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Trends: Did Rap, Crack or TV Kill Reading?

Editor's note: Today, Class Struggle officially joins the blogosphere. Bookmark this new page to stay on top of all of Jay's writing and discussions. We'll be posting the Class Struggle column Fridays, the Extra Credit reader-response column Thursdays and Jay's Metro Schools & Learning column Mondays. Use the comments section to talk about education with other readers, and be sure to check back here Monday to see what Jay has to say about a new principal who's seeking to turn around a troubled D.C. public school.

People my age are prone to what I call geezerisms, such as: What’s the matter with kids these days? Why aren’t schools good like they used to be? Where can I get a really thick milkshake? Stuff like that.

You don’t often run into these outbreaks of cranky nostalgia in educational research, but one has surfaced recently. Several prominent scholars have suggested that teenage reading for pleasure, and verbal test scores, plummeted after 1988 because of the rise of rap and hip-hop music and an increase in television watching.

Changes in youthful cultural tastes and habits always push us senior citizens into rants about declining values, so I wondered whether the researchers -- many of them in my age group -- were giving into one of those recurring bromides that the new music is terrible and will turn our society into a garbage dump.

I couldn’t sustain that argument because the scholars involved (including Ronald Ferguson, David Grissmer and Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom) are brilliant people whose work always meets the highest standards of professional inquiry. I was trying to decide how to sort this out when University of California at Los Angeles sociologist Meredith Phillips, one of my favorite writers on student achievement, came to the rescue with an intriguing take in a chapter of a new book, “Steady Gains and Stalled Progress: Inequality and the Black-White Test Score Gap,” edited by Katherine Magnuson of the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Jane Waldfogel of Columbia University and published by the Russell Sage Foundation.

I Googled Phillips. None of the little stories on her reveals her age. But her photo suggests she is no geezer — maybe in her 30s, if that. So she likely doesn’t share my generational bias and, sadly for some of us, her review of the literature suggests there is less to the notion of rap, crack and TV killing young reading habits than my age cohort might assume. (Ferguson comments on this issue in his own chapter in the book.)

One key source of data is the National Assessment of Educational Progress Long Term Trend samples (known to fans as the NAEP-LTT). It shows that 37 percent of black 13-year-olds said they read for pleasure almost every day in 1988. But by 1992, only 15 percent of kids in that category read for pleasure that often. Reading for pleasure by white kids that age also declined, but by only eight percentage points.

That still is a problem for me. Phillips’s chapter and the book focus on the changing achievement rates and habits of African American students because the topic is the black-white test score gap. But white teenagers, I must emphasize, also consume the new music and TV, and are also not reading nearly as much as they ought to.

Phillips frequently casts doubt on the notion that changing tastes and habits are affecting reading by citing other data that seem to contradict the NAEP-LTT. She notes, for instance, that the National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS) shows no evidence that black students did less pleasure reading in 1992 than in 1988, or that black students did relatively less pleasure reading than white students.

The year 1988 is important because the gap between white and black student reading and math scores stopped narrowing at that point and began to widen. Magnuson and Waldfogel asked scholars to try to explain this, and filled the book with their answers. (Recently a new narrowing of the gap has begun, giving Magnuson and Waldfogel an opportunity to do another book.) All of the chapters are interesting, but those familiar with my tastes know I am always going to focus on the low-brow pop culture issues, and leave the rest for more refined intellects, thus my interest in Phillips’s chapter.

She gives more credence to data showing that the reading habits of 17-year-olds changed after 1988. She effectively counters the notion that increased TV watching might have had an effect by showing that black youths after 1988 did not increase their TV hours (which, I might add, are horrendous for all American teens—about two hours a day). White teenage TV watching declined a bit after that year, but Phillips notes that could be explained by their increased play with computers and video games.

Music, however, may have had an impact, as evidenced by an increase in disciplinary sanctions of black students from 1988 to 1994. “The data for 17-year-olds are consistent with the theory that rap music’s popularity affected older black adolescents’ disciplinary experiences at school,” Phillips wrote. “One possibility is that rap music led older black adolescents to become more defiant and aggressive at school. Another is that older black adolescents adopted styles of dress or expression associated with gangsta rap, which got them into more trouble at school because school officials came to perceive them as more oppositional.

“A third possibility is that the popularity of rap music had little to do with these trends in behavior problems but was instead a response to trends in other conditions in black communities. As Grissmer and his colleagues noted, the black teenage murder rate soared in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Increases in black students’ disciplinary problems may have been part and parcel of a more general trend of increased violence, possibly associated with the crack epidemic.”

