Fun with Click and Jane

Virginia Heffernan writes a media column for The New York Times, and last week’s, titled “Click and Jane,” asks “What are kids learning to read when they learn to read online?”

The question was prompted, she tells us, by her 3-year-old son, who objected that something he’d been watching on his laptop wasn’t a book, as the computer had described it. “It’s more like a movie or a video,” he said.

Well, yeah, though I think she may be making a bit too much of this. If the child masters the reading code, I’m not sure whether it makes much difference where or how he learns. Yes, college professors complain that their students no longer have the attention capacity to slog through long or difficult texts. But I suspect college professors were saying that long before their students grew up with TV or laptops.

I’d like to draw your attention, however, to a point she made in passing:

In their book “Freakonomics,” Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt write that kids who grow up in houses packed with books fare better on school tests than those who grow up with fewer books. But they also contend that reading aloud to children and limiting their TV time has no correlation with success on tests. If both of these observations hold, it’s worth determining what books really are, the better to decisively decorate with them. The widespread digitization of text has complicated the matter. Will Ben benefit if I load my Kindle with hundreds of books that he can’t see? Or does he need the spectacle of hard- and softcover dust magnets eliminating floor space in our small apartment to get the full “Freakonomics” effect? I sadly suspect he needs the shelves and dust.

I haven’t read Freakonomics, though I do like the blog, so I can’t say whether Heffernan has correctly reported what the authors say. And I don’t doubt the first claim, that children who grow up surrounded by books do better on school tests than those who don’t (though I’m not so sure about the next part). What seems odd to me is that she seems to imply the books are the causal factor, to the extent of speculating whether having them in pixels rather than on paper will lessen their influence.

Doesn’t the chief causal argument run like this?

  • Smart people on average do better on school tests
  • Smart people on average have more books around the house
  • Smart people on average have smarter children
  • Oh, we all know exceptions to these correlations, but the significant point is that the causal relation doesn’t run backwards. Doing better on school tests won’t make you smarter than you would be if you never took them, though it has other benefits that can amplify the effects of being smarter, in line with Malcolm Gladwell’s example of children who are among the oldest in their cohort when they begin playing hockey. Filling your house with books won’t make you smarter, though reading voraciously may make you more successful than others who start with similar smarts. Having smart children doesn’t retroactively make you smarter, though it might cause people who know you to wonder whether they may have underestimated you.

    When I read things like this, I always wonder whether the writer is truly oblivious to what’s in front of her eyes, or whether she just feels it is obligatory to pretend she doesn’t see.

    About linsee

    Linda Seebach retired in 2007 from the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, where she was an editorial writer and columnist.
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