Peak Literacy

I was recently invited to interview for a gig answering questions via live chat for fifty cents a minute. What struck me about this was that I was contacted in my capacity as a scholar of world religions and, indeed, my interview included me responding to a number of prompts such as “What caused the Sunni/Shiite split?” Who, I wondered, is paying something, perhaps, on the order of a dollar a minute to ask these kinds of questions? I could see spending that money to ask a medical professional if your problem warrants seeing a doctor (who will charge you much more), or a legal professional if you should involve an attorney (who will also charge you much more) in your case. This would be prudent fact finding. I could also see the independently wealthy and idly curious taking a moment at a bus stop to ask things like “What makes storm clouds so dark?” or “Who invented windshield wipers?” but nobody idly wonders about Islamic history at bus stops—at least, nobody who isn’t the kind of person you would be interviewing to be on the answering end of such a service anyway.

The answer to my idle wondering, I figured, is probably students—students getting way too much money at college from mommy and daddy and having been sent there with a tragic deficit in functional literacy. I described these students at high school in my last post, utterly dependent on a search engine to answer a question for them, and ultimately unable to determine for themselves if the answer they have received is even relevant. The collapse of functional literacy had been an anecdotal observation on my part; here, in this interview, was somebody whose market research had suggested it would be an enduring business opportunity.

I don’t wish to be misunderstood. Basic literacy—the ability to decode letters for their sounds and determine what word is represented—will probably remain at the 99+% mark in the “first world” for many, many years to come. Functional literacy is something deeper—the ability to really understand what you have read, to parse the argument an author is making, to relate its constituent parts to your own pre-existing knowledge, to rework the ideas offered in light of your own reasoning and respond to them effectively. Basic literacy is about whether you know what words have been written; functional literacy is about whether you understand why they have been written, and can give an informed opinion about whether they could, or should, be written differently.

It is this skill that my high schoolers lack, and that some portion of the users of this new app apparently lack as well. All of which prompted me to wonder, have we passed the point of peak literacy? Will this skill ever return to the broadly distributed societal levels we saw between the late 19th century and the two World Wars? There are a few reasons that I think the answer may well be no.

  1. Outsourcing and Automation of Intellectual Labor
  2. Broad-based literacy is a necessity of societies where large amounts of intellectual labor have to be performed by significant swathes of the population. By this I don’t just mean classically “thinking professions”, but demanding intellectual tasks more broadly. With the advent of industrialization came a need for ordinary people to routinely consult timetables, for example, which were novel in a society where most people had formerly approximated times of day based on the position of the sun. The displacement of huge numbers of people from the countryside to the cities in an age before the telephone prompted a massive surge in letter writing (most modern postal systems come from this time) and also led, in conjunction with the expansion of business interests to a level of international operations never before achieved on such a scale, to the development of modern mass media news services, which informed people in the country as to the happenings in the cities their relatives had gone to, and people in the cities as to what was happening in the colonies that their businesses depended on. Many more examples could show how processing large volumes of written information in a variety of forms became a task repeated, on large scales and small, by ordinary people dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of times per day.

    What networked computer systems have done is to automate and outsource a large number of these processes. An app on your phone spits your train’s departure time out when you speak into it. There is no longer a need for you to consult or decode the whole timetable. News aggregators sift reams of newspapers to bring the narrow selection of things you are interested in. Consequently, you no longer skim the same diversity of information trying to find what you want. Computers now do much of the information sorting and retrieval that the ordinary person’s brain was once taxed for.

  3. The Growth of Multimedia
  4. Jamaica’s literacy rate is still below 90%, despite nearly a century of determined government efforts to increase it. Why? Because the government’s literacy program had extremely unfortunate timing, pushing a predominately oral culture to become literate at the very same moment that the radio was introduced. Once upon a time, in villages all over the island, the one literate person in town would go out into the square on a Saturday morning and read the paper to everyone. Suddenly, in the 1920s and 1930s, the radio put a designated reader in homes all over the island. the incentive to read did not disappear, but it was greatly reduced.

