Wednesday, May 11, 2005

HEAD IN THE CLOUDS. I'm getting a little tired of Malcolm Gladwell. The Tipping Point was a neat little book, taken in the narrow context of marketing analysis, but his book-reading for the New Yorker mostly demonstrates how limited his POV is when applied to just about anything else.

For example, last year he suggested -- using a psych paper about successful survivors of child abuse, The Man In The Grey Flannel Suit, and other such data -- that trauma isn't really that big a deal, that in most cases "our psychological immune system[s] will kick in and take away the sting of adversity." On its face this seems an unremarkably homey finding, but Gladwell made so much of our ability to soldier on in the face of horrors that a careful reader would eventually wonder why he thought it worth writing about. The answer, of course, is that in our pyschological age we talk so much about trauma and its effects that a fellow who comes around and says, look, it's not as bad as all that -- especially if he uses scholarly and literary sources -- seems to be bucking some sort of tide. When faced with the overwhelming task of processing and sorting out all the various categories of human suffering that our very advanced information-gathering has revealed to us, it may be soothing to hear an intellectual version of Quitcher Bitchin'.

Now Gladwell works his happy-chappy contrarian angle on the subject of our under-edumacated children. Taking off from Steven Johnson's Everything Bad Is Good for You, he says that the kids' preference for video games and TV over book-learning is OK, because pop culture exercises a certain set of intellectual muscles which, though they are different from the muscles exercised by the study of American History and other such old-timey disciplines, are valid and worth strengthening. "Being 'smart' involves facility in both kinds of thinking -- the kind of fluid problem solving that matters in things like video games and I.Q. tests, but also the kind of crystallized knowledge that comes from explicit learning," Gladwell says, and while he admits that the latter sort of learning might at present be somewhat neglected, he is much more concerned with our inability to see the riches that the former kind might yield.

What Gladwell fails to mention is what specifically is gained by video-game learning, and what is lost in the neglect of what he calls "explicit" learning -- which category of knowledge he somewhat unfairly attaches to the Gradgrindian more-school-less-recess mandates of some modern educational policies. He seems to think that gaming and TV-watching provide some sort of information-absorption and problem-solving skills:
To watch an episode of “Dallas” today is to be stunned by its glacial pace -- by the arduous attempts to establish social relationships, by the excruciating simplicity of the plotline, by how obvious it was. A single episode of “The Sopranos,” by contrast, might follow five narrative threads, involving a dozen characters who weave in and out of the plot...

...[In gaming] players are required to manage a dizzying array of information and options. The game presents the player with a series of puzzles, and you can’t succeed at the game simply by solving the puzzles one at a time. You have to craft a longer-term strategy, in order to juggle and co├Ârdinate competing interests...
For what sort of future does this training fit young minds? Perhaps the jobs of CEO and General; but, and I hate to break it to parents, very few of our children are going to get those jobs. In general, the training gleaned from gaming and watching TV shows prepares most of us for more gaming and more watching of TV shows. In this regard we may say our children are well-, perhaps over-educated.

Though I cannot speak to the aesthetics of Doom and Grand Theft Auto, I will say that, much as I love The Sopranos, complicated plotting is the least of its excellencies; and that, while the ability to follow multiple story lines may be admirable and perhaps useful, it would better suit a young person to learn how to tie various story threads into an analysis, a skill that far predates the digital video disc.

It has been my experience as a remedial English tutor that even the brightest students are undertrained in, and often unaware of, the simplest analytic tools -- including grammar, sentence structure, and outlining. These are not nearly so easy to absorb as the skills Gladwell values, but the fact that he can make himself clear in essay form shows that he has himself mastered them, which makes it rather disturbing to me that he seems not to care much that we make so little effort to wrench our kids away from their entertainment modules long enough to learn how to diagram a sentence or tie three supporting details to a main idea.

We are all futurists nowadays, and it is to be expected that the author of The Tipping Point would hope to find some bright, positive New Paradigm in the video obsessions of our young people. But it is a stubborn fact that some sorts of machinery, greasy and earth-bound as they may seem, are yet necessary to our progress, and that this goes for intellectual as well as physical realities. If we don't teach our young citizens to think rather than merely process information, all the video-savvy in the world isn't going to save their sorry asses. As seductive as the Information Age fantasy is, we will never be a nation of managers, magically summoning prosperity with our Blackberrys, without something to manage. Something has to be created first. And to create we need tools. Noun-verb agreement is to my mind a good start. You can do your part by collaring some young ruffian and making him or her learn it.

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