Print virtue and the ontology of the Bo-ring
Here’s a riddle: What does the musical interval of a fifth have to do with discussions of multiple literacies, the millenials, and Marshall McLuhan’s predicted decline of print literacy and the corresponding rise of a more multi-sensory way of being, thinking, and judging?
Answer: play the high note and followed by the low note of the interval of a fifth and it says something that the written word alone can’t convey: “Bo-ring,” spoken as a one-word argument against an idea or a statement whose expression fails to hold the attention of a thoroughly modern person. “Bo-ring,” in the age of print culture’s decline, is the new “stupid.”
If you say a person’s argument is unsound or falls apart because of some unconsidered factor, well, you may be right and you may be wrong, but either way you’re going to have to explain yourself using greater detail and subtlety than the original expression, and a rebuttal to your argument will have to go further still into that detail and subtlety, thus demanding progressively more and more of your audience’s span of attention and ability to concentrate. This is simply the nature of investigations which have literal truth as their goal, and follow from a strong interest that some people have in “getting it exactly right.” That interest in “getting it right,” in knowing the truth, is still a virtue today, but will perhaps not be such a virtue in the future, and probably already isn’t for a lot of people. The character of investigation into truth and of truth’s expression as we know it from the context of written, rational discourse derives, as McLuhan showed, from centuries of print literacy and is correspondingly shaped by the nature of the printed word as a medium of communication. Thus, print culture has a shaping effect not only in the way that people learn things (as advocates of multiple-learning styles like to talk about) but on the kinds of truth, in a very deep sense, that people learn and generate.
We can be somewhat specific about what print literacy is good for. Print literacy is good for engendering an intellectual separation between oneself and the world, so that one is able to make independent judgments and form abstract understandings of things, people, events, ideas, arguments, etc., by applying to them the standards of an individual mind full of the operations of logic, insight, questions, prior knowledge, and abstract moral principles. This individualistic, intellectual separation and independent judgment is an important virtue in our culture and is sometimes called “critical thinking,” in the broadest sense of the expression. This critical thinking allows us to be far more rational in our decision-making and in our everyday judgments than we would otherwise be, and much less likely to be manipulated by others. Those for whom critical thinking in this broad sense is a paramount virtue (and I am one of those people) usually think that most other people don’t have enough of it. To these rational individuals, in the beginning of the 21st century, many people are frequently saying, “Bo-ring!”
To say, “Bo-ring,” is, in effect, to say that there is something more important to be considered than an idea’s relation to the truth. It may even be to demonstrate a comparative lack of interest in what is the truth. “What could be less virtuous than that,” we critical thinkers wonder of people who say that we are “Bo-ring.”
New categories of virtue may be emerging in the era of print culture’s decline. A critical thinker might identify the new, non-boring virtue as “entertainment value,” since that is what seems to be most valued by those who find long passages of text, or lectures without slides, too boring to tolerate, and who always prefer more sensory stimulation and less intellectual content. Those who can better articulate the new, multi-sensory virtue from its own perspective might talk about it in another way, making reference to things like Grace, connectedness, “keeping it real,” life-energy, flow, Being-Here-Now, or not being paranoid. (Certainly, too much intellectual separation between oneself and the world can be pathological and dangerous to those who lack the strength to maintain that human connection, though history’s greatest intellectual heroes have embodied that separation in extreme degrees.)
Whatever the opposite of boring really is, if it is a virtue of the information age, many people clearly would rather be called stupid than boring. (This is a fact that I wish Al Gore and John Kerry had understood, in all of its implications.)
I am very attached to the print literacy that is in decline, and to the value of the skills of concentration that were once taught as part of a young person’s development into an adult, but are now regarded merely as a personality trait of language-oriented learners. Print literacy and the critical thinking skills that go with it are the underpinnings of a rationally-deliberating, democratic society (to the extent that any such thing has ever existed). I strongly believe that the discussion about learning styles, though it has some basis in real psychological differences, is mostly a cover for a broad, society-wide de-prioritization of print literacy in favor of communication media that are a) more fun, b) more sensory, c) more interactive, d) less subject to questioning and accountability with reference to rational standards of truth, and e) more capable of manipulating people, for both commercial and political ends. I am also aware that my own beliefs about this matter are conditioned by the historical culture of print literacy in the West, and may ultimately not be connected to anything truly universal. I just wish that more people saw the unique value of print literacy and were not under the delusion that media are content-neutral, and saw the breadth and historic implications of the contemporary shift in McLuhanesque terms. The contemporary shift is not simply an extension of the values of educational democracy into our society of experiential, visual, and auditory as well as language-oriented learners, and it is not simply an accomodation to the new generation of learners reared on video games, as though the What of their learning is not being changed by the How of their learning. It is a shift that for honest educators and librarians raises questions that go much deeper than questions about format, but actually concern matters of pedagogy and values at the deepest level, that make us ask, what are we here for as educators in the first place?
I think we need to ask those most basic questions about pedagogy and the What of learning as a part of our approach to the “hot” questions our profession is facing at the moment, having to do with formats, the millenials, the web, networked information, Library 2.0, and the rest. So, I am recommending some McLuhan, and for good measure, this article about propaganda by Aldous Huxley, which relates in an interesting way…