The Post-Literate Academy
Everywhere around us, print culture is dying. It's time to build
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.