American Elephants

Are Texting and Tweeting Destroying Coherent Thought? by The Elephant's Child

You have to wonder about communication in the time of twitter, and texting.  In many schools, much of basic math is relegated to a calculator.  Kids no longer learn penmanship, for their teachers feel it is no longer necessary— because no one will actually have to write anything in longhand — and for the few times a handwritten message is necessary, printing will do. Soon one will either buy a Hallmark condolence card or just send an email? But it is not manners whereof I write, but thought, and understanding.

I am a devout adherent of the works of the late Richard Mitchell,  “the Underground Grammarian.”  The Underground Grammarian was a newsletter written and published by Mr. Mitchell, a Professor of English at Rowan University, to rescue America from its growing illiteracy.  You can download editions of the newsletter, and the entire texts of his four books: Less Than Words Can Say, The Graves of Academe, The Leaning Tower of Babel, and The Gift of Fire. His books are out-of-print, but can often be found at I recommend them highly.

He writes in Less Than Words Can Say of speech: “Speech is tremendously powerful.  It moves our minds and makes the path of history.  It is, furthermore perhaps the most complicated skill we have, and the uttering of words and sentences is only its beginning.”

…the recording of speech is not the proper business of writing.  The proper business of writing is to stay put on the page so that we can look at it later.  Writing, whether it be a grocery list or The Brothers Karamazov, freezes the work of the mind into a permanent and public form.  It is the mind and memory of mankind in such a form that we can pass it around to one another and even hand it on to our unimaginably remote descendants.  …

If we want to pursue extended logical thought, thought that can discover relationships and consequences and devise its own alternatives, we need a discipline imposed from outside of the mind itself.  Writing is that discipline.  It seems drastic, but we have to suspect that coherent, continuous thought is impossible for those who cannot construct coherent, continuous prose.

…Writing does indeed make us exact, because it leaves a trail of thought that we can retrace and so discover where we have been stupid.  At the same time, though, it makes us “men,” grown-ups who can choose what toys we want to play with and who can outwit the random suggestions of environment.  In his writing, then, we can judge of at least two things in a man — his ability to think and his intention to do so, his maturity.  An education that does not teach clear coherent writing cannot provide our world with thoughtful adults; it gives us instead, at the best, clever children of all ages.

Is that what is happening to our society and to our politics?  Have we lost the ability for clear coherent writing and clear coherent thought?  In neglecting to teach how to write clear, coherent, continuous prose, are we neglecting the ability to think clearly?  Do twitter and texting add to the superficiality of thought?

Is it too much of a leap to suspect that the brilliance of our Founders came from the lack of radio, television, the internet and thousands of magazines and books?  They had time to think deeply, to ponder alternatives, and to write clear coherent prose that they left for their unimaginably remote descendants — us.  And too many of us have not troubled to familiarize ourselves with what they wrote.  And does that matter?

2 Comments so far
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You have raised an area of particular concern. I am always amazed when I sit and read the personal letters of Washington, Lincoln, Madison and Jefferson. Their thought process, displayed in intricate prose, is disciplined and clear. Their ability to communicate coherent and complex thought far exceeds 99.99% of of us alive today. It is a skill that has been declining for a century in our country, and a stake has been driven through it by twitter and texting, just as allowing reliance on calculators has done irreparable damage to math skills. I have no idea how it will ever be turned around.


Comment by GW

I am a tiny bit hopeful. I have found the lectures from ISI fascinating, and though I haven’t tried any yet, I just learned that all the Teaching Company courses are available at my library. I have seen some really interesting things on YouTube, one was an interactive map of warfare throughout the centuries throughout the world. It was too short, too fast, unlabeled — but the possibilities for visualizing developments over time were impressive. I have a couple of science videos of things that could not be seen with the naked eye –one a drop of water bouncing as it falls onto s water surface, another was the difference between the growth of a seedling grown in an atmosphere of plentiful CO2, the other less so. Many professors would like to have bits of many books available to their students, and putting them on hold at the library on the one hand or forcing kids to buy them is a ridiculous choice. Start selling them by the page. Much college material could be conveyed online in far more expensive and impressive form than a classroom presentation. Science still demands lab work and expensive equipment, but the potential for a complete reorganization is there. What if everybody of whatever age had to take an online class at least 2x a year, and education was ongoing and continuous?


Comment by The Elephant's Child

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