My review of William H. Gass’s novel Middle C for NAR was a warm-up for a longer critical paper that I’ll present at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, and in preparing to write that paper I re-read several of Gass’s essays and interviews, including an interview from 1995 that was published in the Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies 3.1 (1997), and reprinted in Conversations with William H. Gass (2003), edited by Theodore G. Ammon.
The interviewer, Idiko Kaposi, asked Gass his view on emerging (mid-90s) technologies and how they would affect writing, reading, and ultimately, thinking. As a teacher, mainly of eighteen-year-olds, looking back at Gass’s remarks from nearly two decades ago, I find his insights disturbingly accurate. Gass, besides being an award-winning novelist and literary critic, was also a professor of philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis, since retired.
Gass suspected that the younger generation’s preference for image over text, supplied en masse by computers and especially the Web, would lead to a distinct division between a few intellectuals who would be in control of society—that is, in control of the great number of anti-intellectuals who would be incapable of abstract thought.
Kaposi noted the “generations growing up on video and computers … [who] don’t read really, they no longer have the patience. It’s very visual and fast-paced, the way they try to take the world.”
Gass responded, “Yes, and they will do well up to a point in the new community, but they can’t think, so they won’t rule. They are doomed . . . This is a technological era where such abstract reasoning power is more important than ever.” Gass went on to predict that the non-readers would be easy marks for the few who knew how to use the technologies to their advantages: “And if you’re just merely a competitive person in the world and you feather your own nest, the fact that the youth are not reading is to your benefit. They’re the more easily manipulated.”
Moreover, the veteran teacher said, “And it’s going to be harder to really educate them now, because they’re going to think—and people are going to try to persuade them—that all this other froth is unnecessary.”
As I said, I find Gass’s 1995 predictions disturbingly accurate. I’ve been an English teacher for more than thirty years and I teach students who are supposed to be the créme de le crème of the school, but I saw a marked difference in my students beginning about two years ago (the first generation raised predominantly on electronic media). Suddenly, it seemed, they were incapable of reading—and thinking!—beyond the most literal details of the text, passable at simple summary while remaining blind to irony, symbolism, indeed any sort of subtext … and therefore stone deaf to meaning.
It’s difficult to characterize, but it’s as if my students don’t even accept that some sort of deeper meaning in a story or novel or poem even exists—they often act like subtext is some sort of urban legend invented by literature teachers who want to justify their jobs.
I am primarily a fiction writer, though I have published a monograph on the poem Beowulf, but I am considering writing a book about this phenomenon—this sudden loss of intellect in my students, and why the people running schools (administrators and school board members) appear oblivious to the absence of deeper thinking.
Ted Morrissey’s newest novel, An Untimely Frost, was released in January by Twelve Winters Press. His other books are the novel Men of Winter, the novelette Figures in Blue, and the monograph The Beowulf Poet and His Real Monsters. His stories and essays have appeared in over twenty journals, including Glimmer Train, PANK, Writers Ask, and NAR.
Photo by Ken Crawford, astrophotographer