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September 15, 2006

Literacy: Normal? Natural? Desirable?

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Alec makes an important point in response to some interesting comments from Rachel:

It's funny. We think that reading is (and should be) the norm, and that books have been around forever, but literacy has been rare throughout human history. For most of human existence, people have been illiterate and used pictures and symbols (graphic arts), and of course speech, to convey and interpret information. For example, according to a Wikipedia article, as late as 1840, 33% of men and 44% of women in England signed marriage certificates with a mark because they were unable to read.

The irony is that the post-industrial age, dominated by video and audio stuff without a need for text, is allowing large numbers of people to be comfortably illiterate. I'm not certain how widespread it is, but I am always amazed at how easily Jay Leno is able to find young adults -- even many with college degrees -- who profess that they never read novels and who are increasingly ignorant of anything but pop culture, but who nonetheless are immensely pleased with themselves.

I'm not sure how this will develop in the future, since the Internet is actually encouraging a continued literacy (blogging, individual fiction) even as audio-visual culture intensifies (MySpace, YouTube, iTunes, etc.)

We oldies may take written-word-centricity for granted, but there's nothing natural about literacy of the "addicted to plowing through long gray rivers of text" sort. And a book-based culture -- however familiar it may feel to some of us -- is, historically speaking, an anomoly. One consequence of the electronics revolution seems to be that we're turning into -- or turning back into -- an image-and-sound-and-presentation-based culture.

Is this good? Is it desirable? And does the kind of playing-with-graphics- images- text blocks-sound-and-motion that seems to be becoming the standard thing represent a new, or different, or maybe even better kind of literacy?



UPDATE: Tyler Cowen asks, "When should we consume culture in small, sequential bits?"

posted by Michael at September 15, 2006


Um, actually since most of the content on the web is words...and young'uns love the web...I'm guessing world-wide literacy will go up.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on September 15, 2006 4:41 PM

Alex's point about literacy made me recall a scene from A Man for All Seasons where Thomas More, who'd already taught his daughter to read, offered to teach his wife. She recoiled in horror at the suggestion.

As for the rest, blogs and such are still largely text-based. And our obsession with our children getting college degrees will insure some sort of literacy, though perhaps the "playing-with-graphics- images- text blocks-sound-and-motion" content will make it a different kind of literacy. I don't know.

Posted by: Rachel on September 15, 2006 5:04 PM

i have to assume it's better.

the whole modernist project, where lit and painting got all weird and non-representational, was in part a response to film. no longer was writing necessarily the chief documentary form, with painting its complementary sister art. all of a sudden people were exploring smaller subrealms of the two disciplines.

then tv killed film. first films were the grander thing: the place smart imagistas went for their audiovisual input. the chief documentary medium. in the past decade or so, with the rise of cable, films have morphed into a coarse popular medium, a prop for teens needing to get out of the house. now tv is the prime documentary/realistic medium.

it's a question of "bandwidth". when there were 3 networks + pbs, tv's role was socially circumscribed. with a zillion cable channels, it can be what it wants to be, and what it wants to be is the narrative hegemon, heir of film, heir of lit before it.

tv's days as the highest-bandwidth chief documentarist are obviously numbered. the web's next, and it's broader-band than anything that's ever gone before it.

the thing is, film didn't really kill naturalistic fiction, and it certainly didn't kill text. neither did cable, and neither will the internet. clearly the internet goes way beyond the previous two, since it can be text-based, too, and represents the whole hopping around a whole conversation dynamic as well.

like you, i grew up in a film world, but i always dug text, too. text does things film can't do, like dive straight into an interior monologue. film brings a character to life like nothing else because you can see him run around. text can never make him as concrete. but only text can tell you what he's thinking, then move straight back to the shoot-out. yeah, sure, voiceovers can do that, but since you can read 5 times as fast as any voiceover, it will always work better with text.

"show, don't tell," yes. Yet only text can tell, and sometimes telling is the shortest path to what really matters.

the purlieu of the long gray river has grown ever more specific. it will not grab the top share of mind again - at least not emotional mind, though there is no better venue for reason, i don't think. it will become even more a minority taste, but will be unreplaceable.

Posted by: robert on September 15, 2006 5:28 PM

Film does give a charcter breath, but it's someone else's image. I think a novel reader creates his own vision of the character--which is why screen adaptations of classic books are always to heavily debated.

This brings up something else that's potentially lost as we rely more and more on the "new" literacy. I don't know what to call it exactly, but text demands a higher level of concentration, or engagement, than the splashy, linky Internets.

I'm not sure whether I read more or less in the Internet age, but I certainly read more different things. And sometimes, when I come across a long, gray block of text, I skip it because I feel as though I 1) can't take the time; and 2) want to see "what else is out there."

It's kind of a Fox v. Hedgehog thing. We're all becoming foxes.

Posted by: Rachel on September 15, 2006 6:00 PM

I'm looking for the link of something I saw the other day, but it estimated that 1/3rd of graduates (whether college or high school) never read a book after they finished school.

Posted by: ken on September 15, 2006 6:24 PM

A video culture is one that is incapable of debating. Debating is the rarest thing even in thoughtful movies. In standard fare, characters simply yell at each other and the winner is the one who yells loudest or emotes best. And that is true for movies, TV shows, and Youtube clips.

God help us all if literacy declines any further. That said, Internet-based literacy seems to have an edge over the dead tree variety, because it can tilt towards facts and logic and not just be aimed run only by those who can buy ink by the barrel.

