Can’t Read, Can’t Watch, Can’t Comprehend

By Thomas Bertonneau for

In response to complaints about the steadily declining preparation of incoming freshmen and the performance and interest levels of college students in general, apologists often tell us that while today’s undergraduates indeed read less well than their precursors of three or four decades ago (and have read much less), they are  “media savvy.”

This claim means that although students respond less than acutely to the demands and subtleties of the printed word, they possess keen understanding when it comes to images, especially moving images, and the spoken word. According to this idea, the contemporary college student is fully competent within the emergent cultural environment, dominated by the audio-visual media, in which books (quaint objects!) assume second place.  The proliferation in humanities departments of “film-studies,” “media-studies,” and “popular-culture” courses is, in part, predicated on this chain of suppositions.

I remain strongly skeptical.

I have taught film and popular-culture courses at the college level in Michigan and New York during a twenty-year period and, during the same period, have taught literature—classics in translation, American literature (nineteenth and twentieth century), poetry, literary theory, genre fiction, and much else. Given that experience, I find no validity in the strained romantic hope that the inadequately lettered and spottily informed student will prove somehow to be cognitively sharp in domains “beyond” the book.

Readers, take note: I have not declared film studies or media studies or popular culture studies to be unfit subjects for college courses. On the contrary, put in the proper context and approached in the right way by people who are prepared to suspend their prejudices and confront the object with critical appreciation, such courses can drive the thinking and enrich the minds of undergraduates. The single most memorable course from my undergraduate experience at U.C.L.A. in the early 1970s was a German cinema course taught by an instructor who, alas, failed to gain tenure. That ambitious instructor had us reading Siegfried Kracauer and Theodore Adorno to prepare us for the films The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Fritz Lang’s Nibelungenlied.

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