to keep them occupied. And if the early college admissions are any indication -- decisions went out in mid-December -- they are immune to the crisis. Georgetown, the University of Chicago and Middlebury are eager to have them. 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've come down with the same virus as the kids -- the very group I criticize for ignoring the library's "new arrivals" book display.

The other night, for example, I stumbled over this paragraph in Milton Friedman's seminal 1962 tome "Capitalism and Freedom": "The self-denying ordinance to refrain from majority rule on certain kinds of issues that is embodied in our Constitution and in similar written or unwritten constitutions elsewhere, and the specific provisions in these constitutions or their equivalents prohibiting coercion of individuals, are themselves to be regarded as reached by free discussion and as reflecting essential unanimity about means."

Years ago, I might have worked with Friedman's convolutions and tried to unspool the main idea. Today, I have neither the time nor the desire. Well, I probably do have time, but with so many other books by my bedside, queued like a fleet of 757s on a snowy runway, there's too much competition to endure such prose. I put Friedman down for good after page 30.

I witness a similar edginess from younger readers in the library. "How long is it?" has replaced "Will I like it?" The students' finicky inclinations, as well as my own recent hasty approach to reading, bothered me enough to try to trace the root cause. 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."

Of course, I still believe that students have to pay their dues as readers. English teachers turn students into more skilled readers by moving from "The Catcher in the Rye" to "King Lear" in something akin to the way a fitness trainer slowly increases the heaviness of a weight to create muscle. But in the process, if we're going to insist on extracting the main ideas from chunks of text (the idea behind such 21st-century reading initiatives as "information literacy") instead of admiring, as we once did, such aesthetic values as a book's form, rhythm and content, then we need not kid -- or berate -- ourselves for our failure to mount an assault on Denis Johnson's thorny "Tree of Smoke."

Reading is all about testing these days. As the NEA reports, it is also about some prospective employer who ranks reading comprehension as "very important." Students know this. It's part of the reason they're in SAT preparation overdrive in their freshman year.

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?

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Thomas Washington is upper-school head librarian at the Potomac School in McLean.


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