Girl with a Gadget

Girl with a Gadget by Arthur W. Hunt

Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s A Young Girl Reading (1776) resides in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and is perhaps one of the most familiar paintings of a girl reading coming to us from the eighteenth century. When it was painted America was in revolt and France was on the verge of doing so. Despite the turmoil of her times, here she sits, held captive by a book, reading in silence.

One is drawn to the painting by its use of light. The subject wears a saffron dress and is illuminated by an unseen window. A marshmallow pillow supports her back, and her bourgeois bearing is furthered evidenced by a free pinkie finger. Not entirely typical of the playful Rococo style, this is a more reserved Fragonard, who is now taken up with family life. The subject could be any housemaster’s daughter. What she is reading we do not know—a playbook, Voltaire, Rousseau? Nevertheless, the fact that she is reading is significant. Her medieval counterpart could not read, as Neil Postman (1992) has pointed out, for her sort—schooled, trained in arts and manners, literate—did not exist in Europe until the sixteenth century.

In The Disappearance of Childhood, Postman (1992) proposes that our modern notion of childhood was an outgrowth of the printing press. Children existed in the biological sense, but childhood as a social artifact where one is slowly introduced to the adult world did not exist until the late Middle Ages. According to Kenneth Clark (1969), for almost half of a millennium the ability to read and write was generally unknown, not only to the average villager, but also to kings and emperors (17). G. G. Coulton (1989) notes in The Medieval Village how European towns were unaware of the world beyond their town border: “The people are few, and their ideas and words few, the average peasant has probably never known by sight more than two or three hundred men in his whole life; his vocabulary is almost certainly confined to something even less than six hundred words” (65).

In this kind of milieu the distinction between the worlds of adult and child were almost invisible. Postman (1992) notes that competence for a child in the Middle Ages occurred around age seven, the time when she began to speak. Within the medieval village children and adults shared the same activities, the same stories, the same environment, so that nothing was hid from the eyes and ears of a ten-year-old. After the invention of the printing press, says Postman (1988) “children had to earn adulthood by achieving literacy, for which people are not biologically programmed” (153).

By the fourteenth century literacy was beginning to peek out behind the clouds of murky illiteracy. James Burke (1999) notes how the trader, whose appearance in the village was a rarity, now became more frequent. He needed an easier method of keeping his accounts other than cutting notches in a stick. In addition to the growing mercantile class, those who prepared themselves for the king’s court also needed to know how to read and write. Paper became cheaper to produce. The wider use of eyeglasses also encouraged literacy. The printing press appeared in Germany in 1450, and then found its way to Rome in 1464, Venice in 1496, and Paris in 1470. Two months after Luther handed his Ninety-Five Thesis to a printer in 1518 all of Europe knew about it.

The Renaissance and then later the Reformation produced three types of education for youth: humanistic, moralistic, and realistic (Atkinson & Maleska, 1962). Humanistic education emphasized personal development, culture, and freedom and produced a revival of classical learning that looked back to the Greeks and Romans. Moralistic education had its roots in the Reformation and eventually sought widespread literacy for both boys and girls. Protestant schools held out three ideals: intelligence, virtue, and personal piety. Realistic education was concerned with the practical realities of life and therefore emphasized one of three areas: an appreciation of the achievements of the past, preparation for public service, or training for the advancement of science.

These early educational ideals were purposed toward civilization building. Schooling was essentially an incubation period for the child. And this meant work. The vocation of scholar required much from a youth: sitting, listening, remembering, repeating, comparing, contrasting, imitating, reflecting, applying, and imagining. Erasmus said self-discipline was the true mark of civilization and the primary element that separated the barbarian from the non-barbarian. The modern notion of childhood, then, became a transitional stage to initiate a person into adult civility.

The information environment existing in 1776 gave us people with “typographical minds.” Postman (1985) argues that the early American mind had been shaped by the habit of reading. Having sprung from the sovereignty of the printing press, the typographical mind possessed “a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; an abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response” (Postman, 1985, 63). Newspapers, pamphlets, sermons, and books constituted the reading material for Americans. To a large extent America was born out of a print-oriented culture (Hunt, 2003). The founders were aware that a literate, informed, and engaged public would safeguard the country against tyranny. “I should mean that every man should receive those papers,” wrote Thomas Jefferson to a friend in 1787, referring to newspapers free from government control, adding, “and be capable of reading them” (Wilson & Wilson, 2001, 101).

