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The center must hold
On "decentering" books and essays, the Mobius Strip fallacy of history, and Ben Franklin's Twitter account
Benjamin Franklin wrote, "If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth writing." He did both, and it's noteworthy that we still have access to his words more than a quarter of a millennium after he wrote them.
■ Have no doubt about it: If he were living today, Benjamin Franklin would be an enthusiastic user of social media. He might not spend his time making TikTok videos, but he would certainly be involved in the rough-and-tumble of Twitter. Snappy assessments of the world would have been like catnip to his prodigious mind; indeed, most of his memorable aphorisms fit tidily within 280 characters.
■ But Franklin's opus would have been hollow without his autobiography. And his wit shines not because of cherry-picked quotes that would fit on a desk calendar, but because his observations, taken together, formed a worldview that is both readable and often quite salient today. He said many things to his contemporaries, but he wrote for the audience of history.
■ The National Council of Teachers of English has published a position statement on "Media Education in English Language Arts" with which Franklin might have taken issue. It contains some sensible reflections on the evolution of what it means to learn the English language -- like acknowledging that "The time is now to bring media education into the mainstream of ELA [English language arts] education". But it also contains some significant nonsense.
■ In particular, the position statement declares, "We no longer live in a print-dominant, text-only world", and thus concludes, "The time has come to decenter book reading and essay writing as the pinnacles of English language arts education." Nuts to that.
■ Of course it is important and worthwhile for students to know how to consume digital media thoughtfully, to express their own opinions and explain their discoveries in more than the printed format, and to be capable of assessing content sources critically. Those are all valuable skills that need to be developed as part of a holistic education in the language arts.
■ But if anyone seriously thinks that books and essays need to be "decentered", they need to rethink their worldview. The only way to take that "decentering" seriously is to believe that history is like an old tape recorder on an infinite Mobius loop, forever erasing itself before recording anew, only to erase itself all over again. Of course, that is not the case.
■ Human history is not only something that has been constructed over many generations, it also reflects an almost stunning consistency of human nature across time. The Soviets may have thought they could create a whole new human, but the rest of us ought to possess the humility to realize that we're not so special that everything is novel. History might not repeat, but it quite often rhymes.
■ The act of writing a book or even a careful essay requires a process of thinking that isn't equally required to record a Snapchat video. The process requires not only a respect for the immediate audience, but also a view toward permanence. That is why people of goodwill are still moved by Dr. Martin Luther King's Letter from Birmingham Jail. It is why understanding the Constitution still requires reading what Hamilton and Madison wrote in The Federalist Papers. It is why Christian churches still read the letters of the Apostles and why Maimonides remains influential more than 800 years after his death.
■ Great films have gone missing. Websites are often only archived by chance. Only a few early broadcasts were ever recorded, and only a fraction of what has ever aired has been saved digitally. But books and essays are intended to be permanent.
■ And while they shouldn't be the only materials that students study or create, there is no sound reason for "decentering" carefully-written words. History isn't the only reason; so is the present. The logic of composition imposes rigor on the writer, and practice is the only way to really become good at it.
■ Nobody is going to master a complex subject from "snack-length" video segments. We learn from those who take the time to form their ideas carefully. Multimedia tools are sometimes the most effective ways to project those ideas -- but even a great film requires a written script. Yes, students should "master the full range of literary competencies"...but the book will still be around a thousand years from now. Instagram will not.