The Death of Literacy?March 26th, 2011 at 14:54
There’s been a thread on the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) listserv I participate in titled “The Death of Literacy”, started by one of the more active list participants, Todd, who is closing down his book store which he has unsuccessfully tried to transform into a learning center or perhaps a library for alternative schools in the San Francisco Bay area where he lives. He is bemoaning a generation of young people who appear to be turned off to books and literature (at least the printed and bound versions you buy in bookstores or borrow from the library), in favor of electronic media and particularly dazzling video games that to many in the older generations seem like tools for killing time, perhaps self-medicating the stresses of life, and little more.
Based on Todd’s original post, a long thoughtful email discussion continued on the subject mainly among three list participants – Todd, Leo and Matt (with others chiming in occasionally) that involved a several week exchange of lengthy emails back and forth. (I captured all the discussion at one point in a single document and it had a 15,000 word count!) I was mostly a silent reader of their exchange this time around, only chiming in once myself, but doing a lot of thinking about the ideas they were wrestling with.
As a soon to be former book seller, Todd expressed his frustration…
People always say they “love books” but people don’t want to spend money on them. And now there is a culture among younger people that everything has to be free, they download their music free, they download movies for free, and they download books free. And for people of all ages now real books are so alien to them that they can’t connect with them physically.
I guess I could be accused of loving books, since between my partner Sally and I we might own 500 if not a 1000 of them. I certainly have bought some books, which I have not read (or read some time earlier) just to have that particular volume in our personal library. In our empty nest house, my “office” (our son Eric’s old bedroom) feels like a library, being dominated by two big book cases. The room where Sally has her desk also has two big book cases as well. I even put a book case in our guest room and put a lot of my favorite books in it thinking our house guests sleeping there might enjoy perusing the highlights of our “collection”.
Given that display of our book “collection”, one of Matt’s emails responding to Todd was particularly poignant. Matt, age 30 (from a younger generation than Leo, Todd or me), works as a teacher with older youth who have ended up on the wrong side of the criminal justice system. He wrote…
Books haven’t been our society’s means of communication for quite some time. Instead, they are objects of nostalgia, or academic currency, or elitist social currency… Books these days, instead of being vehicles of public discourse, are to be collected and accounted, like property, or manicured like lawns. They are by nature an individualist enterprise… My students, conversely, crave community and interactive media. They want to involve their whole bodies in their media communication and their learning. They want to participate in it, not just receive it. Their eyes glaze over if I speak for more than 20 seconds, because, one person talking is a lecture, and lectures are to speech as books are to print.
As a person who is all about ideas (though not consciously about elitist social currency), I guess I might be guilty of “manicuring” our book collection with all the interesting ideas that I think it highlights. In the eclectic array of book titles, I admit to taking some satisfaction that our house guests can see our proclivities towards exploring a broad spectrum of ideas (some very unorthodox) and thinking outside the box.
And I would agree with Matt that books can be a very “individualist enterprise”, pulling you into the exclusive world created by the author and then of your own synthesizing thought. For example, I have invested more than a thousand hours over the last four years reading a set of 30 books related to the evolution of our American education system and its historical context. I have found myself having trouble sharing with others many of the insights I have glimpsed or gained from this investigation, because so many of those insights require understanding the hundreds of pages of context in the authors’ works that surround them. That said, I don’t begrudge the time I’ve spent in this endeavor, my thinking has been transformed by these insights, even if I can’t yet successfully communicate them to others (which is the true test of fully synthesized knowledge).
I shared the gist of this “death of literacy” discussion with my son Eric, who though thoughtful and well versed in what’s going on in the world, probably has nothing even resembling a book collection. Access to all that “free” media on the Internet (that Todd referenced in his email) has been Eric’s means of being a generally well informed person. He reads the New York Times extensively on line as well as an array of other content from a broad range of sources he taps into or has recommended by someone else in his large circle of friends (also connected on line).
Reacting to my reading of Todd and Matt’s quotes above, Eric shrugged his shoulders and said, “I read books!” He felt the whole “death of literacy” thing was overblown, since books were part of an array of repositories of information content that he and his peers access. It was a non-issue as far as he was concerned.
My daughter Emma defines herself as a science fiction writer (with a day job as an assistant manager of a small bakery restaurant) and is in the midst of writing both a novel and a short story in that genre. No young person I know has a greater appreciation for the narrative power of an epic fantasy story told between the covers of a book (though she now reads many electronic versions of books on her new Kindle). Given that, I can’t recall her ever reading a non-fiction book that she wasn’t forced to when she used to go to school. She may need to at some point, to learn more of the physics and other science that she acknowledges can make her science-fiction stories more realistic and compelling.
Both Matt and Leo brought media philosopher Marshall McLuhan into the discussion, who talked about the role that literacy and the technology of printing has played in our human development, while calling out new electronic media that may be taking taking that development in new directions. In an extensive and comprehensive 1969 article in Playboy magazine, McLuhan laid out his media philosophy, including the transformative role of printed books to our modern world, which…
Could be reproduced in infinite numbers; universal literacy was at last fully possible, if gradually realized; and books became portable individual possessions. Type, the prototype of all machines, ensured the primacy of the visual bias and finally sealed the doom of tribal man. The new medium of linear, uniform, repeatable type reproduced information in unlimited quantities and at hitherto-impossible speeds, thus assuring the eye a position of total predominance in man’s sensorium. As a drastic extension of man, it shaped and transformed his entire environment, psychic and social, and was directly responsible for the rise of such disparate phenomena as nationalism, the Reformation, the assembly line and its offspring, the Industrial Revolution, the whole concept of causality, Cartesian and Newtonian concepts of the universe, perspective in art, narrative chronology in literature and a psychological mode of introspection or inner direction that greatly intensified the tendencies toward individualism and specialization engendered 2000 years before by phonetic literacy. The schism between thought and action was institutionalized, and fragmented man, first sundered by the alphabet, was at last diced into bite-sized tidbits. From that point on, Western man was Gutenberg man.
You could spend a lot of time trying to wrestle that paragraph to the ground, but suffice to say that McLuhan believed that our communication technology transforms us humans, but being the water we fish swim in, it does so below the level of our awareness. We were transformed by the innovation of printing and have now been transformed again by all our contemporary electronic media, which McLuhan characterized as “postliterate retribalization”, saying…
The aloof and dissociated role of the literate man of the Western world is succumbing to the new, intense depth participation engendered by the electronic media and bringing us back in touch with ourselves as well as with one another. But the instant nature of electric-information movement is decentralizing — rather than enlarging — the family of man into a new state of multitudinous tribal existences. Particularly in countries where literate values are deeply institutionalized, this is a highly traumatic process, since the clash of the old segmented visual culture and the new integral electronic culture creates a crisis of identity.
Again, you might struggle with those thoughts for a long while before you could characterize them as profound or bunk. McLuhan argues that with me and my fellow baby-boomers as transitional, there has been a profound transformation from the generation that begat us to the new one we have begotten. A transformation from a culture built around the book to one maybe built around the Internet may be profound but difficult to see since it has been a change in the water we fish swim in.
So I’m afraid this has turned into a piece that is more about questions and thoughtful muddle than any attempt at answers.
I do think the “death of literacy” is a rhetorical gimmick to get your attention and not the real issue here, which may instead be some sort of “death of authority”. Maybe “the book” is no longer the unassailable repository of authoritative truth that it has been, and is instead just one of many sources of knowledge.