Phillips keeps digging, and when she does, as often happens in such research, she finds evidence that suggests the trend she is studying might not have actually occurred. “One might expect that increased teenage violence would lead students to feel less safe at school, which in turn might affect their academic achievement,” she wrote. But then she examines the results of another survey called Monitoring the Future, and she finds that, “although the estimates are imprecise, they show no consistent trend in black students’ perceived safety or in the black-white gap in perceived safety.”

Eighth-graders who read more for pleasure have higher reading scores in 10th grade, she concluded. One of the studies she analyzes suggests that black students spent less time reading for pleasure after 1988. But in the end, she cannot give us geezers our hoped-for confirmation that those youthful pastimes are a blot on the American landscape, since only one of the four studies she looked at shows this trend.

What really hurts our case is the nature of that one study showing a decline in reading for pleasure, the NAEP-LTT. It reflects questions posed “to only around 100 African American 13-year-olds” and “another 100 African American 17-year-olds.”
Phillips wrote: “Such small samples make it impossible to describe national trends in these variables with any reasonable degree of certainty.”

Sigh. I admire her scholarship, but to some of us who like to vent, this is a big disappointment. I imagine, however, that we will soon find something else to complain about.

-- Jay Mathews

By Washington Post editors  | February 5, 2009; 3:55 PM ET
Categories:  Trends  
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Television killed the community
Video games killed the playground
Whats Next?

Posted by: deadkoz | February 6, 2009 8:44 AM | Report abuse

Absent a large enough sample, the studies must be deemed inconclusive. However, having lived through the 80s and 90s the theory of increased availability of computers and video games for these age groups appears to offer the most traction.

Posted by: phoss1 | February 6, 2009 8:55 AM | Report abuse

I watch a lot of TV, probably 15 hours a week or more. I love TV. I also read a book a week. In fact I have been on a role lately and have read 6 books in the last month. I also exercise at least an hour every day.
My point is that just because a person enjoys TV they still have plenty of time to read and exercise.
TV is not the enemy, it is just entertainment.

Posted by: Iowahoosier | February 6, 2009 9:21 AM | Report abuse

Watching Two hours of tv a night is "horrendous?"

Oh wait, you're a writer shilling for the book and newspaper industry. Your opinion on this matter is so slated that this column is nothing more than an exercise in unethical journalism.

You really have to be kidding here Jay, are you that self-unaware to see what you wrote? Was this entire column, with your geezer comments a big joke? Then your aged anti-TV rant was also a joke, right? I mean were does the parody stop and the self-parody start?

Most of the teenagers I know barely an hour of TV, they're too busy playing videogames and talking to their friends online.

Posted by: bbcrock | February 6, 2009 9:25 AM | Report abuse

rap - a form of music started in the city areas of New York, typical of the urban communities, mainly Black people.

crack - a freebase form of cocaine mixed with other chemicals as they are the base for the mixture, typical of urban life once again, namely Black folk

tv - an international nemesis to anyone acquiring knowledge of the truth, invented by corporate giants to control, decieve and entertain.

This has to be one of the most lopsided columns, degrading columns, and racially forwarded thought provoking peices I have seen in a while. A man like me, who READS quite a bit, I see this piece for exactly what it is.


This isn't about a study. This is about turning the Black man into a "species" as opposed to "person".

When do you EVER hear of headlines like this:

'Did rock-n-roll, cocaine or serial killing destroy reading?'

NEVER will you see this headline! It would shove a finger in every White Americans face and say: "Hey! you can't go around letting people know we have faults! Get that out of the paper NOW!

But oh how conveniently can we galavant around rap, crack, and tv and not say it's not based on Blacks. How dumb do you think people are?

This column is absolutely ridiculous. I see nothing more than Imus.

This is offensive in another sense. White kids are slacking off in their educational traits as well. Why aren't those statistics being looked at here? They are just as effected by drugs, music and tv like anyone else. Some of societies most notorius criminals grew up in quiet neighborhoods who did nothing but watch tv, wallow in their sorrow in life, glamorize their own sadistic mindset through music and tv, and in turn, spawns out history for you to talk about.

If you all want to do studies on "African-American" youth and a lack of participation in the classroom, start first with the corporate giants who could care LESS if they are reading anything of a scholastic nature.

