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Affluenza

April 12, 2002

And I quote: “If an eight-year-old girl can walk safely to the public library six blocks away, that’s one good indicator of a healthy community. For starters, you have a public library worth walking to, and a sidewalk to walk on. But more importantly, you have neighbors who watch out for each other. You have social capital in the neighborhood — relationships, commitments, and networks that create an underlying sense of trust.”

This is my favorite paragraph in the book “Affluenza: the all-consuming epidemic.” I like the juxtaposition of the words library, children, neighborhood, and health.

The book comes out of a PBS documentary about consumerism and overconsumption in our society. It is in the spirit of Joe Dominguez’s book “Your money or your life,” as well as Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream.”

A good public library is integral to a modern healthy community. Perhaps it’s obvious: One way libraries contribute to community health is in the support of literacy. I don’t mean by way of instruction but by offering a common collection of materials, as well as access to other libraries.

Literacy may be simply a measure of community health today, but I think it is a crucial factor. The lack of it certainly has dire consequences. Consider Barry Sanders’ book “A is for ox: the collapse of literacy and the rise of violence in an electronic age.”

I don’t think he quite makes this point, but he makes so many other good points that I applaud him. I just don’t fully accept his arguments about “orality” and literacy. I didn’t even like the word “orality” when I first read it and was loathe to search for it on the Internet, but lo! it is a real word.

It refers to facility with and comprehension of spoken language as opposed to the written word, which is the province of literacy.

Sanders and many others think that a fundamental change in the way man thinks took place with the invention of the written word, and that this change included man’s moral sense. In my dilettantish way, I disagree with this. Absolutely, the written word permitted man to work in new ways, but I question calling it a fundamental change in human behavior.

For many if not most people, reading is simply a way of re-speaking words. The written word permits them to say the same words again and again in their heads. Many of us read, and listen, so carelessly that this is a good option to have.

Sanders goes on to argue that ancient poets told their stories a little differently each time as they gained new insight and came to understand new things about the tales.

If there were a ever a mechanism that explained the power and value of teachers, this is it. It is also evidence against computer-based learning — which precludes not only the teacher-student interaction but also the mechanism by which the teacher revisits, and relearns, and gets better and better.

Sanders makes many good arguments. He made me a friend for life with a short argument in favor of boredom, which can “serve as a meditative opportunity, a quiet space where youngsters can discover what things they find interesting.” Television short-circuits boredom.

I’ve been a fan of boredom for years. I think every child should be allowed it. As soon as a young person conquers boredom once without reaching for the remote control or Mom’s credit card, he or she has received the first inoculation against Affluenza.

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