Posted by: Omri on September 16, 2006 12:24 AM

I worry that we're walling off people who can't afford computers, aren't taught to read in school, don't listen to or read news and therefore don't vote, can't hold good jobs. They become so frustrated and bummed out that they are easy prey for drugs and booze. They can't think, they resort to violence, they die young, but not before producing a lot of kids. And mostly they are male. Dark. In jail where they create a little society of their own that we must pay for. How long will it be before we begin to think about how to just get rid of them? And then there will be no reason at all for them not to revolt in an organized way if someone is smart and driven enough to lead them.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on September 17, 2006 12:01 PM

Well, I think the writer's point was that although people may be reading on the Web, they remain culturally and historically "illiterate"---even if not functionally so. They also remain "immensely pleased with themselves"---LOL.

Posted by: annette on September 18, 2006 10:33 AM

Written communication is far superior in providing information about complex subjects when compared to any of the alternatives. Take a "sophisticated" news program like the McNeil News Hour -- a typical piece on the show, with a generous running time of 10-15 minutes, in my opinion never provides more information than a solid, mid-length piece in a newspaper like the NY Times. And I am not enamored of the sophistication of NY Times stories.

Face it -- this new "image-and-sound-and-presentation-based culture" isn't progress. It's dumbing down. So I agree with Omri.

Posted by: jult52 on September 18, 2006 2:33 PM

I was puzzled enough by the reference to the Wikipedia entry that I looked it up -- what it says is that people signed their names with a mark because they were unable to *write*, not to *read.* The difference is significant, because reading and writing were taught completely separately and it would have been common to know how to read but not to write (as Peter Ackroyd suggests may have been true of Shakespeare's father in his wonderful biography). So any point about literacy historically is a little tricky.

But that's pretty irrelevant to the point of the discussion. As a literacy educator for lo these past 25 years, I think that what the kids know today is different from, but not necessarily inferior to, what we oldsters know. Yes, they can be made to look incredibly stupid if Jay Leno asks enough of them a dumb question, but if he would ask us grownups the right question, we'd look dumb too and all the kids would be laughing. No, they probably don't read a lot of books -- my own 21-year-old extremely bright son rarely reads a novel. But he is extremely literate and reads a lot of magazines (New Yorker, Esquire, Wired) and a ton of stuff on the internet. My brother, on the other hand, now approaching 50, hasn't read a damn thing besides sports pages since he graduated from high school, and never will read a book.

The kids are all right.

Posted by: missgrundy on September 18, 2006 5:01 PM

Yeah, Ms. Grundy, that probably is true. The kids are doing fine. But the real question is, is the culture doing fine? It seems to me you got the ethos of the time correct--focus on the well being of the kids, and not about what they are learning or not learning. I expect a bit more for 12 years and $100,000 to $150,000, and much more for the extra $50,000 to $200,000 for college. But if it produces a "nice, well-adjusted" magazine reader, or internet reader, or sports page reader, I guess we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief that such a huge investment was not, in fact, wasted beyond the 5th grade level, and that the traditions of our western culture are still safely locked away in dusty libraries for future discovery, if not recognized or being put to good use by our "well-adjusted" kids.

Posted by: s on September 19, 2006 11:24 PM

s, I was using my brother the sports page reader as a counter example to today's kids -- at age 50, he's from an older generation that supposedly learned to read in the golden age of schools, but he doesn't.

I was also talking about the reading that kids do outside of school -- my son, for example, is reading plenty of western culture stuff in school, and if he chooses to read Esquire or the New Yorker or blogs outside of school rather than the classics or even contemporary novels, why is that a problem?

I just get tired of people ragging on the kids today, which is no different than what has been going on for thousands of years and will never change, I guess. What concrete evidence has anyone put forth that today's kids are any worse off, culturally speaking, than kids of yesteryear? Have you asked them to talk about what they *do* know?

Posted by: missgrundy on September 20, 2006 2:57 PM

I'm not ragging on the kids-I'm ragging on the adults. There's plenty of evidence the kids today don't know as much as those of yesteryear. There have been numerous comparisons of standardized tests, curricula, and other indicators which compare past educational standards and achievement to today, and today is so much worse! ACT and SAT scores, and the perpetual dumbing down of the tests is another example. When I took the ACT in 1985, for example, the average score was 18. A few years later, the test was "renormed" and the average score was up to 21. After that, it declined again. That's what lower standards will do for you.

If it all cost so little, I wouldn't care as much, but my gosh, in many places you're talking about a quarter of million dollars for an education through a Bachelor's degree!

The kids are just kids. Its the parents job to turn off the TV and computer, and the educators' job to make the kids work hard and have high standards, which might even mean flunking a kid or two.

Kids must be taught western culture, which means religion, philosophy, history, and government. That's the least one can do for the quarter mil. Reading and writing should be a given. Add to that the scientific and math stuff, and you've got a handful. All too often, kids are made to be ashamed of western culture, or are left ignorant of it by the schools. Also, all too often the schools are geared to the slowest members of the class and the bright are held back or ignored.

If we here can't even preserve and transmit our own culture, who will? The rest of the world and the left would like to tear it down and replace it with their own. Again, its not so much that the kids are "doing alright", but is what they are learning going to carry the achievements of the past forward, or will those achievements be downgraded and forgotten? What of value are they really learning, just skills for a desk job?

Posted by: s on September 20, 2006 10:02 PM

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