    Those of you who are hip to what the kids are up to these days may have noticed that the blogging of the 1990s and 2000s has been slowly giving way to “vlogging”, with YouTube becoming a place of conversation and exchange of ideas through extended self-recorded discourses on various topics. It has to be remembered that, like the Jamaica of a century ago, all cultures were once purely oral cultures and remained predominately oral for most of history. That is a natural condition of human society and where the technology (broadly conceived) of that society permits the continuation of orality, it will likely remain in that condition. The advent of multimedia recording significantly decreased incentives to read and write (consider how the telephone impacted letter writing, and the phonograph destroyed a formerly widespread capacity to read music). The advent of easy capture and transmission of those recordings has simply intensified this process.

    “What about texting?” someone will surely exclaim. “The kids still do that, don’t they?” Yes, yes they do, but it is a format that works in short bursts of information and is primarily engaged in the discussion of correspondingly simple ideas (like most social media… think Twitter). Hence, it does not significantly engage abilities to follow extended arguments or to analyze complex textual structures or forms, which are skills essential to the kind of functional literacy that makes long-form articles, essays, and books accessible to a reader. (Besides, dear questioner, have you ever actually tried to read a text from someone under 30?)

  5. Changing Concepts of the Purpose of Public Schooling

    Some months back I heard a roundtable discussion on public education reform on NPR, with one guest making a very important point. He noted that the best-performing schools in America by a variety of metrics are private. These vary wildly from one another in pedagogical philosophy, construction of curriculum, location, ethnic and socioeconomic composition of the student body, training and remuneration of teachers, and a thousand other factors, but they have one significant thing in common—they conceive a primary facet of their mission as weeding students out. This sounds horrific to most contemporary people used to the inclusive ideology of the public school system, but even public schools for much of their history viewed it as part of their job to determine when a given student had reached the limit of their academic potential and would be better served by being moved out into some kind of apprenticeship or other opportunity. It was quite common before the Wars for a student to graduate what we now call middle school and take “working papers” to get a job instead of going on to high school. There were certainly sad cases of economic necessity forcing bright and promising students to do this, but working papers were also often an outlet for kids who didn’t like school and weren’t succeeding there to go get real-world experience and build a sense of dignity and self-worth making their own way in life, instead of developing the neurotic behaviors of caged animals in some classroom parsing the structure of Shakespearean sonnets. (It is worth noting that not all states even had compulsory education laws until 1918, and that the Supreme Court determined in 1972 that Amish children could not be subjected to compulsory education laws past the eighth grade.)

    This began to change significantly after the Second World War, when a new emphasis was placed on mass mobilization in education as a means of softening the blow of mass demobilization of millions of fighting men. The GED was created to enable many of them, who had not graduated high school, to take an equivalency, and the idea quickly spread that high school graduation (or equivalency) should be universal. This idea, intersecting with social justice movements focused on access for previously excluded populations, fundamentally altered perceptions of the purpose of the school system―a reform reaching its crescendo with the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (now known in a revised form as the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act) in 1975, which made special education programs mandatory and, in the process, ensconced the principle among educators that their mission was to ensure the ability of all students to remain engaged in the system as long as possible. The mission of a school was thus transformed from sifting students and determining their abilities and potential suitability for various kinds of vocation to ensuring that no one ever fails—an idea now so dominant that it actually named the centerpiece education bill of the last thirty years, No Child Left Behind.

    Once again, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to anything in education. These changes have enabled the participation of many students who had been wrongly excluded and who have greatly benefited by their inclusion. Nonetheless, this basic shift in educational philosophy, undertaken with a totalizing lack of nuance, has demonstrably eroded the standards of public education to the point that it is now a truism that our high school graduates could not pass the eighth grade exit examinations once taken by those “drop-outs” (who did not so think of themselves and were not so stigmatized at the time) that once took working papers and left the system. It is this change in conceptualizing the mission of our schools that permits my functionally illiterate high schoolers to continue to matriculate grade after grade and ultimately receive a diploma (and which, incidentally, makes that diploma so worthless as a guarantee of ability that students wishing to go on to jobs that used to require only a high school education now have to plunge themselves into tens of thousands of dollars of debt to obtain a college degree).

A successful reinvigoration of functional literacy in our society would thus require either a social revolution in education or the collapse of much of our modern technological infrastructure (neither of which is especially likely to happen without the other). Conversely, both the success of experiments in universal basic income (on the social side) or the development of true artificial intelligence (on the technological side) would guarantee its permanent waning. In that case, H.G. Wells will have proved remarkably prescient in a book that no one will read anymore (…I said, linking to a YouTube clip from the 1960 film).

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