Defining Literacy

Since the turn of the century [1900], literacy rates in the US have declined from 90% to 35% [are there Canadian stats?]. Rob Paterson explains that this may be due in part to the rise of competitors (such as the records, movies, TV) to the print medium. Rob also shows that much more money put into the US public education system has had no effect on literacy.

Another perspective on the drop in literacy is from Mark Federman, in “Why Johnny and Janey Can’t Read, and Why Mr. and Ms. Smith Can’t Teach: The challenge of multiple media literacies in tumultuous times“. Mark puts forth that we are in a similar situation as when the written word replaced the spoken word (ancient Greece) or when the printed word replaced the written word (the Reformation & Enlightenment). Each of these technologies changed the way that society valued and understood knowledge. Mark concludes in his paper [pdf] that literacy is no longer our critical educational issue:

Have no fear – Johnny and Janey will, in all probability, learn to read, just as they learned to speak. But orality has not structured society since ancient Greece, and literacy no longer structures society today. The challenge for all the Mr. and Ms. Smiths throughout the academy, and eventually in the secondary and primary classrooms throughout the world, is to recognize that the exclusive focus and predominance given to the pedagogical artefacts of a literate world is inconsistent with the skills necessary to participate in the discovery and production of knowledge in a ubiquitously connected and pervasively proximate world.

Our efforts that focus on print literacy may be for naught. Do linear literacy skills really prepare us for life in an electronically connected world? I don’t believe that we have done enough research on this issue, but if Mark is correct, then we are wasting a huge amount of time and effort on the wrong skills. We can use technologies such as fMRI to see what is going on in our brains, but we may be asking the wrong questions.

… and I have to add this quote from Alvin Toffler: The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.

9 Responses to “Defining Literacy”

  1. Tom Haskins

    Harold: While government is wasting lots of money on the perpetuation of print literacy, I think the economy is overflowing with spending on the next literacy. It was the Phoenician traders that brought the undoing of Greek oral culture. Nowadays Apple, Blizzard Entertainment, Linden Labs, Electronic Arts are teaching the next literacy.

    I was encouraged by Mark’s description of oral culture being fluent in recursive structures. If we return to oral patterns of comprehension, that bodes well for living in nature instead of against it, relating to other cultures instead of invading them, and replacing factories with more organic forms of enterprise. All those changes require an ability to read cycles, non linear dynamics and opportunities for small changes to come back around in a big way.

  2. Christopher Mackay

    Um, the turn of which century? Are you saying that since Bush’s No Child Left Behind policy, literacy has dropped 65%? That’s a bit more than I expected…


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