ESSAY- Text and Learn: Somethin's happening here....

Something is quietly happening to us. Very quietly. So quietly that it's probable we don't even recognize it's happening. Will we recognize it this summer when it expands to our kids and grandkids?

Or will we take another step toward ensuring the next generation develops little capacity for critical thinking?

 This summer is when LeapFrog's "Text and Learn," a handheld personal assistant for toddlers, goes on the market to further narrow our national obsession with ourselves. That's right, a digital personal assistant toy for three year olds.

As America has turned more and more to microcasting, Blackberries, and the internet over the past decade– killing off publications like The Christian Science Monitor and U.S. News and World Report– we've failed to recognize that we are also suffering more and more from what communications' theorists call "selective attention, perception, and retention." We pay attention to what we already care about because we already care, remembering primarily information that reassures us we should care for the concepts we already pay attention to.

Today, in short, instead of growing up, mentally we're growing in.

The wonderful communications and educational tools based around the internet so narrow our focus that we end up discounting, and often never hearing, the very ideas and opinions that might expand our abilities and intelligence. Some thinkers suggest we could be reverting back toward the pre-print days when all any individual human could know was what was immediate for that person.

Today, after all, we can dwell so deeply into any subject– from Barack Obama's cabinet picks to Paris Hilton's next video to Scrubs to "My Space"– that we fail to notice dozens, and maybe hundreds, of other concepts which might expand our knowledge, and perhaps, provide us the basis for thinking outside the infamous box.

Could this be destroying our ability to innovate as individuals and as a nation? 

According to Mark Bauerlein in The Dumbest Generation, it can and is. Taking a few dozen state, national and local studies from a dozen different perspectives, the former head of the research arm of the National Endowment for the Arts concludes that the bottom line of all the communications wonders is that we use them to make ourselves more important in our own minds, therefore missing much of the truly important information circulating around the world today.

Hence, this summer we'll begin by beginning a little earlier. We'll start buying our babies "texting" opportunities. When we Americans discovered we were losing our competitiveness a generation ago, we started giving every child who showed up a trophy. Today Ford, Chrysler and GM are prominent on the bailout list. 

In the old days when we read newspapers, in turning to our preferred section, like sports, we at least flipped past political, society, and economic news and pulled out the comics to hand to the kids. We never got every nuance of important news but we received some awareness. Today, our browser takes us straight to what we already care about, say, Michelle Obama's newest dress. Or the "Bikini Girl" from American Idol. Or the latest collapse of the Cubs. 

Netflix and Tivo both make recommendations for me today, presuming that I don't have time to think my own thoughts, while Amazon has been telling me what to buy even longer than my wife.

When I moved to Charlottesville four years ago, walking to Barnes & Noble or one of the downtown book sellers always elicited responses from half the people I said howdy too, but now with the Blackberries and cell conversations and iPhones, for all practical purposes my voice is silent.

More and more as we Americans less and less acknowledge others it seems that each of us is increasingly prone to believe, somehow, that the world revolves around me and mine.

According to Bauerlein's Dumbest Generation, the great communications tools of the past decade have taught America's youth one primary concept. Nine of the ten top web sites for the under-30-crowd are social networking sites, he points out, and, on average, today's young spend at least four hours a day with some kind of entertainment screen while, by every rational standard, today's young know less real information than their parents.

On the screen and working with an alter ego (or not), one can so center one's world that it's become easily possible today to grow up assured that there are no rules that apply to me, even if the "me" in question is not a Michael Phelps or a Tom Daschle. It's not uncommon now in my college town to see a car full, none talking to anyone else inside the car because they've all got cells and iPods in their ears and none, certainly, noticing anyone outside the car.

Unless it's someone from deep in their cell plans.

So, what is the American response? We start them earlier.


A former journalism teacher at Virginia Union University, Randy Salzman is a researcher who lives in Charlottesville and writes about transportation when his ideas aren't being written about.