There is a wonderful painting depicting Benjamin Franklin’s print shop just prior to the War of Independence. A middle-aged Franklin stands on the steps of his Philadelphia shop in conversation with a patron. A female figure, apparently the patron’s wife, is bent over reading the contents of an open book. The illustrator has captured a remarkable truth about the times: Women of the mid-eighteenth century were bookworms as much as their male counterparts. Higher education may not have been an option for them, but many received what Jefferson insisted upon, a rudimentary education for proper citizenship. James Hart (1950) estimates the literacy rates for women in colonial America prior to the beginning of the eighteenth century to be as high as sixty-two percent (up to ninety-five percent for males). This might seem low for women in comparison to modern standards, but as Postman (1985) points out, all reading would have been done “seriously, intensely, and with steadfast purpose” (61). There really was no such thing as “reading comprehension” in 1790 or 1830 or 1860, because what was reading other than comprehending? (see Postman, 1985, 61-62).

To think that John Quincy Adams received a U.S. Congressional diplomatic appointment to the court of Catherine the Great at the ripe old age of fourteen makes one wonder what sort of education these children were receiving. Certainly Adam’s education was elitist in the truest sense of the word, but George Washington obtained his education in a little school house in the middle of a tobacco field. Abraham Lincoln obtained his education essentially the same way, with borrowed teachers and borrowed books. Like so many frontier youth, Lincoln read and reread the limited amount of books he could get his hands on: Aesop, the Bible, Bunyan, Defoe, Franklin, and Shakespeare. This seemed sufficient to him for a career in law, and one has to assume that it was, not only for the bench, but for the White House as well, and for those crowds assembled at the fields of Gettysburg.

Fragonard’s young girl with book in hand might have received her education at a Jesuit school, accept for the fact that these schools began to be suppressed in 1763. More likely, she was tutored at home. When Jefferson arrived in Paris in 1784 he put both his daughters in a convent school. He had heard about the cavaliering women of the Salon, some of it no doubt from John Adams. “I have such a consciousness of Inferiority to them,” Adams would later confess, “that I can scarcely speak in their presence . . . Very few of these Ladies have ever had the condescention to allow me to talk” (cited in Ellis, 1996, 107). France pined for a national school system, which had to work its way through a great deal of social and political turmoil. As Fragonard worked on his paintings in the Louvre, it has been suggested, he would have been interrupted by demonstrations taking place in the streets of Paris (Ashton, 1988, 186-187). He left the capital in 1790, losing much of his financial support. His private patrons were either guillotined or forced into exile. After the Terror he returned to Paris where he served out the rest of his life a diminished man.

If Fragonard’s painting apprehends the ideal as imagined by French-speaking fathers and suitors, then one must ask, who is this girl? I would suggest that she is a portrait of civility, intelligence, and virtue. In her a suitor would find refinement and the embodiment of what was best about the French culture, such as it was prior to the American Revolution. Her depiction is not, however, isolated to the tastes of Paris. She would be the ideal in Philadelphia as well. No doubt there existed a hundred like her within a mile of Franklin’s print shop.

There she sits, absorbed in a philosophical treatise or perhaps identifying with a heroine in some kind of trouble. As the day passes she comes to learn something new about herself and her surroundings. The deep mediation of words on the page allows her to compare herself with others, regret past actions, and resolve for better ones. She is an improved person when she gets up from her seat. She says nothing as she climbs the stairs; she rolls it all over in her mind. Later, at the dinner table, the conversation turns to politics, and she now speaks her mind. Her father smiles at her astuteness. Her suitor’s speculation is confirmed; she would be a clever and cultured companion.


Contrast the image of A Young Girl Reading with the images of women in Apple’s iPod advertising crusade. Apple’s girls groove to music for which the device was designed. They crank their arms and shake their booties. Today these devices serve multiple purposes from taking pictures, watching movies, checking email, and playing video games. The iPhone and the iPad now serve many of the same functions. You can even use them to read books. Whether girls actually use these gadgets to read books is another question.

