For our fore-mothers, learning shorthand as part of a repertoire of secretarial skills was considered a vital attribute in preparing them for a world of work. Women with such skills had an advantage in many realms of the employment market.
The arrival of digital communications has rendered obsolete the conventional skills of shorthand writing. Why laboriously notate speech when you can record it and convert it into a written document at the touch of an icon? And, this done, endlessly reproduce it and publish it at will.
As with so many aspects of the digital revolution, however, we have replaced the challenges of scarcity with those of superfluity. So, the focus of difficulty has shifted away from the creation of documentation to its storage and security. The quest to locate scarce information, locked away in paper archives, has given way to the search for worthwhile information amid clouds of words free floating in the ether and all competing for our limited attention.
And what if that search becomes not an active process but a passive one –as we feed on the information we are given rather than actively seeking what we need?
Information curated for us as a result of algorithmic calculations about us as consumers. Information channelled to fit our political bias and preferences.
The age of shorthand writing has, in other words, given way to an age of shorthand reading. And, shorthand reading brings with it the ever-present risk of shorthand thinking.
We say that we know something from scanning a few characters about it on Twitter or an online post. Pictures are used allusively to add narrative force, apparently making redundant the need for actual words to define and refine the meaning or interpretation of the headline.
This is not new. In an age before mass education, the handbills of the print era summarised stories, sensationalised them and offered opinions in a shorthand form, without the need for much text at all, if any.
It is worrying. Just as the handbills of history were linked to outbursts of mass hysteria and the spread of damaging fantasies, such as the witch-crazes of the 17th century, so the digital feeds of today are linked to the rampant circulation of fake news. The widespread credence given to the story that a dead gorilla received 11,000 votes in the last US presidential election illustrates the point.
We all concur but what is harder to agree upon is what to do about it. This is an urgent question for schools, which are, after all, the training grounds for the leaders as well as voters and employees of tomorrow. The OECD recently called upon schools to do more to teach young people how to spot fake news. Readers who believe that gorillas can stand for election may end up voting a gorilla into the White House.
There are risks here of a knee-jerk reaction. Above all, this cannot simply become a campaign against the internet – or phones. Superficial reading is, after all, not necessarily purely an effect of material being in a digital form, though the size of the phone or tablet screen does lend itself to bite-sized consumption. Nor does a digital format always lead to skimmed reading. Let’s not forget that digitisation has actually made it much easier to read ‘War and Peace’ in bed.
It is much more about fostering an attitude of mind.
Courses such as the GDST’s Career Start Workshop on ‘Understanding the Media’ – which our Sixth Form students took last term and which unpacked the layers of the dead gorilla story as a case study – lay a good foundation stone. Promoting in-depth reading is also vital. At a time when many schools are doing away with their libraries and the county’s public libraries are facing closure, I see great value in maintaining a conventional library, blending books and digital materials, at the heart of the High School (both literally and metaphorically).
But nothing less than a culture shift, in opposition to the prevailing currents pushing students towards shorthand reading and thinking, is needed. I end with a suggestion for a starting point: that we accept as a first principle that we cannot claim to have an understanding of a topic from a standing start unless we have spent at least 15 minutes reading about it. I believe that ‘longhand’ reading and the thinking habits that go with it are the key skills for employability; the challenge of developing them is one that schools neglect at their peril.
Karen Kimura of GDST has kindly shared details of her Career Start Workshop and the following sources
Dr Stringer, Head Teacher