I’m still reeling from an exchange on Radio 4’s Today on Wednesday, when Philip Parker, an American professor of Management Science at the INSEAD business school told Justin Webb about his work in “automatic authoring programs”.
Will your blood boil while reading this article about "automatic authoring programs"?
Would you agree with Philip Parker, the subject of this article that he is an "author" because he has mechanically generated some 200,000 books making him "the most published author in the history of the planet"?
Of course, I suppose, anyone who creates a collection of words and then distributes that collection is technically an author at some level.
However, apparently Mr. Parker believes that it's possible to "'reverse-engineer' a poem and, by using 'cluster analysis', construct a new one..."
It is not surprising that such beliefs might stretch the levels of open-mindedness to "new literary directions" that I've long believed was essential for those entrusted with promoting literary reading as an essential element of a well-rounded education. I do note for the record that being open to considering is not the same as accepting as valid what I do not see as valid after having given the subject some just consideration.
Am I capable of giving just consideration for new ideas regarding what can be considered literature? That is the question.
I've been doing a lot of thinking about the word "literature" lately. In my mind, "literature" references the great global collection of the best articulations of wisdom distributed in the oldest and most persistently utilized format; that of storytelling.
In truth, that distribution system has its roots (and its modern day descendents) in the oral traditions of storytellers sitting around campfires tens of thousands of years before the ingredients for S'mores existed and the PowerPoint-like enhanced versions of oral storytelling that I imagine was behind the cave paintings found in the El Castillo cave in Cantabria, Spain or those found in cave art of Chauvet in France. Remember Socrates' story of Plato's Allegory of the Cave?
Whether one experiences Shakespeare in its purest visual form of a live theatrical performance, or a contemporary cinematic "theatrical performance," or in the text-only version of what is "believed" to be a relatively accurate textual documentation of the story that Shakespeare created or recreated, it is the story's eloquence of an author's ability to synthesize and articulate the universal truths in an engaging story that distinguishes "literature" from ..., from..., from whatever it is when mere words are less engagingly or less insightfully exchanged between people that is not "literature."
"Literature" brings a new breadth of understanding about what is beyond the parts of the world where its audience has been and a new depth of understanding about what is within the parts of the world where its audience has most often existed.
I still cringe when shopping for a new washing machine or a carbon monoxide detector or ... any potential purchase and I'm offered "some literature" about the product. I realized that there are probably some well-paid English majors behind the marketing value of every single word in that "literature" but I'm not so certain that articulating the great truths or even the not so great truths about the subject is at the heart of "product literature" or in the heart of its "author."
I'm looking for informational reading; give me the facts, give me a data sheet, give me a manual, but don't call it "literature" please.
So realizing that there is a level of foolishness on my part in attempting to distinguish "literature" from other text-based reading materials, I've begun using the term "literary reading" to distinguish it from "informational reading."
I do not intend to demean the value of informational reading by any means.
But, if we are to believe that "literary reading" has merit then we must take a long look at what that value might be and whether or not our current strategies for teaching and assessing student achievement in literary reading is really being as effective as we hope for it to be.
It is not adequately measured by measuring student literacy skills. Those assessment measure whether students CAN read well-enough to benefit from reading. They do not measure whether students DO read and thereby benefit from reading whether or not that benefit comes from literary reading or informational reading. Having basic literacy skills is an essential element of any curricular design and deserves the extensive attention that it receives in most educational environments. This is true even if the need is "only" there for a relatively small percentage of total student populations. But, "small percentage" does not mean insignificant percentage. I often wonder where STEM or STEAM or STR2EAM education (depending upon your position on this very hot educational dialogue is) would be without basic literacy being an absolute pre-requisite.
It is a given that literacy is essential before literary reading has any value. I'll drop references to informational reading for the moment and focus specifically upon literary reading.
So, I mentioned the old gadfly Socrates earlier in this post. You may remember that he was forced to drink poison for his "impiety" and for "corrupting the youth." In recalling Socrates' fate, I'm just a bit worried about what I'm about to suggest.
First, I believe that teaching the benefits of literary reading:
• has a value equal to or exceeding that of teaching basic literacy skills.
• is at least as important as STEM education which IS ALSO TREMENDOUSLY important.
• is undervalued outside of English departments in most educational environments.
• is not an obsoleting "information source," but rather among the very best of the relatively few sources of the kind of "wisdom" that is required for using all the information sources at hand responsibly.