The girl with a gadget is a common sight on the university campus where I teach. There are more girls with gadgets than girls with books. For years I began my courses with the typical icebreaker questions: What is your major? Where is your hometown? What book did you read for fun this summer? This last question I stopped asking because the answer I received was too embarrassing and depressing (for me, not them). The response usually took this form: “I don’t read books for fun.” The retort was not delivered with any sense of shame. To the contrary, it was given as a badge of honor. They might as well have said, “Our generation doesn’t read books; or don’t you know this, silly man?”

In her study “Reading Habits of College Students in the United States,” SuHua Huang and her colleagues report that students found textbook reading “tedious” and only did the reading if they thought they would be tested over the material (Berrett, 2013). The study found that college students were still reading, but the most of their daily reading came from the Internet (1.3 hours), followed by academic-related reading (1.1 hours), and extracurricular reading of news, graphic novels, and nonacademic books (0.6 hours). Huang reported students had difficulty putting away their Internet-capable cellphones during class and often kept them on their laps or in their hands. Their gadgets were such an “obsession” that few students actually took notes, followed the teacher’s instructions, or brought their textbooks to class.

Two categories of teachers emerge from this milieu, those who allow electronic devices in the classroom and those who don’t. I am in the second category and can’t imagine what goes on in the classroom with first category teachers. My syllabus warns the student in bold letters:

Cell phones and other electronic devices must be turned off before class begins. No personal computers may be used in class unless the instructor gives permission. Students who violate the no electronic device policy will be marked absent for that day. Failure to heed these guidelines of participation and courtesy will affect your final grade, which is up to the discretion of the professor.

If I were a student, this warning would scare the duky out of me. Despite its thunder from the mountain tone, students still disregard it. If the policy said, “Failure to heed these guidelines will result in immediate death,” I don’t think it would make any difference. When confronted after class students are usually very courteous: “Oh, I am so sorry. I promise I will keep it off,” etc. I am glad for this response, and I usually don’t mark anyone absent. But the boldness with which they break the policy tells me something about the kind of “obsession” I am up against.

The historian and rhetorician Richard Weaver once said concerning new technologies: “Its simple being is a standing temptation to use it” (Weaver, 2001, 68) Being is an interesting adjective because it suggests our gadgets, like other objects, have a quality of form. However, the being of an electronic gadget is unlike a rock or pencil, or even a book, because inside its circuitry thousands of souls await exposure with a finger tap. Many of my students are Christians and probably have sung “He has the whole world in his hands,” as children. Now they have the whole world in their hands, only with none of His incommunicable attributes.

The type of the temptation to break my policy so easily must be of the sort Pippin the hobbit faced as he stood before the palantir of Orthanc. A rare artifact in Tolkien’s world, the Seeing Stone allowed its users to cast their eyes afar, to make contact with other gazers. Saruman was corrupted by it because Sauron seduced him on the other end. Pippin couldn’t keep his hands off the thing. The Devil may not be waiting for my students on the other side, but boyfriends and girlfriends, mothers and fathers, celebrities and corporations are waiting for them, twenty-four/seven. My policy only amounts to Gandalf throwing his cloak over the stone. But it is necessary if I want to create an environment for learning.

About once every blue moon I catch a student reading a book in class. There is no better way to get on my good side, although I still don’t allow it. Never have I felt compelled to include in my policy a no-open-book statement. And never have I caught a student reading a book on an electronic device in class. Once I had a campus minister tell me that he was buying my book at that very moment so he could read it on his electronic device. He was entirely proud of his gadget and reveled in the thought of buying my book as we spoke. When I asked him six months later how he liked it, he said he had not read it. What a waste of money.

Nicholas Carr has demonstrated to my satisfaction that the Internet is frying our brains. That is to say, it does not make us better readers, to the contrary, it makes us shallow readers (Carr, 2010). Would it be an exaggeration to say it makes us non-readers if we are talking about the kind of reading that formed an educated person before the Graphic Revolution? Carr compares deep reading to scuba diving and surfing the web to jet skiing.

I regret to say that because students no longer read deeply and are less able to do so because their brains have been conditioned for short bursts of disruption, we are seeing the end of education, as we know it. And if you read Postman carefully, you know it also spells the end of civility. Indeed, it spells the end of a young girl reading and all that she signifies—sophisticated depth, urbane intelligence, and cultured refinement.

