Education vs. the FAHRENHEIT 541 effect

By Patrick Correia from Northampton, MA, United States (Book burning Uploaded by mangostar) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I find I can’t quit thinking about Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451and how real life is mimicking this novel.

In my last post, I looked at how Bradbury’s prediction of our immersive entertainment can take us—or at least some of us—down a road towards shallow thinking and a lack of understanding of the world around us.

 

Educational Impact Today

Forget about some distant future with flying cars, interactive rooms, and enforcement robots—I think I’m seeing the “Fahrenheit 451 effect” in my classroom right now, today.

I bet you can ask any English teacher in the country and they’ll say the same thing. In my ten years of teaching, I’ve noticed a decisive and steady drop in average reading level, reading interest, and general attention span.

Last month, for example, I had one young man ask me how to bring his grade up and the next day—the very next day—he wanted to surf the web instead of reading the class text because, as he told me, he “usually doesn’t find it necessary to read.”

Sadly, he’s not alone. These anti-reading sentiments are becoming increasingly wide-spread, even in advanced, college-prep classes. No wonder we have such a problem with student failing out of college.

Many students avoid reading the way they would avoid thumb-screws, and the accumulated years of ducking these assignments results in a greatly reduced ability to digest information of all sorts in all their classes.

Of course, these results aren’t universal: I also see another demographic who are addicted to reading and they gobble up books faster than the hungry, hungry hippos gobble up marbles. Most start reading the high-interest young adult novels and follow their interests up to increasingly complex works, and these skills transfer to all other areas of learning. And this advantage helps highlight the severe lack that their non-reading peers suffer.

 

Can we blame video games?

This is a complex problem and can’t be pinned solely on multimedia entertainment, but it’s hard to deny that it’s a factor. Probably even a leading factor.

Now that teens are growing up carrying entire music libraries and movie theaters right in their pockets,it’s no surprise that an increasing number of people are getting immersed so deeply that they’re in danger of drowning, just like Mrs. Montag did in Bradbury’s book.

Not only will this make a population that is more vulnerable to Wag the Dog type of spin, it will also hamper their efforts to achieve their life-goals.

 

The solution?

Schools across the country are beginning to recognize and combat this trend by focusing on critical thinking rather than simple factual recall. Parents can help, too, by reading to their young children and discussing books with their older children. If it seems important to you, it will become important to them.

The solution Bradbury offers us is to form small, counter-culture groups that delve deeply into their books. They make up for the superficiality of regular society with a depth of thinking that goes so far down that the readers take their favorite books as part of their very identity.

 

Against the law?

One element I didn’t mention is that in the world of Fahrenheit 451, books aren’t just a nuisance, they are actually against the law.

Our society may not struggle with this issue much outside of school-board meetings, but it turns out that we don’t need laws to discourage reading and thinking, just attractive alternatives.

However, not every country is so lucky, and even in our own country the “Thought Police” are always searching for a way to seize power.

I’ll take that one up next time when I get into the granddaddy of all modern dystopian novels: 1984

 

The Thought Police don’t want you to subscribe to this blog via email (over on the left, right below the picture of my ugly mug). They don’t want you to know what I’ll say next!

 

About Sechin Tower

Sechin Tower is a teacher, game developer, and author of MAD SCIENCE INSTITUTE, a novel of creatures, calamities, and college matriculation. He lives in Seattle, Washington.
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2 Responses to Education vs. the FAHRENHEIT 541 effect

  1. Tracey says:

    A very interesting post. Your take on the level of reading skills and less than enthusiastic approach to reading in spot on. Blame video games? I don’t think that’s as much of a cause as the proliferation of sound bites, constant bombardment of entertainment as you mention and a lack of reading in the average household.
    One thing that frightens me about the continued decline of reading in children is the new focus on non-fiction reading in the PARCC and common core standards. Reducing the fiction reading may very help instruct on critical thinking but what’s it going to do to inspire the love of reading?

  2. As an English teacher, I was naturally concerned about the same things you were when I first started hearing about the common core standards a few months ago. I absolutely agree that reading fiction is essential for promoting reading skills beyond just enjoying novels, and it sets up a lifetime enjoyment of reading.

    I was relieved when I looked deeper into the standards and discovered that the oft-quoted “70% non-fiction” is across the curriculum, so biology and history texts figure into that total. The list of sample English texts really didn’t look all that different from what I already teach in terms of proportion.

    Fiction is under fire, but not as much as most other arts including music, painting, drama, and even wood shop. It’s sad that these programs get cut so rapidly, but I guess too many tax payers don’t see their value.

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