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.

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