Posted by: cbmuzik | February 6, 2009 10:14 AM | Report abuse

IT has been my experience that the "under achievers" do not maintain good time management skills.
If you schedule it, you will do it.
Current students also are not as aware of the tremendous resources that History, Discovery and PBS offer.
Programs on Edison, Einstein, Tesla and the Universe are mind broadening experiences.
I personally read for pleasure about 115 books per year.
I keep a log of the authors I have read each year.
A current favorite, Walter Mosley, The Right Mistake... Read and talk about pages 212-227 especially. The Devil is in the Details.
While it is a novel, the philosophical points are tremendous.
Who do you see in the mirror?
Our students don't do independent reading and have conversations like we did in the early 1950's.
We are also breeding a mathematically challenged society.

Posted by: gee3 | February 6, 2009 10:16 AM | Report abuse

Parents killed reading. Stop acting like no one has any control here.

Posted by: mediadecoder | February 6, 2009 10:20 AM | Report abuse

TV is the enemy of the intellect. Look at the mindless drudges in Apple's famous "1984" Macintosh ad. That's your kid watching TV. Look at Galileo, Shakespeare, Newton, Einstein, or Salk. That's your kid reading.

Allowing a child under the age of 18 to watch TV is child abuse and should be recognized as such by the law.

Disagree? Well, If you don't get it, you don't get it. Maybe you've been watching too much TV.

Posted by: Davoud | February 6, 2009 10:25 AM | Report abuse


Technically it would be two-earner households. Once Mom had tons of outside activity and didn't read in the afternoon out of boredom then the kids read less and less.

Reading was, in the 1970s suburbs, a way to escape boredom before getting a driver's license. Boredom which doesn't exist in today's world where access to high and low culture is a few mouse clicks away. In Jr High I was reading one or two books a week because I couldn't go anywhere.

But as the parent of kids now, in order for me to pick them up "on time" from after care I can only work about 8 hours. The other two hours I have to do at home. So my kids see my working on the computer but beyond the 20 minutes that I read to them, they never see me read for pleasure because I have to work 2 hours every night, 7 days a week.

Posted by: bbcrock | February 6, 2009 10:31 AM | Report abuse

God, what an awful, awful article. There are too many problems with it to outline here, but here are the most egregious:

1) Hip-hop didn't all of a sudden appear out of a vacuum in the late 80s/early 90s--the late 70s/early 80s is more accurate.

2) "Gangsta rap" is one small sub-section of hip-hop. Not all rap music is violent or in some way negative.

3) Whites make up a significant portion (if not a majority) of those who listen to hip-hop.

4) "..but those familiar with my tastes know I am always going to focus on the low-brow pop culture issues.." --And by 'low-brow pop culture' you mean 'black culture'?

What an a$$hat.

Posted by: distance88 | February 6, 2009 10:32 AM | Report abuse


you are prejudiced and a bigot.

Posted by: bbcrock | February 6, 2009 10:33 AM | Report abuse

Reading is one thing and rap is another.
Now when you start talking about the teaching of reading and the nature and content of the books, then you have a point. Did it ever occur to anyone that maybe it has something to do with the books? Or better yet the way the child is taught. If a child develops a thirst for learning or reading at an early age, rap, or tv or anything else will not keep them from reading. There is not an intellectual gap between black chilren and white children. It is teaching and learning gap.

Posted by: cutie7 | February 6, 2009 10:50 AM | Report abuse

Gross over simplification! TV has been blamed for poor learning since the 50's. Rap and crack? Ridiculous!

It would be better to look at the increased number of families where both parents work, or the number of single parent households. Why not consider the staggering amount processed, canned, and packaged foods with zero or near zero nutritional value? How about the long term effect of gene altered foods on health and education?

I suggest that a big contributor is the dumbing down of education caused by NCLB, unwillingness to pay the taxes necessary for schools, books, and teachers. Why not eliminate, not just consolidate with additional layers of expense, the thousands of school districts created in the time of horse drawn transportation?

My grandchildren attend schools in Idaho that don't provide a text book to every student in every class!!!

Posted by: ChoKum | February 6, 2009 11:31 AM | Report abuse

I listen to rap every day. I write every day. I read every day. I remember when The Chronic and Doggystyle came out when I was in my early teens. Did it make me more "aggressive" at school? Dern right it did! I wanted to be able to spit rhymes like Cordozar Calvin Broadus Jr. (aka, Snoop Dogg) and that meant -- I thought at the time -- learning about Compton and Long Beach, the history of urban violence, the argot of the dozens, and so on. But I'll tell you what -- after I read Macbeth, somehow I managed to keep myself from hiring a couple thugs to stab my neighbor twenty times in the head.

