What is literacy? We may think we know. Some people even say we need 21st century literacies. But Marshall McLuhan said that, “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.” Is this how we view literacy, though the rear-view mirror?

Chris Hedges, in America the Illiterate wrote that the lack of print literacy is creating a society that is not able to reason or understand the complexities of our modern world.

“We live in two Americas. One America, now the minority, functions in a print-based, literate world. It can cope with complexity and has the intellectual tools to separate illusion from truth. The other America, which constitutes the majority, exists in a non-reality-based belief system. This America, dependent on skillfully manipulated images for information, has severed itself from the literate, print-based culture. It cannot differentiate between lies and truth. It is informed by simplistic, childish narratives and clichés. It is thrown into confusion by ambiguity, nuance and self-reflection.”

I find a strong counter-argument to the notion of literacy under attack is Mark Federman’s paper entitled: 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 [follow the link to the PDF of entire paper at bottom of Mark’s blog post]. Mark looks at two other periods in history when our notions of literacy changed. Three thousand years ago as the Greeks grappled with written language, Plato decried the demise of wisdom. As the printing press changed Europe and the balance of power shifted from the clergy to secular powers, we witnessed a series of bloody religious wars; followed by the Enlightenment.

So why are we saying that literacy is under attack when orality has been under attack for the past three thousand years? Because nobody remembers anybody who remembers the old ways. According to Mark Federman, societies take about 300 years for memory to fade and for major changes to be adopted. We are now just over half way through the change to electric media. Today, we have traveled over 160 years into the electric communication age, launched by the invention of the telegraph, which separated words from paper.

Mark Federman concludes in his paper:

“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 [UCaPP] world. In a UCaPP world, what is valued as knowledge comprises a vastly greater domain than that in a world structured by literacy.”

Finally, Professor Mike Wesch, in the video of his presentation to The Library of Congress, An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube, gives examples of how videos, and video-making, are creating a different literacy, enabling a new type of worldwide communication. What kinds of literacies do producers of YouTube videos have?

“And we’re looking at this cultural inversion I mentioned earlier where we tend to express individualism, independence and commercialization while desiring community, relationships and authenticity. This is really a tension that, as these lonely individuals, we crave this connection – at the same time, as individuals, we see that connection as constraint. And what we’re seeking then through technologies often is a form of connection without constraint. Some way of connecting very deeply without feeling the deep responsibilities of that deep connection. YouTube offers this possibility and what we see on YouTube are people connecting very, very deeply. [For example] – bnessell1973 – [on losing his son to SIDS] April 17, 2007 : Creating characters gave me an escape. It allowed me to be silly. It allowed me to act how I wanted to feel. It became a form of therapy, a coping mechanism. And after a while it brought fun back to YouTube for me.”

Is video becoming the/a new literacy? Are we returning to our oral past after three thousand years?

Before we say that literacy is under attack, we should ask ourselves what is literacy today and what might it become tomorrow.

8 Responses to “Literacies”

  1. Gilbert (Formative Assessment Guy)

    Harold asks :

    “Is video becoming the/a new literacy? ” (Don’t think so)

    “Are we returning to our oral past after three thousand years?” (We never left it)
    When we become more predominantly oral or “sensory” we are not really moving towards the past. Oral is more entrenched in us. Senses even more. “Written word” is less entrenched.

    We are clearly moving away from the “press printed word” and its linearity. But, we are not moving back to oral. It always was there although it wasn’t VALUED, reinforced, or taught in a world where its cheaper to convey messages by mass produced print.

    Litteracy, for the past many year, has been closely defined to our capacity to mass produce for the printed press and our capacity to use the output of the printed press.

    Capacity to produce (Write press compatible items). Capacity to use (Read press compatible items).

    In a “printed” world, a musician that can’t write press ready music (sheet) or can’t read is devalued.

    The efficiency of the press and the old physical distribution network is being replaced by the electronic message and a new propagation network.

    The new litteracy (we shouldn’t call it litteracy anymore), will be our capacity to produce and use results from this new mode of production. Its a “valuation” thing.

    So, in this perspective, one could say that video would not be the new litteracy. Well, not more than reading comic books would have been the new litteracy.

    I don’t totally agree with my own statement. So nice to me non-linear.

  2. Jon Husband

    Is video becoming the/a new literacy? Are we returning to our oral past after three thousand years?

    I think (I’ll check later this week) that Michel Cartier would say that we are moving to visual and iconic language as well as “oral” .. of course (much of) video combines the two.

  3. Gilbert (Formative Assessment Guy)

    Producing oral can be done by the body. Producing print or video requires external tools. So oral is more built-in than video. Visual things like body language are more built-in than oral.

    These things have always been there. Were not seeing more of it. We are seeing less of “paper print” and we are seeing more of electronic print.

    As we become less linear we might very easily get the impression that we are becoming more sensory.

    The word “litteracy” is so linked in to the printed word that it would be hard to debate the questions posed by harold.

    Hmm.. litteracy is a bad word. Litt !

  4. virginia yonkers

    The study of literacy is so much more than the understanding of the written word. It includes discourse communities (communities in which people learn the meaning behind the symbols of words), meaning making, and the “dialog” between the “sender” and the “receiver”. It also includes a level of critical thinking depending on the level of literacy. At the highest level of literacy, the receiver of the message can take symbols and abstract them into higher order thinking, often moving from the literal to the abstract in the form of hypothesis, application to one’s environment even though on the surface it seems unrelated, and connecting to other ideas.

    It seems to me, looking at literacy in this way, looking at a YouTube video can indicate different levels of literacy, just like looking at texts.

    My 20 years of experience teaching at the university and adult training levels has demonstrated that there is a shift. That shift is not in written or oral traditions or even media literacies vs. written literacy. Rather, it is the ability for my students to abstract meaning and think critically (at a higher level) based on symbols. I see a trend towards much more literal thinking with an inability to abstract from the media, text, or oral inputs. Many of these students score high on SAT or ACT standardized tests which would indicate that they are “literate” in the traditional sense of being able to read and write. However, in my mind, they are becoming more “illiterate” as they are having more and more difficulty abstracting from the literal.

  5. virginia yonkers

    I’ll give you an example of how a person’s understanding of media can be distorted if they are “illiterate” and their abstraction abilities have not been developed.

    As an English trainer in Costa Rica, I was preparing a group of rural leaders to go to the US. All of them were excellent communicators in Spanish, many of them very intelligent, but a number of them had either no literacy or very low levels of literacy (reading and writing) in Spanish. As one of my activities, I used the image (drawing) in which there is either an old hag or a young woman, depending on how you look at the picture. This is similar to the drawings by Esher or the coup d’oeil pictures.

    Both my co-instructor and I used the pictures with two different groups. What surprised us was that those students that were illiterate could not see two different images within the same picture, even if we tried to point it out to them. Whatever they saw initially was the only image they could see. On the other hand, those who were literate were able to see both when pointed out to them. I had learned about this in my teacher training, but never realized how it would impact looking at images.

    Learning to read and write develops a person’s ability to abstract ideas and interpret images. This would have a great impact on media as well as reading and writing. If we have new “literacies” and move away from reading and writing text, we will still need to teach the ability to abstract ideas (e.g. interpreting images, connecting symbols to information). I’m not sure our educational system is ready for that yet.


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