Third-graders, savoring writing, grill a columnist


June 08, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

Three signs the written word is not dead: You're reading thi column, Vic Gold is screaming about "videocy" -- rhymes with "idiocy" -- and some third-graders in Massachusetts have become authors.

First, about the kids. During my recent vacation, I was invited to their school to answer questions about writing. Their teachers had given them hardbound blank books with clean, white pages between clean, white covers, and ordered them to write. And the kids went nuts on the project, trying to outdo one another with story line, character development, plots and illustrations.

Still, I was skeptical.

Isn't this the age of the Vid Kid? The average American will spend, by one estimate, 10 years of his life watching TV. Kids are going to read and write enthusiastically? Aren't they more likely to wait for the video? Isn't 500-channel cable on the way? Aren't we all going to be indoors, wired into a couch, for the rest of our lives?

And is the written record of life as we know it an anachronism in the electronic age? Will kids need the written word to get through life? Will they need to spell? Isn't America Hooked On Phonics?

Sorry, but I don't have high hopes that the next wave of American youth will come with a passion for literature -- writing it or reading it. We are getting further and further away from the personal, contemplative interaction of mind, eye and word. The future is Total Video Experience, a Schwarzenegger of an experience all awash in moving images and sudsy with sound.

Third-graders writing books? I imagined a room full of grumbling kids.

Not so.

"It's working," a teacher told me. "They are deep into the books right now."

And they had all sorts of questions for me, all difficult to answer.

"What does it feel like when you write?"

"How do you know what you've written is any good?"

"What's the best story you ever wrote?"

"What do you do when you can't think of the next thing to write?"

I was exhausted by the time I left that class, but also felt renewed. Teachers had turned kids on to writing. That doesn't mean the counter-video revolution has commenced, but maybe there's hope for a rebellion or, at least, small, robust crusades to perpetuate the written word.

The teachers of those third-graders are trying.

So is Vic Gold. Down in Virginia, he has formed the Charles Dickens Society for the Preservation of Literacy in Law. Gold, longtime political public relations man, writer and student of law, thinks the movement away from court reporters and toward the use of tape recorders and video recorders in American courtrooms poses a threat to civilization.

"The written word was the beginning of civilization," he says. "It is fundamental. We learn from human experience by reading."

Gold believes the legal profession is "a bastion of what civilized society is all about," and therefore he decries the movement toward recording all proceedings electronically. "TV washes over you, it doesn't engage you intellectually," Gold says. "Your mind needs to be engaged. Your mind needs the written word, to meet it half way."

The Dickens Society is so named because Dickens, one of the greatest authors of all time, was a parliamentary reporter in his youth and is recognized by the National Court Reporters Association as "the godfather of the English-language court-reporting profession." The society is composed of lawyers and writers who oppose the idea of substituting videotape for the written word in federal and state courts.

Federal courts, by and large, still use court reporters, but advocacy of electronic recording in them has gained momentum in recent years. While most Maryland courts still rely on court reporters, the state's District Courts have used tape recorders for a long time and there have been successful experiments in some of the state's Circuit Courts.

Vic Gold thinks the day is coming when proceedings of even the Supreme Court will be videotaped.

"I'm not an anti-technology Luddite," Gold says. But he sees jurists relying on a videotaped record of trials, rather than written accounts, as unsound legal practice and a cultural travesty. He fears the extinction of the written record of society. So should we all.

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