A diet of cream

happy cowsIncreasingly as a society, we’re going backwards in one way. Think of it this way: Most children learn to read with 1. Picture books, 2.Simple stories with pictures, and 3.Chapter books. In that order. Now, however, through the determined measures of marketers influencing news, we’re going backwards along that continuum. We’re moving from text to pictures. Everywhere.

Marketers have figured out that they can grab our attention more easily with pictures and visual illustrations. They like to imagine, I suspect, that we’ll delve deeper into a subject. But that doesn’t often happen. Instead, they are feeding our nationally laziness, our predilection to gather news through pictures, sound bites, headlines and “quick reads.”

No one “reads long” anymore, they contend. That may be true. But that begs an important question: Should we read long? And shouldn’t institutions of higher learning lead the way?

By presenting news in such an easy-to-digest manner, we are dumbing down our ability to understand complex issues. The New York Times was historically called “the Grey Lady,” a reference to her once text-filled pages. Now her pages are filled with pictures. (Think kindergartners and their picture books.)

The problem arises when people create their opinions and make decisions — political, philosophical, or otherwise — based on limited information, on books, authors and writers they agree with and, even worse, on sensational — and sometimes hysterical — headlines.

Take Flight 370.

The mysterious disappearance of the plane is a case in point. One need read only the dramatic headlines flashed across CNN’s cluttered website to follow the story. The problem, however, is that really understanding the story — or any story — takes more than sound bites and headlines.

Flight 370 is a pretty straightforward story, but what about our obligation to understand a story as complex as the recent Russian takeover of Crimea? Knowing the history, the backstory, the players, and understanding the political and social landscape are all critical to a full understanding of the story.

Yet we are losing our abilities — and perhaps most egregious, the media is beginning to limit our access to full stories because they don’t “sell.”

Today, marketers in the news business measure their “success” by hits to a website. They can dig down and analyze how long an individual stays with a story or how many times they revisit it. From these statistics, they take the cream and leave the milk behind. Based on their findings, no one likes milk when they can have cream.

But cream alone makes us fat and lazy. In an intellectual sense, we’re leaving behind what makes us healthy mentally, socially, politically and educationally. The media is failing us by giving us less and less deep reading, by following the conventional wisdom that people only “read short.”

Reading deep, though, is essential for a vigorous social fabric, and especially and intelligent society. The oft-quoted President James Madison summed it up better than anyone: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Without arming ourselves thus, we cannot function effectively as members of society. We certainly can’t function at a high or productive level. We can’t, for instance, fully understand the issue of fracking without serious study and debate. Or climate change. Or health care. These are not one-off stories, any more than a political debate about abortion or military incursions or lost planes is a one-off.

Yet the media treats them as such, cultivating our interests only by satisfying our most limited minds — reducing complex issues to their simplest terms and allowing us the luxury (like a diet of cream) of what is easiest and most appealing to form our opinions.

war-to-peace-conference-graphic-655x393This week on JMU’s campus, we were treated to an extraordinary event: Intelligence and the Transition from War to Peace — a multidisciplinary exploration of the decision making process during the Bosnian War. The conference was sparked by the release of CIA documents surrounding the intelligence gathering that took place during the crisis and leading up to the Dayton Peace Accords on Bosnia.

Speakers included Dr. Timothy Walton of JMU’s Intelligence Analysis faculty who was a CIA analyst during the conflict. And Dr. Bob De Graaff of the Netherlands Defense Academy and University of Utrecht and Dr. Cees Wiebes, the retired National Coordinator for Counterterrorism in the Netherlands, who traveled to Harrisonburg to offer their deeply-researched perspectives on the war. And Jan Lodal, an expert on intelligence who has served four American presidents.  All the presenters — including a group of undergraduate students — had thought long and hard on their topics, so their responses to the released documents carried special weight.

The conference, if nothing else, demonstrated the lengths that any educated person must go — is required to go — to reach reasoned conclusions. It is not easy. Such understanding is not cream. It is milk, cream, the blending of both and the consideration of myriad ingredients.

But this is the responsibility of those in higher education.

Until we move away from our sound bite/headline mentality, we won’t make progress; instead, we will stall as a society.

Academics are often disparaged for perseverating on minutia.  Studying, for instance, flatulence in cows might be a little too esoteric, however, on balance studying something deeply is far better than a “quick read.” If educated people, and universities in particular, buy into the notion that “reading short” is an accepted method for learning, we are sunk. We’ve got to read long. We’ve got to study. And as a university, we need to promote it, not feed the opposite.

Without such deep thought, critical reasoning and pondering, we’ll become like children blithely skipping through the news, growing fat and unhealthy on a diet of cream and failing to see the sinkholes of misunderstanding that will eventually swallow us up.

So sell me shoes and chocolate with your “quick reads,” but leave the rest of the media to writers and thinkers who are willing to delve and study and get to the heart of the stories that touch of us all.

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