Adam Garfinkle’s extensive essay “The Erosion of Deep Literacy” for National Affairs has caught attention for the author’s argument that deep literacy, which is represented by the capacity of having profound internal dialectic with an author, is the foundation for developing individualism and political agency as the core foundations of liberalism. The awakening of deep reading, in the author’s view, is an accumulated skill that has been built by the culture into which people are being integrated, and it is not necessarily hardwired into humans the way in which oral language is. However, in the author’s view, technological advancement presents significant limitations to acquiring deep literacy, thus enabling some to have no such literacy or struggling to locate and develop it appropriately.
If one is to simplify the argument made by Garfinkle, the essay may read as having the central thesis that modern people are ‘dumber’ than they were in the past, which is a common statement that is being thrown around. He writes, “Neil Postman put it succinctly, if more broadly, in 1985: “Only in the printed word can complicated truths be rationally conveyed” (Garfinkle 6). Here, the author refers to the original thought sources which are considered to be essential for successful deep-reading during which the brain can make connections between different reasoning modes, such as analogical, inferential, and empathetic, and know to connect them all with the gathered background knowledge. Although, it is hard to identify whether the argument stands and is valid. The issue is that many people have anecdotal evidence of well-read individuals being insufferable know-it-alls who do unethical acts even though they know how they can make the world a better place. On the contrary, there are people who have barely read a book in their life and are good, mindful, and ethical and can differentiate between right and right. Therefore, Garfinkle’s presentation of deep literary misses the mark by suggesting that being well-read enables not only strategic thinking but also broader original thinking. It is not about being well-read but also having a level of comprehensibility that goes beyond the surface. This comprehensibility is something that modern society created away from technological progress or capitalism.
A distinguished disadvantage of Garfinkle’s essay is the inclusion of references to neuroscience and explanations of neurophysiological changes with little to no quotes from medical research. Instead, Garfinkle cites neurologist Richard Cytowic, “digital devices discretely hijack our attention. To the extent you cannot perceive the world around you in its fullness, to the same extent you will fall back into mindless […] behavior” (3). This reference does nothing to show how exactly digital devices affect the brain or how the brain changes along with the digitalization of the world. It is evident that human brains change along with the global development and advancement because new skills and new ways of interpreting information emerge, and Garfinkle agrees that the brain adapts itself according to various experiences. However, the author should have been clearer about how different types of reading impact brain development as most ideas regarding neuroscience seem unfounded and out of place. Even when citing Nicholas Carr, the author chooses the quote “something neurophysiological is happening to us, and we don’t know what it is” (Garfinkle 1). Such an approach to supporting one’s ideas with references presents as careless. There is little to no point in including information about brain changes if it does not provide any evidence to support a claim. If Garfinkle could tell readers more about his own experience of reading and connect it to the neurophysiological impact, then the references to neuroscience could serve as useful supporting material for the author’s claims.
The strength of the argument against technologies and their daily use weakens when Garfinkle lists the array of negative consequences that digital media, video games, and different gadgets have on people. He writes, “if you do not deep read, […] you, therefore, may not realize that anything more satisfying than a video game even exists” or that “our gadgets create exhaustion, isolation, loneliness, and depression” (Garfinkle 4; 5). As with anything in life, there are two sides to each situation, and technologies and video games provide multiple learning, health, and social benefits. As mentioned by Granic et al., while there is a complete misconception that playing video games is intellectually lazy, the reality is that it can actually strengthen multiple cognitive skills such as spatial navigation, memory and perception, and reasoning (68). Therefore, the author misses the mark by failing to acknowledge the multitude of benefits that technology, which makes his argument one-sided.
To conclude, Garfinkle is highly critical of people who fail to read to and develop deep literacy due to the overreliance on technologies and social media that require significant levels of multi-tasking from people. It is an oversight to argue in favor of reading and completely diminish the value of technological advancement that has been supported by research. While the author’s claims are made with good intentions of encouraging deep literacy development, the disregard for the ‘flip side of the coin’ shows a dismissal of the potential of younger generations.
Garfinkle, Adam. “The Erosion of Deep Literacy.” National Affairs, 2020, Web.
Granic, Isabela, et al. “The Benefits of Playing Video Games.” American Psychologist, vol. 69, no. 1, 2014, pp. 66-78.