Law in Contemporary Society

Is Reading Obsolete?

During this Tuesday’s class we discussed the possibility that the act of reading text may not be the most efficient way to absorb new material. Professor Moglen raised two strong points in opposition to this possibility. He first suggested a neurological explanation. Reading is a more effective way of absorbing new material, the explanation goes, because the mind can process text quicker than it can sound or video. This explanation will be taken as a given, as I lack any expertise to dispute it. Additionally, Professor Moglen suggested an educational reason why reading may be more efficient. When we write, we imitate what we read. A better-read individual presumably has a greater archive of effective literature at her disposal, allowing her to convey her exact thoughts more precisely. This explanation, too, will be taken as given.

Taking these two explanations as given, one accepts very quickly the idea that reading is the most effective means of absorbing new information. Absorbing new information is not the sole function of reading, however. Retention of the new information is equally important. As we discuss frequently in class, one of the main difficulties of law students is the difficulty of remembering a page of text from the dozens or hundreds of pages that one reads every day.

Professor Moglen cites modern technology as the primary explanation for this phenomenon. The ability to access information instantly seems to dampen our ability to stay tuned into our studies for an extended period of time. This argument is supported by recent research suggesting a decline in modern attention spans. I recognize that memory (working memory, long term memory, etc) is distinct from attention span, but for this paper attention span will serve as a proxy for memory retention. In 2008, Lloyds TSB Insurance funded a study that found that the average attention span among the British population had fallen to 5 minutes*. This figure is down from the 12 minute figure found just ten years prior. This decline in attention span resulted in 1.6 billion in damages in 2007 resulting solely from unnecessary household accidents. Most relevantly, the study found that over-50s are able to concentrate for longer periods of time. The researchers interpreted this data to suggest that busy lifestyles and intrusive technology are to blame for the decline.

Absorbing (perhaps acquiring is more accurate) new material, therefore, does not seem to be the biggest challenge of learning for our generation. Instead, the challenge is memory-retention. Perhaps this is the area where reading struggles compared to other means of knowledge acquisition.

Anecdotally, I remember significantly more Tort cases than I do contracts cases. Professor Blasi assigned the book Tort Stories, which fleshes out the historical and factual details surrounding the foundational tort cases. It was through these descriptions that I was able to envision The Flopper and develop a better perspective on the case. Tort Stories is admittedly less analytical than the torts casebook, but I remember far more about it.

Against this background, I would argue that other forms of communication may be more effective than reading in this generation. Communication that stimulates more senses, such as documentary film, may be more effective in the area of retention. The additional visual and audio components of film may aid significantly in creating an emotional connection with the material. Though documentary films are almost certainly less analytical than a textbook, this fact becomes obsolete if all of the textbook information is forgotten within a few days.

To conclude, I’d like to state that I read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 in high school, the same year that I first watched Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. I do not remember a thing about Catch-22.

*Commentary on the study: http://www.insurance.lloydstsb.com/personal/general/mediacentre/homehazards_pr.asp

-- AlexBuonocore - 20 Mar 2012

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