According to yesterday’s Times UCAS, the body that brokers applications to British universities, has scrapped the previous requirement to include a personal statement with an application. This comes, reportedly, in response to calls from social mobility activists to scrap the statement, a text iscriticised for favouring those middle-class applicants who have access to tutoring and other support in crafting their statement.
The article quotes an Exeter University academic who calls personal statements “barometers of middle-class privilege”. This is difficult to dispute. It’s easy to believe that few of these personal statements, especially from better-off applicants, are written by the applicants themselves. And though it’s not mentioned in the article, it strikes me that over and above this, the advent of large language AI models means university applicants may now effortlessly create lengthy passages of more than passable prose at the touch of a button.
Against that backdrop, 4,000 characters of written prose is even more meaningless as a barometer of a putative student’s ability than it was when it was just tutors and parents meddling with the text. At least, unless you’ve actually seen the individual in question write it themselves, without the assistance of parents, tutors, or AI.
But it’s striking in this context, though, to see that the article also suggests a written personal statement may be replaced by one recorded on video. I suppose in favour of this proposal, presentation skills matter today - and it’s also a great deal harder to create a deepfake video of oneself being interesting, articulate and enthusiastic than to get a tutor to write one’s personal statement. But it’s also powerful evidence that the post-literate quality of our cyborg age is moving from the fringes into the cultural mainstream.
After my talk at a boys’ public school recently, one of the sixth formers told me I should be on TikTok, because Andrew Tate is, and because it’s neither here nor there if I write books because his generation doesn’t read. If I’m hearing this from smart, switched-on teenager at a highly selective boys’ independent school, we can reasonably assume it’s true more generally too.
Perhaps reflecting this, it’s clear both that universities will continue to recruit in large numbers, and that they are doing so in the full knowledge that their students are increasingly post-literate. Video statements could plausibly become video ‘essays’ on a given topic, or any number of other forms of content creation that are not deep reading and writing.
In other words, the direction of travel for learning in general is away from what Adam Garfinkle calls ‘deep literacy’. I’ve written here about the many ramifications of our transition from print to digital as our main information technology; and when it’s so difficult to imagine the academy as we know it surviving the demise of ‘deep literacy’, the prospect of a post-literate academy leaves me wondering: what will be the character of the ‘knowledge’ such an institution produces?
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It’s too early to be sure, but my bet is that such ‘knowledge’ will be (indeed, already is) much more directly moral in character than the abstract, analytical, and (aspirationally at least) objectively factual ideal of ‘knowledge’ produced by the print-era university. I also think we can connect this to the profoundly religious flavour of the ‘no debate’ activism now commonplace on universities. In this recent essay, Eliza Mondegreen describes being on the receiving end of such ‘knowledge’ at a heavily protested at McGill University talk by human rights professer Robert Wintemute - a talk eventually shut down, seemingly with if not the support at least zero objection from university administrators. And it’s my contention that we should get used to it.
That is: I don’t wish to add to the usual chorus of tutting at student activist mobs here, as though these could be fixed with more ‘free speech’. On the contrary: it is my gloomy contention that the more post-literate academia becomes, the more such aggressive and intransigent mob morality will become not the exception but the norm. And there will be no fixing it, because ‘free speech’ was a print-era ideal, and that’s indisputably not where we are any more.
I wish I could say I had a more optimistic take, but I don’t. It seems to me that the deep literacy that formed print-era subjectivity may continue to survive. But if this happens, it will be via intentional, counter-cultural efforts, akin to those that preserved the knowledge of the Ancients through the turbulent centuries after the fall of Rome.
There are plenty of tech-optimists declaring ‘It’s time to build’. Build what, though? To my eye, watching the flame of deep literacy gutter, the answer is: monasteries.
