The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Secondary school students in New Zealand have recently finished sitting their end of year external examinations. One of those papers was a Level 3 History exam, in which final year students were asked to respond to this quote from Julius Caesar: “Events of importance are the result of trivial causes”.
After the exam, 1300 students signed a petition asking that markers not downgrade their answers if they hadn’t understood the meaning of the word ‘trivial’. The gist of their argument was that ‘trivial’ is not a word that seventeen and eighteen-year-old English speakers in 2018 can be expected to know, and therefore, for fairness, a definition should have been included in the exam paper.
I’m not sure which part of this story breaks my heart more: the fact that so many young people are so lingustically impoverished that they don’t know what ‘trivial’ means; the fact that faced with this mystery they have such poor resources for working out the meaning through context; or the fact that the official response by Graeme Bell, chairperson of the NZ History Teachers’ Association, was to agree with the students. “Whoopsie,” he said, “our bad.” Well, actually, he said this:
The exam was not testing comprehension, so it was unfair to make that part of the assessment.”
The exam was not testing comprehension? Excuse me? What on earth was it testing then? What could possibly matter more to our future than comprehending the meaning of statements made by people whose actions changed the course of history? Listen up, kids, I find myself wanting to shout. Words matter, and qualifying words, like ‘trivial’ and ‘importance’, matter very much. Without them, Caesar’s quote turns into a statement about the laws of physics: Events are the result of causes. Discuss. The scope of the examination question is reduced and, accordingly, what we expect from an answer also shrinks. A whole way of thinking is at risk here, all the inquisitive, reflective habits of mind that are supported by language generally and, with special potency, by the reading brain.
It’s by immersion in stories, rhyme and song that children absorb words and the structure of language. It’s a process that sets the foundation for flexibility, creativity, critical finesse, good communication, empathy, resourcefulness and resilience. So how has a significant number of students got to the age of seventeen without absorbing the word ‘trivial’? And, perhaps worse, without the tools to unpack the meaning of Ceasar’s quote, which is a beautiful seesaw of a sentence in which the word ‘trivial’ (attached to the word ’causes’) counterbalances the word ‘importance’ (attached to the word ‘events’)? Research indicates that the answer might lie in the rise of screen-based communication and the corresponding demise of both face-to-face conversation and the habit of reading books.
Researchers like Maryanne Wolf are reporting that the ubiquitous use of touchscreens and computers has resulted in a mental style of ‘cognitive impatience’, which interferes with the ability to read long complex texts. Close reading has been replaced by skim reading, with profound consquences, warns Wolf, for the way human beings can think. She points to several recent studies showing that comprehension drops when people read on screens. Interestingly, this includes the ‘digital native’ generation (comprising, for example, the students who sat the Level 3 History paper), despite the fact that members of this cohort believe themselves to be better at screen-based reading. When tested, they too demonstrated better comprehension of texts they read in print, compared to texts they read on screens.
Does this finding mean that we should, as Graeme Bell suggests, apologise for putting an unfamiliar word in front of students, promising never to do such an unfair thing again? Or do we have a responsibility to insist that even in a world where kids are constantly being told that only the STEM subjects really matter – indeed, especially in that world – a wide vocabulary, rich with qualitative words, is incredibly important to humanity’s future. I think the latter.
A month or two ago, well before I heard of the history students’ struggle with the wording of Caesar’s quote, I was seated at a restaurant near a large table around which was gathered an extended family celebrating a birthday. There were about eight children present, ranging from a toddler to a couple of boys about ten years old. Once the main course had been eaten, these children were encouraged to leave the communal table. They sat in a row on a nearby window sill. Each one had a tablet and stared into it, swiping the screen frequently. They didn’t talk. No one talked to them. A trivial observation? Discuss.
Sue Wootton is co-editor of Corpus.
- Wolf, Maryanne. Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. London: Icon. 2008.
- Wolf, Maryanne. Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World. Harper. 2018.
Read more on this theme by browsing the Reading and Literacy categories on Corpus. Try, for example, Cultural nominal aphasia: how we’re losing the words for our world by Heather Bauchop.