The Death and Life of American Imagination

America, said Dana Gioia, is dividing into two distinct behavioral groups: one that passively consumes electronic entertainment, and one that uses technology but also participates in the arts, sports, exercise—and volunteers at three times the rate of the other group. The factor that differentiates these groups is not based on income, geography, or education, but simply on whether people read for pleasure and participate in the arts. In his Stanford speech, Gioia said, “A child who spends a month mastering Halo or NBA Live on Xbox has not been awakened and transformed in the way that child would be by spending time rehearsing a play or learning to draw.” Or by reading a book. A 2004 NEA study correlated a decline in literary reading with increased participation in a variety of electronic media, and noted that it “foreshadows an erosion in cultural and civic participation” because literary readers volunteer, do charity work, and attend arts and sports events more frequently than their non-reading peers. The report predicted that “at the current rate of loss, literary reading as a leisure activity will virtually disappear in half a century.”

Just as adults are turning away from reading, professors across the country are bemoaning the lack of writing skills among college freshmen—another task requiring imagination. Educators say that because of the No Child Left Behind Act’s emphasis on basic skills and multiple-choice testing, they no longer have time to teach a complex, creative skill like writing. Composition is a skill that has been used to change the world time and again; for example, support for American independence and for the Revolutionary War hinged heavily on the well-articulated argument put forth in Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense, which was reproduced a staggering half-million times. In failing to write effectively, we further risk failing to articulate our ideas through speech, at least with enough clarity and persuasion to make a difference.

Then there’s the decline in so-called “soft” skills among young people. In Where Do the Children Play?, a public television documentary to be broadcast next month, pediatrician Kenneth Ginsburg says that through free, child-driven play, kids determine their own strengths and weaknesses; they also learn peer negotiation and become familiar with taking chances and forging ahead in the face of mistakes and failures—all traits that employers fear are waning in young new workers.

In a September 2007 report, “Under-Equipped and Unprepared: America’s Emerging Workforce and the Soft Skills Gap,” America’s Promise Alliance declared that “a large percentage of the children and youth who will enter the workforce … are lacking enough of the ‘soft’ or applied skills—such as teamwork, decision making, and communication—that will help them become effective employees and managers.”

Given what’s coming out of all these studies, it’s questionable whether tomorrow’s adults are learning to use the tools they’ll need to succeed. David Walsh, founder of the National Institute on Media and the Family in Minneapolis, agrees that the changes raining down on our youngest generation are more enormous than those faced by any other. “Whenever revolutionary things happen in the world of technology, they have a big impact on society,” he said. “The printing press—that took us out of the Dark Ages into the Renaissance. It would be naïve to think this latest profusion of technology wouldn’t have a dramatic impact on the way kids are being raised.”

His response to the impact of technology is articulated in his ninth and most recent book, No: Why Kids—of All Ages—Need to Hear It and Ways Parents Can Say It. Encouraging more limits for kids, Walsh says, provides a counterbalance to the media’s onslaught of what he calls “more, easy, fast, and fun.” More than a third of kids under six have a TV in their bedrooms, he notes. “They’re more wired than they were yesterday, and tomorrow they’ll be more so again. So we have to figure out how to maximize the benefits and minimize the harm.”

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