I spent Friday morning at the University of Chicago discussing the perceived decline of writing skills among recent college graduates. The business world has echoed this concern, with employers frequently “complaining about job candidates’ inability to . . . write clearly” (Forbes). Several reasons for a writing decline were debated, including:

  • Social Media Displacement of Reading. Evidence suggests that serious reading—as a leisure activity—is being displaced by social media. “Few late teenagers are reading many books” (New Yorker, citing the Pew Research Center). If students are spending less time reading serious books, their writing may suffer. As William Faulkner once counseled, “Read, read, read . . . and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it.” Unfortunately, books are being outcompeted for students’ time by social media. “[C]ompared with [social media], reading a book is a weak, petulant claimant on their time. Reading frustrates their smartphone sense of being everywhere at once. Suddenly they are stuck on that page, anchored, moored, and many are glum about it. Being unconnected makes them anxious and even angry” (New Yorker).
  • Digital Brains. Some cognitive neuroscientists have argued that young brains have adapted to the digital world. “We’re spending so much time touching, pushing, linking, scrolling and jumping through text that when we sit down with a novel, your daily habit of jumping, clicking, linking is just ingrained in you” (Washington Post, quoting Andrew Dillon of the University of Texas). The skimming brain of today’s students may have “trouble reading the classics” because students “no longer will or are perhaps incapable of dealing with [complex] syntax.”
  • College Is Less Rigorous.   The authors of Academically Adrift followed 2,300 students through their college years, tracking hours spent on reading and writing. The results were surprising. Half of the courses required less than 20 pages of writing over the entire semester. Other studies have produced similar findings. “California labor economists Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks, for example, have documented that full-time college students’ time spent studying dropped in half between 1960 and today” (Los Angeles Times).
  • Writing Skills Are No Longer Graded. Correcting bad writing is hard work. Professor Murray Sperber laments how “faculty members are content merely to jot down a brief comment or two about a paper and hardly go through a paper line by line to correct writing mistakes” (Forbes). Professors defend this position by arguing that “[c]ontent alone matters, not how well the student has expressed it.” Collegiate writing might improve if professors graded essays both on subject mastery and writing quality.
  • Text Slang. Another contributor may be “cyber slang,” which includes “shortcuts, alternative words, or even symbols used to convey thoughts in an electronic document. Because so many digital media limit the number of characters an author can use at a time, students are becoming more creative to get the most out of their limited space” (Education World).

Watching my teenagers and their friends, I do see social media crowding out leisure time. Despite growing up surrounded by books (pictured below is the library in our home), they manage many simultaneous Snapchats long into the night.  Friends demand immediate answers. Respond now! Like my picture now! Serious reading and writing are not often associated with instant gratification.

This is not the first time that young minds have been distracted by technology. I read an article from a century ago entitled Reasons for the Decline in Serious Reading. It asked why “do the American people, rich and intelligent and educated, fail to encourage the finest books?” In 1914, the “craze for dancing and for automobiling” (rather than iPhones) eroded students’ reading time. There also was concern about new media—“scrappy methods of the cheap magazine”—which created a “butterfly habit of mind that we no longer are capable of continued concentration and have lost the power of reading books requiring serious attention.” Just as good writing withstood magazines, it also will survive social media.

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About the Gaille Energy Blog.  The Gaille Energy Blog discusses issues in the field of energy law, with weekly posts at http://www.gaillelaw.com.  Scott Gaille is a Lecturer in Law at the University of Chicago Law School, an Adjunct Professor in Management at Rice University’s Graduate School of Business, and the author of two books on energy law (Shale Energy Development and International Energy Development).