However, for most kids, the idea that online teaching is a less-than-ideal but workable substitute is a fiction. Exercises presented on a screen, little buttons to push, “writing” on a keyboard rather than by hand at an early age, no one directing students from one activity to another in person, no questions addressed directly by a living person—all of this engages most young people too little to instruct them in any real way. Online teaching as a norm is a crisis.
Or at least, a crisis in inculcating the formal level of language, which is considered one of school’s main functions. At home one learns to talk; at school one learns to speak, especially those from less educated homes. At home one writes stuff down here and there; at school one learns to compose the kind of text that presents you to the world as a serious person. Humans are genetically programmed to talk, and ordinary talk is complex and nuanced indeed. Yet modern civilization exerts a requirement that citizens master a secondary layer of communication, the formal one.
And this level is only partly about big words and where to put a comma. In forcing kids not only to write for real but to read text, school is also where one acquires familiarity with the extended argument, making a case, and even seeing the coherence in views you find unfamiliar. The goopy little exercises making kids write about what they did last summer and answer questions about pollination can seem trivial—until you imagine a kid growing up not doing such things, and only talking. It’s a different way of being in the world—and an America in which online learning becomes a regular fate for all of America’s kids is going to leave those kids in essentially that kind of world.
If we are seeing the beginning of what will be referred to in 10 or 15 years as a “corona generation” of kids hobbled by months-long stretches of online school, then I take the risk of predicting that—along with pedants angry that people aren’t calling it a “COVID generation”—we will see the National Assessment of Educational Progress scores go down. It will first become evident with the round of fourth graders tested next year. That online school is only, for example, half of the school year will still have palpable effects: Students from less-bookish homes have long been known to exhibit a “summer slide” in what they retain from June when they get back to school in the fall. Today’s corona kids—COVID kids, sorry—will already experience a double summer slide. At best, the hiatus will be half a year.
This will leave their abilities in the marvels of casual speech unaffected. However, it will put a major dent in their capacities in the artifice of formal expression. Already we have seen a transition from an era of long emails as common coin in the 1990s to brief texts as the norm starting in about 2005, such that even many people who were comfortable with long emails then today prefer the brevity of texts, while people under about 25 often find not just email but Facebook too wordy. The terseness of texting and Instagram rules now: As always, formal language is a stunt, in its way, not a natural condition, and best learned starting young. When society does not cultivate formal language as ordinary, normal humans only rarely seek it out voluntarily. We are wired to just talk, and with texting technology, to write as much like we talk as we can.