Should we stop teaching our children how to read and write and teach them how to watch television instead?
That startling suggestion by Albert R. Hibbs, voice of the Caltech Jet Propulsion Laboratory's space shots, has galvanized the philosophers among my readers.
You may remember that Hibbs sent his argument on a tape cassette which took me 35 minutes to transcribe, so I could study it and quote accurately from it.
Hibbs predicted that, as writing and print made memory unnecessary, audio-visual technology will soon make reading and writing unnecessary, and we may be wasting their time in teaching those skills to our children.
He recommended that we teach them "speed listening" instead.
The answers have been voluminous and cogent, and I regret that space permits me to quote only briefly from a few.
"As one of the engineers responsible for color TV," writes Sidney Levy of La Verne, "I can hardly knock it. I just think that it is an important addition to the enlightenment process, not the successor to reading and writing.
"I have seen often how little of a story is understood after seeing it on TV, as contrasted with reading it in the newspaper. The audio-visual stuff is a continuous information flow which does not match the ability to comprehend. . . . "
Martin E. Mullen Jr. implies that reading and writing are essential to a democratic state: "Since I'm an easy prey for a fast talker," he writes, "I usually ask for a written version of the presentation and read it carefully before making a decision. . . . Our predicament may explain why demagogues are usually speechmakers, not writers. They know instinctively that listeners are more easily manipulated than readers."
Ruth E. Stout of Claremont writes, "I challenge your correspondent to write a sonnet or a Supreme Court brief without reading or writing, using just recorded sound."
Well, of course, Hibbs is not a jurist or a poet; he's a scientist.
And Emery R. Walker Jr. of Claremont asks: "About Hibbs' taped letter: Did he write it out first and then read it into a recorder?"
I don't know. But I suspect he spoke it directly into his recorder. Writing it first would be cheating, wouldn't it?
"Hibbs' hopes about speed listening are just hopes," writes David Carl Argall of La Puente. "We have been listening to words for an easy 10,000 years (more likely 100,000). No doubt the skill can be improved, but to assume it can be improved as much as reading skill (which dates to perhaps 4000 BC and was rare until about AD 1500), is rash. We still have the problem that writing can be reread, whereas sounds are much harder to rehear. Reading will remain faster than listening."
Argall recalls Isaac Asimov's description of an information storage device that was portable, afforded random access, was free of reliance on expensive technology, had variable information access speed, was inexpensive and could be duplicated in large masses.
"Such a device, as Asimov told his audience, is already achieved. It is, of course, a book. . . ."
Edward F. Tuck of West Covina points out that the technology for turning print into sound is already here. He himself built a machine, using an optical character reader and a voice synthesizer, that could read a typewritten letter at a normal speaking rate.
"It made a mess of some proper names, but did admirably on such toughies as 'ought' and 'through.'
"I remember my awe at the idea that $7,000 worth of electronics could do what the far more powerful human brain often cannot do after several years and many thousands of dollars worth of training."
Today, he says, with electronic prices falling, his homemade machine could be attached to a personal computer for about $2,500, and "it won't be long until one can buy a reading machine, to read just about anything that's ever been printed, for around $49.95 at K mart."
Harold L. Dittmer offers his own letter as an example of the superiority of writing: "At least I can scan over what I have written, try to correct the many mistakes that I am prone to make using this old portable typewriter. Just how could I recall all the stuff if I put it on a cassette? Unless I was a perfectionist, and went back and erased. Erasing or using white-out on a letter is a bit more time consuming. But the reader knows what it was all about. . . ."
John L. McKenzie, also of Claremont (is Claremont our Athens?), disdains Hibbs' idea: "I say Mr. Hibbs advocates a return to illiteracy. I say this attitude terrifies me, and makes me worry, because it seems that space scientists throw a lot of weight. After Challenger, perhaps that weight will be diminished.
"His casual dismissal of the written word as something too antiquated for our high civilization is arrogant. He represents the type of modern thought (I wonder if that is the right word) which does not know the difference between information and knowledge, or between knowledge and wisdom. . . ."
"Certainly Hibbs is not 100% wrong," writes Henry T. Scharff of Thousand Oaks. "Our future may be divided between those who read and choose to retain their skill of communicating by writing, and whose thought processes are strengthened by that ability, and those who, automaton-like, depend on video and audio marvels in their employment and personal lives. I'd like to make book on who will boss whom . . . ."
Meanwhile, for a tape cassette of this column, please send a blank cassette and a check or money order for $20.