Wednesday, January 09, 2013

How Important Reading is in the 21st Century

Time and again I cannot stress enough how immensely important reading skill is. I do not care whether it is chinese, malay or english language which you prefer to read and write; you must be able to read well in at least one of the languages in the world, critically and synoptically. It is the least I can ask of you, and in case you wonder which 'you' I am referring to, I am addressing university graduates.

For God's sake, how painful it is to see university graduate cannot even read critically! I even wonder to myself, how can you even graduate from a university if you cannot even do that? The often circulated posts on Facebook are filled with misconceptions on historical facts, scientific myths and healthcare tips and they are most of the time written by a nonprofessional. Most of them contain errors and they are not even reviewed by experts before being let out into internet. They do not bother me much; only when a university student or graduate reposts it then I am shocked. Why and how in the hell could that ever happen?

I would attribute the phenomena to two core problems: (1) tv / computer / iPad; (2) university education functioning as commercial product. Let's talk about (1). New generation of kids do not read well not just because they do not want to; they simply cannot concentrate long enough to decipher the words. The primal evil is television. Often the parents just let the kid watch television at home; this seriously alters the kid's concentration span as he/she grows up. Television program designers know about how often should a show switches animations in order to capture full attention of the audience. I do not quite remember the time span, but a shadow of the memory tells me that it was about 1.7 seconds. If you grow up watching television as a kid, you would often find it so much harder to just read more than 2 lines, and if you count the time, that's about the maximum allowable time span for a show to switch attention frame. If you grow up playing computer games as a kid, it is even worse. Computer games like Role-Playing Game (RPG) operate on immersive virtual environment and the experience is refreshed every second. Now, influences of iPhone and iPad are not quite well studied yet, but I can think of the damage they bring: they feed you the drive to prod your device to 'move on'. Well you might argue that reading a book is the same, but it's all about time frame I am concerned about here. Prodding an iPad / iPhone for new information happens in a matter of 1 to 2 seconds while turning a page of book usually takes at least 10 seconds (even if you are a fast reader, and I am talking about full comprehension). If there is nothing new in 2 seconds, you lose interest.

The direct impact of (1) seems to be the detrimental effect on reading. However, I would like to bring your attention to the indirect impact on the mental health of individuals: tv, computer, iPad, they all feed the monster called anxiety. When your attention span is that short, when you lose interest that quickly, you are always anxious. When you are anxious, you will be easily agitated or depressed. You always look for something to fill your brain, and your mind will become more restless over time. Look around you: isn't this the general picture of the new generation we are observing today?

Now I do not wish to talk that much about (2). I hope it is self-explanatory. When university education is marketed as a commercial product, something you spent money on to get an entry certificate into wealth, then the real meaning of education will certainly evaporate. One does not seek knowledge anymore in university; one seeks graduation. University is the place where interactions of bright minds on interesting subjects happen. It will not function like that as long as the program turns out to be another high school system. This is the reason why university graduates (at least those in Hong Kong) do not acquire the sole important skill which a university offers: critical and synoptical thinking. 

I might sound pessimistic but in fact I am not. I am telling you that you can cure your own anxiety, restlessness and lack of knowledge: start reading. Even you cannot concentrate that well, force yourself. If you can only read one page of book a day, it is fine. Do it. Reading is like exercising your muscles: you get better and better every day. Persevere and you will find that a month later you can read much faster, you can comprehend things better and you feel much more fulfilled and goal-driven. Try to read nonfiction apart from fiction too. From nonfiction you not only learn new facts; you learn how to analyze things synoptically. You learn how to look at things from a boarder perspective, and by that you can tackle a problem more systematically and efficiently in your workplace. You will improve, that I guarantee you.

And I would like to remind you the increasing importance of reading in the internet era. Be reminded that I do not write 'how important reading skill is' but rather 'how important reading is'. When internet churns out so much information shared daily, the amount you read each day is actually much more than the amount people read in the past. The only difference is you also need to filter out the garbage which comprises 90% of the lot. You simply cannot obtain the ability to judge which information is correct and which is not from reading in the internet. But you can with books. There are always books which are peer-reviewed and guaranteed to be the king of certain fields, e.g. running a marathon. These jewels will provide you the guideline to filter out unnecessary and wrong information when you read later on the internet. 

And do you even know that Einstein never got expelled from school? He expelled himself because he detested the education system.

Do you even know that we indeed do use all parts of our brains instead of only 10% as suggested in the urban myth? 

Start to read from today, university graduates.

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