Posted by: jstenarclark | February 6, 2009 11:34 AM | Report abuse

I think TV is probably the biggest culprit. But all play a factor in killing a desire for reading. I also believe that parents more than any of these things have killed reading.

Parents seem to have lost control over their children and its showing. Or maybe they decided to give up control. I work in a middle school and see first hand how a lack of parenting has caused problems in our young people. Parents need to step up and enforce values, including reading. Have a 30 minute 'everyone reads in the house', including parents. Kids attitudes will change when they see parents doing what they preach. My parents fostered a love of reading and transferred that to my sister and I. I'm truly grateful for it.

Posted by: dho7993186 | February 6, 2009 11:39 AM | Report abuse

Who are these rude commenters. I like the new blog format and look forward to reading more, but the tone of the comments is not what it used to me.

Posted by: pittypatt | February 6, 2009 12:56 PM | Report abuse

Have we ever thought about print availablity. Hard to be a reader without books. There are many studies that point to very low number of books and other print material available the poorer the community. Since this diproportionately affects minority children this cannot be exluded as a cause. My experience in DC is that there is not a bookstore east of 13th St NW. Library service and quality is markedly different between the libraries in NW and the rest of the city.
School libraries and public libraries took quite a hit in the late 80's. While support for them has increased it is uneven and I would guess has not been evenly spread in rich versus poor communities.

Posted by: Brooklander | February 6, 2009 1:38 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Matthews,

What about meth? Do you think that the availability of meth in rural and suburban areas have affected white teens? The reading gap between black and white children is a class issue not a race issue. If one of your research colleagues did a survey of affluent black kids and poor black kids, I bet the results would reveal that affluent black kids score just as well as the white kids do. If you are going to write about education, please consider class and resources before you blame music and drugs.

Posted by: kac826 | February 6, 2009 1:58 PM | Report abuse

A dirty little secret is that the books students are required to read for school are seldom what they would choose for themselves. Teachers, administrators, and (yes) parents end up choosing books that they would like to appeal to their students with little input from the students. Although I've got two degrees in English and a doctorate in American Studies (Literature and Society), I still detest many of the works I had to read through high school.

Posted by: jlhare1 | February 6, 2009 4:28 PM | Report abuse

What we're dealing with in 2009 is a visceral "expectation" gap, not an achievement gap. In the civil rights era, men and women—Black and White—died and made deep sacrifices to learn, to read. Since the 1980's, we've substantially 'dumbed down' our curricula and pedagogy. Nowadays, if a teacher is not as enthusiastic as an iPhone, The Internet or an MTV video, kids will find other things to entertain themselves. Think about it: America's public schools are jumping up and down and doing back-flips for "proficiency"—mere proficiency. Have you not read this article:,9171,1653653,00.html

Posted by: rasheeedj | February 6, 2009 6:54 PM | Report abuse

Kids are still reading, they just don't read what they are assigned to read.

Part of the problem is that attention spans are shorter, and students have more technological distractions...the other half is that the books kids read in school are less relevant, or flat our stuffy.

If you encourage kids pursue their own interests, they will read voraciously...if you assign them only Dead Poets and Bards, many will tune out.

There is no better place to find racy sex & violence than in the pages of a good book, but when parents focus on letter grades, kids focus on achieving good letter grades, to keep their parents off their backs.

Posted by: hatchlaw | February 6, 2009 7:21 PM | Report abuse

After reading the post of jstenarclark, I must agree. I wouldn't have bothered to learn about the Watts riots, the LA black panthers de-evolution into the Bloods gang, the CRIPs initial start as a Hamas like community mentorship group, or anything else related to inner city LA, without NWA or Ice T.

The music opened that encouraged me to research things that I saw as exotic, racy, etc. Either way, I cracked a book and read gang banger/prisoner biographies like Monster. It was a riveting read, and while I don't agree with his world view or feel white guilt for his lot in life, it was an eye opener.

Posted by: hatchlaw | February 6, 2009 7:29 PM | Report abuse

Re-read the comments of cbmuzik, kac826 and distance88. I agree wholeheartedly w/all of them!

Stop taking the easy way out, journalists! African-Americans, America and the rest of the world are farrrrrr too smart to fall for your weak, lame approach to reporting.