• is not achieving adequate levels of success
• (gulp gadfly alert) just may require that we revisit exactly what we do to lead our learners towards discovery of the relevance and benefits of literary reading.
I will purposely shift the rest of my comments to a metaphor, or perhaps and allegory or perhaps a parable... you know a fictionalized articulation of truth.
Imagine when you did not know how to drive. Whether it was or not, most people saw the downside of not knowing how to drive and the upside of knowing how to drive. You probably felt the same way when you didn't know how to read, but you had plenty of experience of hearing stories read to you and the benefit of reading really didn't need to be sold to you.
The question is what was the important a "content" in the process of learning how to drive? Certainly, driver safety and driver responsibility were important. You were even tested on this knowledge before being officially sanctioned to drive. Better keep that in the learning content.
What about the mechanics of the automobile? Certainly you needed to know how to adjust your mirrors, how to buckle seat belts, how the steering and braking mechanisms were controlled in order to parallel park, how to counter-steer in case of a slide-out, when to begin braking in order to be at a complete stop before arriving at the bumper of the car in front of you. All important skills, all fairly easily assessed on a multiple choice test followed by an actual driving test.
Did you really need to know how internal combustion worked? Did you really need to understand the mechanics behind what makes that brake pedal do what you need it to do? Did you really need to understand the mystery behind how you were able to somehow be able to be driving anywhere and still have access to news, music, and GPS directions? Did you need to know the history of automobile design or the evolution of the hybrid engine?
Not so quick! It really depends upon the level of involvement you have in driving. Do you want to become a mechanic or a car designer or a civic engineer or an environmentalist or ...? All of these and many others have deeper and more extensive reasons to know more about driving than how to drive and the value that being able to drive can bring to their lives.
Yes we do improve their receptiveness to the benefits of literary reading when we explore the role of metaphor, allusion, meter, genres, even onomatopoeia and all those other mechanics used by the great writers of literature. And, it therefore is important in the scholarly study of literature. It's also important that we reach those students who might pick of the torch and become the next generation of English majors, literary scholars and educators.
However, I would suggest that like those requiring basic literacy education, those destined for a scholarly relationship with literature are in fact, a smail, though not insignificant percentage of our students. The largest percentage perhaps by far, is the vast middle group of those who can read, but who are destined to make other contributions to the world besides tending the flame of literary scholarship.
Then the question becomes does that vast middle group have something to gain from literary reading? Of course they do. But they need to be led to a rewarding (relevant and engaging) realization that literary reading is a practice worth continuing past the end of their mandatory education.
We might keep in mind that the great storytellers we share with our students did not write their stories in order to teach the value of the mechanical devices they used , but rather used those mechanical devices teach valuable lessons about the human condition; about the great questions contemplated by peoples of all ages and cultures regarding what it means to live a good life as humane beings. When that middle group sees themselves, their cares, and their world reflected in the stories they read they get it, they see the gift that literary reading brings to everyone making their way through their own life's journey.
A final consideration: The 2008 National Endowment for the Arts document, "Reading on the Rise: A new Chapter in American Literacy" proudly proclaims a turnaround in the 20 year decline in reading. The document distinguishes "all reading" from "Literary Reading" giving us a more focused view of our "success rate" as teachers of literature.
If we look even more specifically at the data for 18-24 year olds as a representation of literary reading habits among those who have recently completed their mandatory educations, we find that although their literary reading numbers have improved over the preceding 20 years, they have only reached 51.7% among the 18-24-Year-Olds. And, though that might be an impressive percentage when compared to the percentage of hits that even the very best professional baseball player might get, it should be kept in mind that to be a part of the 51.7% of literary readers, one need only to have claimed to have read at least ONE poem, short story, novel or play in the preceding 12 months.
Also when broken down by education level, those with no post high school education only come in at 39.1% when asked whether they had read at least one poem, short story, novel, or play in the preceding 12 months.
If after 12 years of mandatory education we are failing to make literary reading a valued part of those who pass the age of mandatory education, we may want to continue to explore new ways of helping our students "see" the value and to continue to wonder whether our current pedagogies might need revisiting.
As is often the case with these comments and mental meanderings, I'll leave it to you to worry about what this all has to do with the article that triggers this line of pedagogical consideration.
I'm just saying, I'm not sure "automated authoring" can capture the eloquence of the most articulate storytellers of the ages.