Homer didn’t tweet.
A facile observation, to be sure — Twitter did not exist in Homer’s time and place, wherever and whenever that might have been. (Most scholars put him in late eighth century B.C. in Ionia, but no one knows for sure.)
If Twitter had existed in Homer’s day, though, would he have tweeted? If his time had been so occupied, would he still have been able to compose his twin masterpieces, the Iliad and the Odyssey — the foundation texts of Western civilization? More important, if a person existed today with the cognitive and linguistic capacities of a Homer, would Twitter (and the like) be liable to stoke or squelch his potential?
To ask such questions is to brush up against the eternal entwinement of thought and language. No one debates whether or not digital tools such as Twitter debase the language; in a way, that is their very purpose. The question is: Does it matter?
It does. In fact, future archaeologists looking back on our early-21st-century imperial decay surely will note that the erosion of the ability to write — and therefore, think — went hand in hand with a degradation of our politics and culture. As George Orwell put it seven decades ago, “It is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic cause but an effect can become a cause.”
The latest evidence of our literary decline is a new school study program called the Common Core (adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia), which will make it mandatory that 70 percent of books taught in the classroom through grade 12 be nonfiction by 2014. Partially funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the new standard is backed by both the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.
Requiring public schools to trade timeless fiction for “informational texts” in their curricula may mean setting aside the wicked wit of Oscar Wilde for the starched structure of imaginatively void writings like “Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management,” by the General Services Administration (GSA). The motivation behind the new emphasis: Education administrators increasingly feel that imaginative prose and verse do not adequately prepare students for the workforce. David Coleman, who led the effort to write the new standard, explained, “Forgive me for saying this so bluntly. The only problem with a [personal narrative] writing is, as you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give [expletive]about what you feel or what you think.”
How fortunate that Sappho and Mark Twain did not share Mr. Coleman’s views on these matters.
Many teachers, of course, dispute the notion that literature doesn’t prepare students for the world. “There is no research base for the claim that informational reading will lead to college preparedness better than complex literary study,” said University of Arkansas professor Sandra Stotsky, the author of Massachusetts’ standards for pre-kindergarten through grade 12, widely considered among the best in the nation.
To be sure, nonfiction and informational texts are important components of a well-rounded education. If we fail to expose children to our great imaginative writing, however, lost to them will be training in intuitive thought, reflection and creativity, invaluable skills whose usefulness transcends any workplace. Great literary works — from Ovid to Dante to Joyce — do more than entertain. They wire the brain for big ideas and prepare the heart for the large and luxurious loves of which it is capable. As Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in “A Defense of Poetry”: “Words are instinct with spirit; each is as a spark, a burning atom of inextinguishable thought; and many yet lie covered in the ashes of their birth and pregnant with a lightning which has yet found no conductor.”
One day, perhaps, thanks to digital tools like Twitter and a loss of nerve among our educational elite, we will no longer be capable of conducting the great music still sounding somewhere in our collective soul.
We lost our literary heritage once — when Rome fell and the world descended into the barbarity of the Dark Ages. The great works of antiquity really were lost in this period, physically lost. How sad that after our medieval ancestors took such pains to recover and preserve that heritage, we are starting again to lose it. Yet the books are no longer lost.
Matt Patterson is a Washington-based columnist and commentator. Crissy Brown is director of outreach for Young Americans for Liberty at the University of Alabama.