Posted by: ntlekt | February 7, 2009 1:42 AM | Report abuse

Some of these reactions seem, well, reactive. Mr. Mathews has written a discursive essay that is cautious of jumping to easy conclusions. Many here seem to express discomfort at what may be inclined to be a post hoc ergo propter hoc warrant of assigning causes to effects. No one seems to disagree on the effects except perhaps the extent and the interpretation of the "problem." If the data suggest a shift in reading culture in 1988 in identifiable communities that would be of interest to research, certainly. The pop culture conjecture is ready to hand and highlights the author's subject position. Perhaps Bill Cosby might want to enter the conversation. The national drop-out rate is over thirty percent, according to the Department of Education. President Obama has begun to suggest that education, and its relative effects - employment, health care, crime - is a family issue. One in 100 adults, according to The New York Times, is in prison in America. Is the lack of reading and its effect on education a slippery slope? Based on anecdotal evidence, many college freshmen are unable to understand columns by David Brooks and could frankly care less. Many students are intimidated by "the educated" and like Bartleby the Scrivener would "prefer not to." We might seek counsel from John Locke in this regard on the problem of "liberty." Citing Edmund Burke, "Mr. Locke has somewhere observed with his usual sagacity, that most general words, those belonging to virtue and vice, good and evil, especially, are taught before the particular modes of action to which they belong are presented to the mind..." If NCLB is an ideological state apparatus then consider alternate signifiers as cultural determinants; consider the effect of literacy on a failure to resist the panopticon. To quote the late Willam F. Buckley Jr, "why don't we complain?" It is a rhetorical question. Who are we?

Posted by: donaldthedruid | February 7, 2009 5:15 AM | Report abuse

Having grown up in the '80s and '90s, I would like to add a few things, based on personal experience:

1. A child that enjoys TV is not necessarily a child who doesn't read or doesn't have a social life or doesn't get exercise. The same can be said for computers, video games, etc.

2. It all depends on the parents. I grew up a voracious reader because my parents are fairly intellectual: my mother is a librarian in Fairfax County and my father is a physicist. We were read to from a young age, we were encouraged to read, and we were encouraged to be intellectuals. We also watched TV, and we also played Sega. These didn't interfere with reading nor with school.

3. The other problem is the direction that mainstream American teen culture has taken. Reading isn't cool. Being smart/intellectual isn't cool. Parents, in the pursuit of "cool" for their kids, don't take enough of a part in their education and don't bother to encourage them to read or to think.

Posted by: esajudita | February 7, 2009 7:44 AM | Report abuse

I think more research should be done primarily into the correlation with the crack epidemic and the explosion in teen violence over the same period.

It's hard for me to believe that soaring teen violence wouldn't have a significant impact on educational attainment of AFrican American students. With the concentration of black students in inner cities, that violence had to have an effect.

Sure, I might feel safe in school but if I've seen many kids roughly my age living the fast life of easy money, drugs, etc, and many others dying before they're even 21, how motivated do you really think I'll be to go to school or achieve there?

The murder rate tripled in DC and soared in many inner cities from 85-91... it seems logical to me that 88 would be the year that the rising violence influenced the educational attainment of African American students.

The music argument has at best a second order effect to me.... many inner city communities had already been extremely violent before the music eventually reflected that. At that point, it may have reinforced that culture of violence but it didn't spark it.

Posted by: AJohn1 | February 7, 2009 8:13 AM | Report abuse

Why is the research posed in racial terms? It isn't as if the non-African American population has increased their reading since 1988. ALL teens have declined.

The argument Matthews posed is so, well, 1970s/1980s. Reading mayhave declined after 1988 ecause of the technological divide between affluent whites (Mr. Matthews' base population, it seems) and the rest of the country. When children are on the computer, often they are READING and writing text. It may be Facebook, or Myspace They are searching for song lyrics.

As for Rap, Crack and TV. TV may have been the cause in teh 1960s and 1970s but I doubt it can still be the culprit. Rap to me seems to be inviting people to read more, not less. It shows the "urban youth" to think (maybe not in ways we approve) and putting their thoughts to words. Not all rap songs are violent, enticing people to kill. And as others pointed out there is plenty of white literature out there detailing violence with no one claiming causation. Crack? Isn't overall drug use down among teens?