Thanks, Mary. I read this article quickly but I feel unusually compelled to comment on it. I am a philosophy lecturer at a prestigious traditional university in the UK (not Oxbridge). The worry - what to do with post-literate students?! - is real for me. A significant proportion of students never show up for class and I suspect this is because attendance goes with a commitment to weekly readings. They've learned they can scratch out a 2-1 for most classes by reading one or two papers on the topic of their midterm and final essays, and then writing something generic but not plagiarised. The availability of GPT will make the temptation to cheat pretty strong. In my last class I made the final essay more of a research project where they had to find a non-standard text and analyse it in a way that didn't overlap with the kind of questions addressed in philosophy text books and usual undergrad source materials. Though this had nothing to do with the recent hype around chat GPT, I think this may be a useful anti-cheating strategy for future. It is too easy for AI generate another essay on Searle's 'Chinese Room Argument', but why as lecturers stick to teaching what the internet already has loads of stuff on? As to literacy and diversity, this is one-sided. I happen to be a non-white, female philosopher. Earlier in my career especially, I found writing and publishing philosophy an escape from the performative, aggrandising aspects of spoken philosophising that white, male individuals are so readily socialised to do well at. It's incredibly patronising to say that non-white people are disadvantaged by having to express themselves in writing. (I happen to be middle class and privately educated, but how many of these EDI people give a damn about class, anyway?) Finally, as to non-literate culture in general. One side of my family is from a colonised country in which literacy is a relatively new introduction (within last 150 years). Without falling into usual traps of romanticising, from what I noticed, I do think that non-literate cultures (dimensions of this get preserved, even after most people in a country learn to read) explore the possibility space of human thought and experience in interestingly different ways - e.g. in terms of memory and attention to details of places and people. I was impressed by how much better my father was at navigating from memory, than the average Englishman, and that's what you can do if you pay attention to where you are and don't rely on maps (another product of print culture). But I don't think at all that you can extrapolate from cultures such as these, to where we're headed in an internet saturated but non-literate culture. Print map reading skills have replaced the non-skill of following the blue dot on a glowing screen. The online version of non-literacy equates to even less situational awareness because the new non-print visual culture is addictive, mediated, and crafted by algorithms that do not have your best cognitive interests at heart.
This is the other side of the coin for me- the time I have left over from worrying about the future of my children and grandchildren I spend on worrying about the death of western civilization. I love them both very much, my descendants and Christendom, but I am probably more firmly attached to the latter, relationships being trickier for me than books. I cannot conceive of a life unmoored to the literature, unable to appreciate a reference to the Bible, to Shakespeare, to the classics, whether, Greek, Roman, or Dickens. Think how exactly the shorthand works- if I compare someone to Pecksniff, Micawber, or Steerforth, you know exactly what I mean. And we all know a Becky Sharp, Thackeray’s finest. It is an incredible impoverishment of the imagination to jettison all this, and that it is done with the connivance of those entrusted to teach it convinces me that they never really understood the value of what they taught, and for how far back does the rot reach?
You are completely on point here, it is too late to speak of saving anything except in tiny enclaves. I am currently compiling a list of books I need to replace in print copies, having been seduced by the convenience and cheapness of the classics on kindle I am now concerned that Amazon will decide to edit or remove problematic texts without my knowledge or approval, the licensing allowing for this. When we stopped homeschooling we ruthlessly culled several thousand books in an effort to control the house, each room of which resembled a disorganized library. Sorry now.
Calling any of this elitist is absurd. I was raised in a working class home with few books. I read a grocery store encyclopedia which included enough history, biographies of writers and lists of works for me to educate myself beginning in elementary school. Mine is a thoroughly romantic relationship with literacy. It afforded me an escape from a traumatic childhood and the prospect of a better way of life, which I have largely been able to realize. It is genuinely painful to know that this promise of a better way, a serene cerebral atmosphere, will be denied to future generations. That some people will have neither interest nor ability to benefit from the wealth of literate culture is not a reason to deny it to everyone, but in the absence of critical thinking skills such is the slop academe offers to those who don’t know any better and indeed are convinced there isn’t any better to be known. (Why do they think they are at university? Doubtless to get a credential that will led to a job, a job they can scarcely imagine as tangentially related to the nonsense they “learn” at school).
It may be too much to hope that monasteries make a comeback, but with public and even university libraries divesting themselves of actual books perhaps each of us moved by the beauty of the printed word could begin by building up personal libraries to the extent our space and purse allow?