Sunday, November 15, 2009

On healthy habits and responsible role models

In this week's Die Zeit, Susanne "Jeremiah" Gaschke bemoans the loss of reading skills in Germany. Even in middle-class families, she complains, reading seems to be a dying art, as more and more time is spent in the Internet and in front of TVs and PlayStations.

This is an important observation, which pulls the rug out from under the mantra - currently en vogue amongst theoretical educators (Theoretical educator - me? I'm at the chalk face!) - of the "bildungsferne Gesellschaftsschichten" ("social strata at a distance from education"). Maybe the idea that a lack of education is solely caused by a lack of money needs to be rethought. Wealth does not protect from ignorance - I mean, look at the Royal Family or Apricot Boomtown.

The culprits, according to Gaschke, are middle-class parents who - although still passively upholding old educational ideals - fail to practice what they preach:

Ein geübter Leser wird man nur durch … Üben. Und die Übung beginnt durch das Vorbild der Eltern, durch Vorlesen, Erzählen und Über-Geschichten-Sprechen.

[You only become a accomplished reader by ... practising. And practice begins with the parental model, with being read to, with telling and talking about stories].

Quite right. However, it seems that Gaschke is losing the argument when she elevates the cultural practice of reading to a moral act:

Warum aber ist Lesekompetenz heute überhaupt noch wichtig? Weil sich dem geübten Leser Fragen stellen, die auch im Leben wichtig sind: Worum geht es? Ist das, was ich lese, glaubwürdig? Ist Ironie im Spiel? Was empfinden die Figuren in einer Geschichte?

[But why is reading still important today? Because the accomplished reader is confronted with questions that are also relevant in real life: What is this about? Is the story I'm reading credible? Is it ironic? What do the characters feel?]

Her mission statement: "Only those who read are able to empathise with others".

Well, here we are back to the Arnoldian fallacy that literature is a quasi-religion! This clearly is too simplistic.

If that were the case, then I should be surrounded, in my professional life, by supremely empathetic creatures. If reading made us all better people, then university literature departments would be free from violent strife, petty squabbles and parochial vanities - they would be sanctuaries of shared concern, intellectual openness and mutual respect.

Reader, let me tell you: They are not!

Also, if Gaschke were right, then most of human history (and pre-history) would have been empathy-free: an illiterate world of ruthless murder and rapine without remorse and regret until the Frankfurt Book Fair came along (but then again Zeit arts editors rarely think in an evolutionary time frame and are notorious for taking themselves too seriously).

Actually, it is not reading that leads us to ask the questions that Gaschke lists in the quote above: literature is only able to raise them because Homo sapiens can ask such questions and make such assessments. Our brain was there first! Reading merely trains cognitive skills that evolved for very different reasons - it is a further development of the human imagination, not that which shapes it.

Needless to say that the kind of responses that Gaschke hails as fundamentally literary are of course also triggered by other narrative artefacts, from soap operas to pop ballads (if the listener bothers to listen to the lyrics*). To be empathetic, we don't need books.

In other words, to defend the practice of reading, we have to come up with other, better explanations for the value of literature.**

Nevertheless, Gaschke and Michelle Obama would have a field day on Sesame Street:

Actually, this is kinda cute and doesn't deserve the kind of vicious commentary that raging loony libertarians have left at YouTube.

A final observation on role models: Why is it that in this day and age when universities across Europe have taken up the cause of internalisation with a vengeance - which is often seconded by the mysterious emergence of an administrative hydrocephalus and new central buildings to house it - administrative staff in international offices, who are prone to calling their students ignorant or parochial, often do not speak foreign languages or seem consummately reticent to travel. Talk about pots calling kettles black.

* Have you noticed, too, that only few people actually care about the words of songs?
** Lying in bed all day Saturday surrounded by a pile of books, with a pot of coffee in reach, being one of those explanations. Escapism. Not having to be in/with the world. Not wanting to get out of bed and still feeling that you are living.


mikeovswinton said...

To some extent I agree with your point about lyrics. In the anglophone world there is a sort of game with some songs of working out what the lyrics to songs actually are. There's a term which I can't remember for the lyrics you think you are hearing when you are actually hearing something completely different. Do you have this in Germany, or are your singers gifted with excellent diction?

The Wife said...

I'm not sure about the technical term for "mishearing pop lyrics", but a German comedian a few years ago had an extended routine based on the rumour that Phil Collins had heard Madonna's "La Isla Bonita" as "Louise the Bone Eater".

I wonder whether Gestalt-psychologists might help us here. Maybe your brain not only fills in the gaps of unfinished images but also of incomplete songs.

mikeovswinton, poet doesn't know it said...

They did an advert over here where people held up cards with what they thought the lyrics to songs were.Can't remember who the ad was for - isn't that always the way, though? You remember the ad and not the product. Suggests that there might be some wastage of money going on there.
Incidentally, the latest craze in the advertising world on tv over here is poems. Macdonalds have one, voiced by David Morrisey, no less. Then Cathedral City cheese did one. Now the Sun has Johnny Vegas doing one. Wonder if it'll spark off a craze for pomes amongst the yoof of the country? They are probably all done by one ad agency who have a rhymer on their staff.

mikeovswinton said...

It was Maxell, who I think used to do tapes in the days before they came up with "digital" and "computers" Check out on youtube "Maxell Israelites Advert" or "Maxell Skids In the Valley advert" and you'll see the stuff.

The Wife said...

Talking about ads, did you read Charlie Brooker on Christmas ads in the Guardian today? His particular hate object is the Morrison's one with the little one from Top Gear, whom he likens to "a slightly unkempt mouse following a shop".

But no, I haven't come across any of your British bardic ads yet, although I tend to watch a bit of telly when I'm in the UK (as I was last week - well, in Glasgow).

Though the most grating ad that I've come across recently is one they were showing ad nauseam on one of those Nuremberg rally screens at Frankfurt airport as I was waiting for my plane. It began with the line "the moment we are born, we are hemmed in, tied down, bla bla bla ..." (all accompanied by a contemplative e-pop tune) and the punch line was of course that if you buy a particular mobile phone you will be able to reestablish the freedom you'd experienced in the womb (yes, the whole thing starts off on the ultrasound image of a foetus).

The womb, my arse! As if we didn't all know that the word rhymes with tomb.

Maybe it was a poetic ad, after all - if you take a Gestalt sort of perspective, of course.

mikeovswinton, shredded. said...

Hmm. We'll see if we get your portentious moby (handy - took me ages to work that out) ad over here. I ain't seen it.

The Macdonalds ad is, almost inevitably, on youtube - put in "Madonalds 'favourites' advert" and you'll find it.

Brooker missed the poetry ad thing, and I have to say I rather like the Boots' one, as long as they have the original Ernie K. Doe version of "Here come the girls", which is a rather good example of Norleens funk.

But he's spot on about the Hamster Morrisons thing. The worst thing about that is that unless I am very much mistaken the V/O is done by Jim Broadbent. (If not, it is a soundalike). Do him and Morrisey not have enough in the bank without having to shred our memories of their fine work by advertising Maccy D and Morrisons.