Duck. There's a bullet point coming

13th June 2003 at 01:00
I HAVE a confession to make. I am addicted to text. In case this sounds like a medical condition or, worse, a criminal offence, let me explain. I do not mean that I am obsessed with sending unnecessary messages (often of dubious character) via mobile phones. I simply mean that I am fascinated by words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs - preferably linked in a cohesive manner to develop an interesting idea or argument.

Conversely, I am resistant to forms of communication which replace, or diminish, the importance of, continuous prose - figures, tables, lists, graphics. Although I am occasionally required to use them, bullet points are a particular source of irritation. The name in itself carries unfortunate associations. Bullets are designed to kill and many of those who use bullet points routinely have the effect of deadening the reflective powers of readers. They themselves often seem incapable of anything approaching joined-up thinking. The world they inhabit consists of undeveloped assertions masquerading as profound insights.

It is perhaps no accident that bullet points and tabular displays now feature prominently in official documents issued by government and public bodies of various kinds. Surely I cannot be alone in finding many such publications mind-numbingly boring.

I am, of course, aware of the arguments in favour of forms of communication that do not rely exclusively on conventional text. People learn and assimilate in different ways and, for some, tabular or graphical means of conveying information may be more accessible. For others, there is visual appeal in breaking up long passages of text: word-processing software now makes this easy to achieve. And despite my own addiction, I am not a fundamentalist - I would not seek to proscribe the use of these alternative devices where they amplify and enhance.

However, the issue is not just one of personal preference. Shifts in the symbolic systems we use to convey information and ideas are expressive of important developments in our culture. Some of these are positive, others less so.

For example, concern has been expressed about the capacity of the present generation of school and university students to think and write logically, and to develop well-structured arguments in a sustained and systematic way.

On this analysis, reliance on lists and bullet points may signal conceptual fragmentation, an inability to deploy language in a sophisticated manner to explore complex ideas.

It is also argued that the tendency to present course content in "bite-sized" chunks - sections, units and modules - discourages the extended exploration of issues. One of the advantages of continuous prose is that it gives scope to tease out ideas, assess their strengths and limitations, weigh up a range of evidence and form carefully considered judgments. Lists, by contrast, run the risk of simplifying and distorting.

One definition of intelligence is the capacity to make connections between seemingly discrete items of information. The bullet-point mentality discourages this capacity. It perceives the world in a linear, one-dimensional fashion rather than in an integrated, multifaceted way.

Linguistically subtle text can convey the latter through the creative use of language, drawing on allusion, metaphor and irony. When was the last time you saw the conscious use of irony in an official document about Scottish education? There are not many laughs to the page in items that bear the stamp of the Scottish Executive.

My preference for text over other means of communication is no doubt age-related. Young people are much more open to alternative mediums. I shall simply have to resign myself to being called an age-ing text maniac.

In my time I have been called worse.

Walter Humes is professor of education and head of educational studies at Strathclyde University.

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