Newspaper reading is down among everyone (including adults), library borrowing was down (until now). the book publishing industry declined in th late 1990s in terms of employment, dollars, and number of establishments. that's not because of urban youth

Posted by: slackermom | February 7, 2009 10:15 AM | Report abuse

I rush to my defense. Please keep in mind that I didn't create these issues. They have been part of a lively debate in the scholarly community for some time, Some of those scholars suggesting that changes in youth culture like rap and hip-hop (which, as I noted, are popular with both white and black kids) have had an effect on reading habits and reading scores are themselves African American, like Ron Ferguson. As for TV, I watch a fair amount myself, but I am not longer in high school, trying to prepare for college or a good job out of high school, and it seems to be that time spent on learning is a important issue for that age group. We have had over the last 30 years almost no significant gains in achievement for 17 year olds. The Michigan time use studies show that Americans that age are spending less than an hour a day on average on homework, and more than two hours a day on TV and other entertainments. We have lots of data showing that more homework time correlates with higher achievement in high school. We all know kids who did better in high school after they began to take homework seriously. I think TV (particularly the Closer and the Big Bang Theory) can be a delight, but I think our high schools would be doing much better if their students spent more time on homework than they spent watching TV. (And did NOT try to do both at the same time.)

Posted by: jaymathews | February 7, 2009 10:23 AM | Report abuse

In my opinion, a dysfunctional education system killed reading. I know many don't like to hear about the past since it only reminds them of how bad things are now; but when I went to school (50's & 60's) you had to demonstate reading proficiency to pass. That's right if you couldn't read at your grade level you repeated the grade. Yes, I know that is SO harsh...

I have talked with children in elementary and middle school today and their attitude toward reading (as well as writing and math) is just try to do your best and you'll pass. I can only conclude they get this from their teachers.

What do you expect? We live in a world of greed, violence and no accountablility.

Posted by: RichardinPasadena | February 7, 2009 10:58 AM | Report abuse

Dude, TV has killed millions of brain cells and turned the majority of the population into brain-numbed Paris Hilton tramps, from the girlie perspective, and Ashton Kutcher-like, pants-dragging knuckleheads. Why read a book when you can emulate a celebrity?

Posted by: schratboy | February 7, 2009 11:05 AM | Report abuse

I agree Mr. Mathews. High school students, it is commonly known, routinely exploit MCLB assessment standards and mutiny against their teachers to frustrate achievement goals; some teachers have been fired. College students shop for easy classes, harass their professors or more probably underpaid adjuncts for unwarranted A's, and conspire on websites such as Rate My Professor to undermine standards and academic careers. If a professor were to actually state on a syllabus the expectation for, say, six hours homework students would drop/add a course with no such requirement. Black athletes, often under-prepared for college, even in its current attenuated scope academically - an MA is the new BA - drop from basic core courses because they have difficulty reading basic canonical texts by Kate Chopin, Truth, Douglass, Chesnutt, Poe, Melville, Twain, or Hawthorne. Students, regardless of color rarely pick up these texts under their own interest. Never mind the reading of T.S. Eliot, Woolf, or Stendhal for pleasure. I am speaking broadly of the social class that would inhabit community colleges or state universities; upper middle-class higher education and its attendant affirmative action and liberalism shows a more proactive pattern among students since parents and authorities have the rhetorical field of convincing students of the approbative merits of academic success. This is a pretty elite and select group. A wealthy international couple once held a catered party with music one lovely spring evening under a full moon and the highlight of the event was a reading by their twin daughters of a scene from Midsummer Nights' Dream. Shakespeare's point, as those who know know, is that social dissonances make understanding impossible and that love and poetic madness have the only power to overcome chaos. Hobbes and Maslow would remind us of the sociocultural requirements under which such solutions might occur. In a time of bailouts, unemployment, and partisan rancor we might all curl up with Dickens by the fire and ponder the undermining of the middle class by the corporate state that gives us the "popular" and its accoutrements of a master narrative, reified in a generational struggle for technological regicide of the enlightened mind.

Posted by: donaldthedruid | February 7, 2009 11:25 AM | Report abuse

See Neil Postman's "Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business", first published 1985.

When I first read it in the early nineties, it seemed to explain perfectly what otherwise seemed like a generational issue. In 2009 "entertainment value" seems pervasive in most age groups and classes, and it is easy to point a finger at TV, and now all the hot media...but perhaps none of them are a window but a magic mirror in which we see what we want to see of ourselves. Is Las Vegas or the Superbowl or March Madness much different?

The question might be how does each age group or class, or an entire education system do an intervention? Postman's book is more relevant than ever, and his notion that something like media consciousness and therefore our own self awareness is a subject itself for a curriculum, is worthy of consideration.