I heard a pretty young girl belch out loud the other day on the campus quad. Her friends laughed, and I turned my head, and walked on. She might be in my class next semester with her gadget, and I will politely ask her to put it away. This she will do, and when class is over she will walk out the door and pass into the etherworld of tweets and beeps. A boy around the corner will see her and wonder what kind of girl she is—that girl with a gadget. Whoever she is, she is not a young girl reading.

A similar version of this article appears in Touchstone under the title “Girl with a Palantir,” January/February, 2015

Works Cited

Ashton, D. (1988). Fragonard in the universe of painting. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institute Press.

Atkinson, C. & Maleska, E. T. (1962). The story of education. Philadelphia: Chilton Company.

Berrett, D. (2013, May 1). “Students may be reading plenty, but not for class.” The chronicle of higher education. Retrieved May 20, 2014.

Carr, N. (2010). The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains. New York: Vintage Press.

Ellis, J. (1996). American sphinx: The character of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Vintage Books.

Burke, J. (1999). “Communication in the middle ages.” In Crowley, D. J. & Heyer, P. (Eds.), Communication in history: Technology, culture, society (3rd ed.). New York: Longman.

Clark, K. (1969). Civilisation: A personal view. New York: Harper & Row Publishers.

Coulton G. G. (1989). The medieval village. New York: Dover Publications.

Hart, J. D. (1950). The popular book: A history of American literary taste. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hunt, A. (2003). The vanishing word: The veneration of visual imagery in the postmodern world. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

Postman, N. (1985). Amusing ourselves to death: Public discourse in the age of show business. New York: Penguin Books.

Postman, N. (1988). “The disappearance of childhood” in Conscientious objections: Stirring up trouble about language, technology, and education. New York: Vintage Books.

Postman, N. (1992). The disappearance of childhood. New York: Vintage Books.

Weaver, R. M. (2001). “Humanism in an age of science.” In Smith, T. J. ed. In defense of tradition: Collected shorter writings of Richard M. Weaver, 1929-1963, pp. 61-72. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

Wilson, J. R. & Wilson, S. R. (2001). Mass media, mass culture: An introduction (5th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

(Photo Credit: A Young Girl Reading, Fragonard; Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons)

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About the Contributor

Arthur Hunt

Arthur W. Hunt III
Arthur W. Hunt III is professor of communications at The University of Tennessee at Martin and author of Surviving Technopolis: Essays on Finding Balance in Our New Manmade Environments (Pickwick, 2013). 


  1. Excellent, provocative article. I teach middle school at a university-model classical Christian academy in New Mexico, and we are faced with the economic reality that after parents pay for tuition, it is a relief for them to be able to save some money on classic books by downloading many of them as e-books. (Also, our school of over 240 students is still in rented facilities, so students must carry books back and forth from home in rolling carts, so space is a consideration as well.)

    We seek to make the school an island of learning, disconnected from the outside world as much as possible for the brief hours they are there. Our rules are that phones must be stowed and turned off, e-readers must be in airplane mode (disconnected from the Internet.) No warnings, no second chances. The penalty for not following these rules? You lose the device for the day (it stays in the headmaster’s office), and if that means you can’t participate in readings or discussion or in-class writing, you lose credit for that.

    You can’t imagine how wonderful it is not to hear a cell phone, or see a teenager texting or calling, during a school day. They actually want to talk about Oedipus, Macbeth, Gilgamesh, Moses, and Augustine.

    Again, great article. I’ll share it with my FB friends.

    Latayne C. Scott
    (PS–my husband graduated from UT Martin. :)

  2. Sandra Grammer says:

    Thank you so much for this thoughtful essay. How interesting that the end of education brings with it the end of sophistication, elegance, and depth of character. I suggest that it’s not the end of education that is responsible; rather, it’s rampant post modern humanism the exponential growth of self absorption that it brings. With no God and no objective standard for truth and beauty, why think deeply? Why focus on anything other than myself and my desires? Why care about education or character or simple good manners? Everyone simply does what is right in their own eyes. Are we surprised, then, when we arrive at the logical end: Selfishness, distraction, ignorance of basic truth, rudeness, vanity, disregard for human life……The gadget preoccupation is just a symptom of the greater illness.

    It makes me humbly, gratefully dependent every day on God’s grace to teach my children to live intentionally and purposefully coram deo, before the face of God.

    Again, thank you for your thoughts. Press on.

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