It’s no accident that rare books, and books generally peaked in the 19th century. Their popularity and importance stemmed from their often unique ability to deliver “content” in a world in which content was otherwise limited. In addition to delivering content they also encouraged more complex thinking because to appreciate a story you needed to understand the details and pace and sense the story coming together. It was taken for granted that reading and essay writing were two essentials of education. By the 1930s both the true/false and multiple choice test formats were becoming common as ability grouping took hold and underperforming students were shunted into memory based programs at the expense of analysis and composition. Voila Rote learning. In the 1970s the primacy of rote learning became further institutionalized as county and state standards created general standards of performance that emphasized memorization over analysis.
The primacy though of more complex education was never in doubt. It was simply less expensive to use standardized testing and easier for institutions of higher education to comparatively evaluate students applying to move up.
Of course, the evolution of learning did not stop there and with the advent of the internet the ability to provide electronic flashcards and measure response time became fixtures of testing. Hence, the time limits imposed on standardized tests that further incentivized speed.
Today we live in a world where the high majority of students learn and are evaluated in the rote way while a small minority, roughly 10% are selected to receive an education that owes much to the 19th century approach.
Lost in this transition has been the length of attention span and with it the benefits of more complex thinking, that thinking now increasingly replaced by one word and simple answers that leave users relying on emotional content that is vulnerable to baser emotions. So today we inhabit a world with perhaps a third of its population functioning on a sprinkling of facts and a large dose of emotion.
These days adding emphasis to this trend are Facebook and Twitter. But clever and shocking will never be a substitute for complete sentences and well considered ideas.
In America, a democracy, citizen involvement is a requirement for holding random forces in check but with a significant population following emotion, and often base emotion, we face the specter of prejudice and hate animating the public dialogue. In time we’ll learn if this trend is an aberration or the choice of citizens to undermine the very system that has made America a beacon of hope for the world. America faced these challenges in the 1930s and pulled back, Germany did not – causing WW2.
Whether the forces that reduce attention span can be countered effectively remains to be seen but what is already clear is that the failure to think clearly and deeply is dangerous.