My wife and I took the easy way out, and threw out the TV, and we already lived in the country. Our issue now is how do we teach our grandchildren to love being active with the world rather than entertained by it, and asking them to put their video games away seems to have away very limited usefulness, and that ploy certainly wasn’t effective for out parents when they asked us to stop listening to “that music”

The schools our grandchildren attend are hard pressed to stay afloat and avoid disasters. If their teachers had been taught how to integrate media consciousness into every subject, every content area, it would help.

Postman, writing in 1985 noted it wasn’t “The A Team” or “Cheers” that was a threat to public health…that it was “60 minutes”, “Eye Witness News” and “Sesame Street” and therefore in the end, it could only be addressed not by changing what we watch, but how we watch….and we can in 2009 now add how we listen, how we shop, and how we browse the internet. Could that be addressed in part by how we educate out teachers?

Posted by: rmrainey | February 7, 2009 11:34 AM | Report abuse

How about lazy and/or ignorant parenting?

It also occurs to me that while in 1988 an average teenager may have read less than teenagers in years prior, those habits were formed long before the children turned 17. Also long before rap, crack, [insert other bugaboo here] were popularized.

Posted by: croaker69 | February 7, 2009 11:41 AM | Report abuse

I have been primarily teaching twenty-somethings for several decades, but wonder whether I am a geezer by your definitions. You used that loaded term to describe how these people are prone to be in terms of age, but not their ages. You say you are in the group. You never were up front and transparent about why your age makes you a member of geezerdom, but you criticize the missing info on the age of Phillips. I wonder if I am a Jay Matthews geezer and thus what I am prone to do?

Posted by: caroleejam | February 7, 2009 12:01 PM | Report abuse

Picking up on rmrainey's advice I Googled Neil Postman. There is a talk given recently by Postman, undated, but evidently to faith-based audience titled "Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change."

Technology he says, is a "Faustian bargain. Technology giveth and technology taketh away." The printing of the Bible in the vernacular becomes the archetypal reductive model of the shift from the Absolute to the popular. Technology, he adds, is indiscriminately harmful, bolstering careers in entertainment while destroying careers in teaching. Technology, he continues, is mind-altering. Put in Kantian terms it is a synthetic concept a priori. Finally, technology treads the border between revolution and propaganda, producing an "ecology" that is a non-progressive but evolutionary form of self-dependent culture. People become determined by the technology on which they come to depend. As Thoreau would admonish: simplify.

Posted by: donaldthedruid | February 7, 2009 12:01 PM | Report abuse

When you keep measuring "reading" by the yardstick of the 1950's then you do the extremely literate youth of today a major injustice. "Reading" and literacy is not just sitting idle with a book anymore. Reading is collaborative, interactive and often involves a screen. Unfortunately, schools in this country are still testing our kids on 20th century skills (paper and pens) when they have advanced far beyond. Pleasure reading as referred to here is "kickin' it old school" as my kids would say. Pleasure reading now involves movie making, gaming, online publishing, blogging, searching, tweeting, and so so much more. How about testing kids on literacy that encompasses the skills they need for the 21st century, not the 20th century you're still living in.

Posted by: deaniek1 | February 7, 2009 12:39 PM | Report abuse

Mr. deanlek1, I expect your remark is an example of your idea of "collaboration." Read Aristotle.

Posted by: donaldthedruid | February 7, 2009 12:50 PM | Report abuse

Dude, obviously you have never read a book while high on crack. Its f'ing awesome!

Posted by: ozpunk | February 7, 2009 2:53 PM | Report abuse

Technology, he adds, is indiscriminately harmful, bolstering careers in entertainment while destroying careers in teaching. Technology, he continues, is mind-altering. Put in Kantian terms it is a synthetic concept a priori. Finally, technology treads the border between revolution and propaganda, producing an "ecology" that is a non-progressive but evolutionary form of self-dependent culture. People become determined by the technology on which they come to depend. As Thoreau would admonish: simplify.

What unmitigated drivel. Action = thought = action. Thoreau and practitioners of "new technology" as you put it are on the same "timeline" and are both just as influenced in their philosophy by what their bodies are doing. Thoreau's philosophy is every bit as technology-obsessed as our own- or have you even read Walden? Essentially his book Civil Disobedience is written entirely in opposition to existing 1848-era governmental technology. The same general obsession Marx, Gould, Carnegie and others who wrote or worked heavily on that era (and a few years after).

