Blog Post

So Maybe Not the Dumbest Generation

So David Theo Goldberg and I spent yesterday afternoon proofreading The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions in a Digital Age, sending profound comments about hyphen's and text blocks back and forth all day, when, into the tedium of proofreading came a ping from my friend Tyler with a url to a Wired magazine article, "Clive Thompson on the New Literacy."   I held my breath because this is the time of the year when (at least since I was in college) some academic or other pronounces on how literacy has gone to the dogs and this generation is the most illiterate in human history.  Sigh.  The perennial lament.  Well, nice surprise:   Thompson reported on a new study by one of the most distinguished researchers in the field of composition and writing theory, Stanford Professor Andrea Lunsford.   I will quote (this is music to my jaded ears, btw):

Thompson writes:

"An age of illiteracy is at hand, right?

Andrea Lunsford isn't so sure. Lunsford is a professor of writing and rhetoric at Stanford University, where she has organized a mammoth project called the Stanford Study of Writing to scrutinize college students' prose. From 2001 to 2006, she collected 14,672 student writing sampleseverything from in-class assignments, formal essays, and journal entries to emails, blog posts, and chat sessions. Her conclusions are stirring.

"I think we're in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven't seen since Greek civilization," she says. For Lunsford, technology isn't killing our ability to write. It's reviving itand pushing our literacy in bold new directions."


This is great news from one of our most respected authorities on student writing.  From her website, I see that Andrea Lunsford has been the "Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor of English and Director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric since March 2000." She has chaired several MLA commissions on writing.  She has no vested interest in either praising "digital natives" or castigating them.  Her vested interest is in studying how well students write today. Here's the url for her website, which includes her vita.


She's not pronouncing on everyone.  Her sample is just 14,672 Stanford students.  But her point is that it is those students who pundits (non-experts in writing) insist are becoming more and more illiterate every year.   She insists, now, if you actually use careful metrics and look at the research, the decline is chimerical.  In fact, they are getting better.  Digitality is good for literacy.  Here's the Thompson article:


Now, does this mean students everywhere are improving?  No.  It means we need new studies.  But we cannot always be comparing apples (those eager new students sitting in our classes) and oranges (our memories of students past).  In a study of the same set of students, someone who has made her career judging writing uses her assessment skills, experience, and tools to pronounce "improvement."   The same kinds of rigor need to be applied to other groups too.  Including those who, traditionally, for the last forty years, have seen dramatic decline in educational levels.  It is possible that digital access, where it is available (and that is by no means a given) has even helped here.


What makes me especially pleased about this study is that it is by someone with impeccable credentials, not a pundit with an ax to grind or a headline to make, but someone who does research on this area.   It's not just my opinion versus yours.  In my next tedious argument about "the youth today going [again?!] to the dogs," I plan to just site Lunsford's work and let the pundits produce their counter-evidence. 


Now, back to proofreading!


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