College Students - At a Loss For Words (on Paper)

WHEN U. Magazine, a lifestyle and entertainment monthly for the college crowd, asked 550 students at 22 schools nationwide what gifts they'd like this holiday season, answers ranged from the predictable - CD players and VCRs - to the fanciful: ``a car that never breaks down'' and ``a diploma with a job offer attached.'' Under the heading ``academic tools,'' students listed three top wishes: a computer, a printer, and software. Books, which might have been a choice for earlier generations of students, failed to appear anywhere.

This high-tech, nonliterary wish list probably comes as no surprise to researchers at the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., who last week released the latest gloomy report on literacy levels among college graduates. According to their study, half of all college graduates can't understand a bus timetable or use a brochure to calculate the annual amount a couple would receive for Supplemental Security Income. Only 35 percent can write a letter explaining a billing problem.

Although the report finds that literacy levels have risen among students who go on for advanced degrees, Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, characterizes the literacy levels of those with four-year degrees as ranging from ``a lot less than impressive to mediocre to near alarming.''

Another literacy study last month reflects equal pessimism about reading and writing abilities. The American Federation of Teachers-Chrysler Report on Kids, Parents, and Reading found that 85 percent of students' writing skills were poor or less than adequate. In an age of voice mail, modems, and telephoned thank-yous to Grandma, no one, it seems, spends much time putting pen to paper.

After the Princeton study was released I asked a recent college graduate if he could write a letter about a mistake on a credit card. Of course he could. But he seemed puzzled by the question. ``Why would you bother to write?'' he asked. ``Calling their 800 number is much more efficient.'' Score one for youthful practicality.

Similarly, some of the same students who puzzle over a local bus schedule might well be experienced long-distance travelers, making their way from airport to airport with more ease and savvy than some adults.

Still, the ability to adapt does not compensate for an inability to write clearly or read with understanding. Dashing off a hasty e-mail note, complete with typos and sentence fragments, hardly serves as practice for writing a polished business letter. And reading many on-line bulletin boards typically requires a lower level of comprehension than contrasting the views expressed in two editorials - another measure of literacy on the Princeton test.

So serious is the decline in newspaper readership among young people, in fact, that editors of papers across the country are urgently seeking ways to fill what they call a ``black hole'' in their demographics - readers between the ages of 20 and 30.

In his new book, ``The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age'' (Faber and Faber, $22.95), Sven Birkerts argues that wires, microchips, computers, and modems - the ``academic tools'' on students' wish lists, and the electronic wonders that conspire against the printed word - are revolutionizing not only communications but the way people think and process information. This electronic culture is, he insists, a ``monumental transformation'' - a ``millennial remaking of the world'' every bit as profound as the revolution precipitated by Gutenberg's invention of movable type.

But whether the ``revolution'' involves the printing press or Internet, the word remains the coin of each new realm. Those words may be engraved on a cuneiform tablet or lettered on a papyrus scroll or projected on a green screen, but it's not the technology that counts. It's the probing imagination of the reader, transferring the power of meaning and feeling from the words that spring from the mind and heart of the writer.

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