Literacy Under Siege

Literacy has been under siege for some time. The supposed agents of this threat have changed over the years but the perception remains constant. Television, movies, video games, mobile phones, and the Internet have all been identified as the culprits that rot the brain, desensitize, delude, and generally ruin the minds of the young (and perhaps everyone else too). At the core of much of this concern is the perceived decline of literacy.

One of the most passionate and eloquent commentators on this decline and its impact is Chris Hedges. In Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (2009), he notes,

“The illiterate, the semiliterate, and those who live as though they are illiterate are effectively cut off from the past. They live in an eternal present.”

This “eternal present” is comprised of “comforting, reassuring images, fantasies, slogans, celebrities, and a lust for violence.” It is a world devoid of substance, dislocated from history, reflection, and nuance.

The media and popular press point clearly to new technologies as the cause of this decline but also, ironically, as the source of the “new literacy.” Texting, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and countless other technologies and media are widely seen as undermining or displacing literacy. Not so. They are certainly changing our relationship with literacy and altering what it means to be literate in a ubiquitous multimedia world. But all these things are intimately linked to literacy.

A Comment from Patrick Molicard-Chartier:
Boys and Literacy

David Crystal, one of the world’s leading linguists, debunks the erosion of language by new technologies in a talk and interview hosted by the RSA (Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce). Calling texting “extraordinarily creative”, he notes that “the earlier you get your mobile phone, the better your literacy scores.”

David CrystalSo it turns out that most new technologies and media are not threatening literacy but in fact enhancing it. As a result these are not the tools and capacities that will displace literacy; they are much more likely to be sources for the defense of literacy.

While they may be easy targets for the luddites, none of these technologies has exhibited a capacity sufficiently powerful to displace literacy or even create a substantive new literacy. In fact, most are based on a foundation of conventional literacy. The Internet is the largest, most comprehensive information resource ever assembled. It represents the triumph of literacy not its demise.

These technologies are not candidates for post-literacy. A replacement for literacy will require a greater level of capability and capacity than that of these relatively primitive technologies.

One of the main reasons that literacy is doomed (or is a likely candidate for replacement) is that it is very hard to master. Learning to read and write is difficult, requiring considerable time and attention. Years of schooling and practice are involved. Many of us remain functionally illiterate, while most of us struggle to build and refine our skills over a lifetime. Only a small number of us, the great writers for example, become experts.

Visible language is also notoriously ineffective. While the rich tapestry of written language does add colour, beauty and cultural depth to the human experience, it also erects barriers among people that inhibit understanding. What I struggle to write is often different in meaning and nuance from what you struggle to read. The great conversation across time is difficult, imprecise, and highly prone to error and misinterpretation. Literacy is hard won, elitist, and ultimately inadequate for the challenges ahead.

Walter Ong in Orality and Literacy describes the impact that literacy has on us. Literacy is “aggressive.” It takes over, displaces, and eliminates. Using terms and metaphors consistent with diseases, Ong makes the case that while literacy is extraordinarily beneficial, it is also disruptive and limiting.

Some think the impact of literacy is even more profound, and disturbing.

In his expansive survey of civilization Leonard Shlain documents “literacy’s hidden cost” (The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image, 1998). The impact of literacy was no less than the rise of patriarchy and the decline of feminine values and equalitarianism: “alphabetic print had exploded Western culture into millions of hard-edged shards of individualistic shrapnel.” By examining a number of societies and their evolution, he concludes,

“when a critical mass of people within a society acquire literacy, especially alphabet literacy, left hemispheric modes of thought are reinforced at the expense of right hemispheric one, which manifests as a decline in the status of image, women’s rights, and goddess worship.”

Levi-Strauss (Tristes Tropiques, 1961) goes even further in assessing the implications of literacy by declaring that “the primary function of writing, as a means of communication, is to facilitate the enslavement of other human beings.”

Shlain welcomes the rise of visual, image-based culture typified by YouTube, Flickr, and Pinterest as a means to re-balance and refocus civilization.


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