The First Truly Literate Generation

Remember those silly days in the 1990s, when Clinton, Gore, and their friends cobbled together our money to put computers in every classroom and community center? The hope was that the computer would at last do what the government has so far been unable to do after a century of work: make every child literate and high-minded. It turned out that most of the new computers gathered dust and became obsolete.

The web was dull and uneventful in those days. But no longer. It turns out that there was a kernel of truth in the Clinton view: computers can be a wonderful tool for learning. What looks like time-wasting provides important technical training, a vehicle for healthy socializing, access to a vast world of information from all ages, and crucial practice for literary expression that will pay lifelong returns. No, it won’t turn a pig’s ear into a silk purse, but it can give a kid an extra boost in many ways.

(Hey, wow, my son just won the World Cup!)

Consider the major one: writing ability.

For practicing writing, getting feedback from peers, and just for the joy of composition, blog forums like MSN Spaces are wonderful opportunities for kids, though closer-knit kid-boutiques like Poohblogs are probably a more fruitful (and safer) venue. Such venues are a great way for kids to meet other kids who share their interests, expand geographical knowledge, gain broad cultural awareness, and gain technical web experience in writing, coding, working with images, and much more.

Such venues get kids past the techno-phobia that has crippled so many adult careers. They provide an outlet for creativity (kids at Poohblogs upload their writings for others to critique), and they give kids what they need most: an opportunity and excuse to write every day.

Now, I know that we are supposed to bemoan the loss of the quill pen and parchment. We are supposed to weep because people no longer ache over long letters and put wax seals on their missives. I know how bad punctuation and crazy neologisms (LOL, brb, ttyl) are corrupting English.

But punctuation and abbreviations are small technical problems compared with the major issue that plagues bad writing: pomposity, jargon, preachiness, and prose that is stilted and labored. These are all the result of inexperience and a lack of direction — and blogging goes a long way toward addressing both problems.

What is true of blogs is also true of email. Don’t tell me that emails are too informal. Informal is far better than prose strewn with words that the writer himself can’t deploy with competence, repeating words like “important” fifty times, as in: “At this stage in my narrative, I find that it is important to note the important distinction between what is important here and what is not.”

Ask any English teacher from any age. The first articles they get from students are riddled with these problems. The writer tries to sound smart but just ends up sounding puffed up and absurd. They have nothing to say, as if they composed the piece while forgetting that the main point of writing is to communicate!

This is not only a problem in our time. Mark Twain famously satirized the 19th-century approach to teaching writing in Tom Sawyer, in his reporting of a schoolgirl’s composition examination:

“A prevalent feature in these compositions was a nursed and petted melancholy; another was a wasteful and opulent gush of ‘fine language’; another was a tendency to lug in by the ears particularly prized words and phrases until they were worn entirely out; and a peculiarity that conspicuously marked and marred them was the inveterate and intolerable sermon that wagged its crippled tail at the end of each and every one of them.”

And so Twain gives an example from the first girl who read her composition:

“In the common walks of life, with what delightful emotions does the youthful mind look forward to some anticipated scene of festivity! Imagination is busy sketching rose-tinted pictures of joy. In fancy, the voluptuous votary of fashion sees herself amid the festive throng, ‘the observed of all observers.’ Her graceful form, arrayed in snowy robes, is whirling through the mazes of the joyous dance; her eye is brightest, her step is lightest in the gay assembly. In such delicious fancies time quickly glides by, and the welcome hour arrives for her entrance into the Elysian world, of which she has had such bright dreams. How fairy-like does everything appear to her enchanted vision! Each new scene is more charming than the last. But after a while she finds that beneath this goodly exterior, all is vanity.”

To be sure, a high school student who wrote this well today would be considered a genius. But it’s still insufferable. It’s artificial, affected, puffed up, and vacuous.

Why do students write this way? They don’t have an audience, they don’t have anything to say, and they haven’t written enough to acquire real skill.

Let’s take the last point first. The acquisition of expertise in any field is the product of relentless repetition. The World Series in baseball, for example, is the culmination of tens of thousands of batting sessions and casual games of catch in the backyard and practice field. But somehow we tend to forget this with writing and composition. The main experience kids have with it is through a string of high-pressure performances: term papers for class.

Email is different. It is something you write every day. You fire off answers in a flash. You keep them short. You write and write and write, and you get your point across. Mostly you just do it and do it, again and again, and you get better and better at it. Writing becomes part of life, not a phony-baloney exercise you affect to please an authority figure.

And yes, email overcomes the “something to say” problem too. The purpose is to make a point of some sort, even if it is “my little brother is driving me crazy!” That is far more substantive than “imagination is busy sketching rose-tinted pictures of joy.”

Finally, email provides an audience. Knowing who is going to read what you are writing makes all the difference. A major cause of “writer’s block” is fear of what people you don’t know will think of what you say.

Kids need to know for whom they are writing in order to affect the correct voice. The audience for email is listed right up top in the “to:” bar.

The following happens all the time when people submit pieces to Someone will send an incoherent piece, and I’ll write back: “What are you trying to say?” They will write back with a crystal clear response, which forms the basis of a new draft. The writer had an audience in mind and it made all the difference.

Try this at home. Ask you child to write a report on some topic. Insist that it be 5 pages. If the kid is typical, he will labor for days and turn in pap. Give that same kid a gmail account and ask him to drop you an email about what he knows about lizards, and you might find 5 pages arriving in less than an hour.

This is a wonderful and underappreciated medium! It should be exploited by all parents and educators.

Far from killing literacy, email is producing the first fully literate society in many eons, perhaps ever. Never before has it been so necessary that every person in the whole of the population be capable of writing well. For the first time in history, people are practicing the craft on a daily basis, even from the youngest ages. The sooner they begin, the better.

One last word on this topic. Do not let kids type using an incorrect method. Download TypingPal for $20 and your kid will be typing well in a matter of weeks — without having to endure the horrors of typing class, which is another subject entirely.

Jeffrey Tucker [send him mail] is editorial vice president of

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