Not only does technology giveth and technology taketh away, Luddite-ism taketh and giveth away, illness giveth and taketh away, religion/faith giveth and taketh away and knowledge itself, giveth and taketh away because what you're describing is little more than "every cloud has a silver lining" which I think everyone here already knows.

So you can stuff your faux-intellectualism, you're dealing with people who watch TV on this board and we're just more educated than you.

Posted by: bbcrock | February 7, 2009 5:02 PM | Report abuse

I'm surprised that no one has brought up the "whole language" fad as a possible culprit. Those who were teens in the '80's typically received phonics-based reading instruction while those who were teens in the '90's often received "whole language" reading instruction. And that likely had a bigger impact on minorities because they typically receive less in the way of out-of-school academic supplementing.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | February 7, 2009 6:30 PM | Report abuse

Maybe this article killed it!

Posted by: alisamkeith | February 7, 2009 9:22 PM | Report abuse

Geezerisms? More like quality control, if you ask me.

Where can you find a really thick milk-shake? Why did the music of the 50's, 60's, 70's and early 80's had music with words one could understand and we could dance to the beat?

Reading is a great thing and to get youngsters interested, they need to have reading skills early on in life. After high school, my reading became limited to textbooks and technical manuals, more than works of fiction.

Start early reading and that will reach into their imaginations. Have the teachers encourage reading. I still remember being in the first grade in the Los Angeles Unified School District and going over to an aisle of books that were for 5th and 6th graders and the teacher challenged me to read the title. It turned out that it was a biography of Thomas Jefferson. When she had me read the title and from the book, with perfect sentence structure and comprehension of the material, I was sent to the vice-principal's office for being a "discipline problem."

Will "Nappy Hair" by Carolivia Herron replace "Johnny Tremain : A Novel for Young and Adult" or "Paul Revere and the World He Lived In", by Esther Forbes as solid reading material? If the objective is to provide "meat" to the written word, probably not. If the objective is to interest people who may not be interested because of a feeling of the lack of being vested or being able to identify with characters within a book, it will help.

In any event, it is important to gain the literary knowledge and a proper set of communication skills in order to for every young person to succeed.

Posted by: Computer_Forensics_Expert_Computer_Expert_Witness | February 7, 2009 11:36 PM | Report abuse

I can't say what killed reading..or if it is even dead...but TV did get George Bush elected...the sound bite ruled the land for his two terms...millions voted for him twice!!!! ...maybe they could not read...they sure missed reading his character...

Our culture continues to churn...there's a lot of junk on TV...but there also some quality spread a people we can either get hooked on such fare as American Idol/Survivor dribble or not.

Pick up a book or pick your nose...just don't pick me for your next study...I read on the toilet too much.

Posted by: mrvance | February 8, 2009 12:04 AM | Report abuse

Sadly, there are no answers to any of this right now. I, too, wish this were not being discussed in racial terms because this subject is far too serious to be argued in the language used on this board.

However, a perusal of any school's achievement test scores is broken down in racial categories, and often, we find the highest number of failure rates depicted among African American learners; this rate continues to grow. We are killing ourselves to try to change this.

Successful learning is achieved by intrinsic motivation within the student. It's mighty hard to implant that within a student in one class period each day.

Those of you who are spitting mad about this need to volunteer in your community to help our schools teach these youngsters to care.

Posted by: duffmama | February 8, 2009 9:51 AM | Report abuse

Perhaps what we're seeing is a shift in dominant modes of cultural expression. 1988, which Mr. Matthews uses as a "born on" date for rap music, also represents the beginning of an age where sophisticated technology became available to a significant segment of the population. The computer brought with it new ways of interacting with information and other people, thereby altering the way people who grew up with it perceived their world. New media and new technology necessarily breeds new ways of understanding; for example, the advent of the printing press made it unnecessary for the bards of pre-literate society to memorize long poems and religious texts. Kids today who spend lots of time on the internet and watching TV aren't necessarily losing the capacity for rational thought or introspection--after all, it's completely possible to gain something intellectually from watching TV.

What I'm saying is that the kids are alright. If you watch young people, you'll see that we read obsessively, only online. Falling grades and the achievement gap are more representative of a failing school system, where the phenomenon of "tracking" leaves more and more kids out to dry because they didn't score high enough on a standardized test. It's the system, silly.

Posted by: mikeleon87 | February 8, 2009 4:34 PM | Report abuse

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