Literacy in the modern age

According to Tracy Mitrano, we should be spending less time texting and tweeting, and more time reading and learning.


Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Tracy Mitrano writes “BlogU” for Inside Higher Ed, and this past week has been tackling the issue of literacy. She argues that literacy means different things to different cultures, and at different times:

What does literacy means for American society? Historically we took our lesson from Ancient Greece: literacy was about citizenship. Different insofar as our government from the beginning was a republic and not direct democracy, literacy nevertheless has been regarded as the necessary tool for governance. Citizens must educate themselves about the issues, positions and people for whom they will vote to represent them in government.

Unfortunately, Mitrano writes, while literacy rates are rising globally, they’re falling in the United States. And that could have some dire consequences:

Illiteracy or sub-literacy, it should surprise no one, is often found to be at the root of many social ills, crime not least and drug traffic the most. Illiteracy and sub-literacy are a reflection of an alarming financial and class disproportion, a trend that is growing rapidly. If the trend, propagated largely by tax policy in the last twenty years, continues unchecked, American society will surely assume the bimodal shape that current sociologists have depicted: a lot of money in the hands of a few people and families at the “top” of the society and many people in need at the “bottom.”

Mitrano argues we simply don’t appreciate true literacy, and the role it plays in supporting the well-being of society as a whole.

It is not the failure of administrators. It is not the failure of educators. It is not the failure of students. It is the failure of a society to value education as a social good. Rather than regard education as foundational pillar of citizenship, it has become a brand name to brandish or bandy about in a commercialized and commoditized marketplace, on the one hand, or a certification to get a position or a raise on the other. In the meaning we confer on education we seem to be in transition of what literacy meant from Ancient Greece to Ancient Rome.

Mitrano doesn’t offer a solution to the literacy problem – but I’ll happily take any ideas you have.

  • Dear Friends of Literature.

    I’m the 9th of 10th siblings, born to Italian Immigrant parents, who travelled steerage

    in 1905, to America. They were not on the same ship – this marriage was arranged by

    a brother who was a banker, already in America, and the couple was “matched” in marriage.

    My father began life in America “diggina

    deetches and I no like” – understanding that he had to do something more worthwhile.

    Someone handed him a pair of scissors

    and he became a barber, rising to the notable

    title of “the best barber in town” at the George Washington Hotel, in Washington, PA, 30 miles from Pittsburgh, with five chairs in the shop that was the best in town.

    My mother ran a small “Mom&Pop”

    grocery store, next door to the first barbershop

    on South Main Street, prior to rising to the position at the George Washington Hotel, with the help of all of her children.

    Pop, candy, bread, sandwiches, were sold to the factory workers from across the street

    who worked for the Hazel Atlas Glass Company. Our Mother taught us to “LOVE

    everyone who crosses our threshold, no

    matter what they look like, or what color they are” which was a gift we carried throughout our lives.

    My parents and all my siblings are now

    mingling together wherever they are in the heavens, and as the only living member of this marvelous family that guided me toward

    education from the day I could hold a book,

    play the piano, and listen to Caruso on a

    Victrola, I just celebrated my 87th Birthday

    and have been nurtured throughout the

    last 65 years on the literary path, that has me giving poetry readings, and teaching creative writing classes to whomever wants to learn the value of reading and writing. I feel

    blessed beyond expectation and would love to hear from anyone who feels the same way.

    Where America is failing, in the eyes of the rest of the world, is in education, which is

    badly in need of serioius surgery. Our children are much too valuable as our future

    generations, not to get what they need for

    health, wealth, and cultural arts energy that fosters a civilization with LOVE and HARMONY, without the need for any more


    born to LOVE ONE ANOTHER and it is up

    to us to see that this happens.



    FOR THEY TOO, ARE OUR BROTHERS &SISTERS. The Lord and His Angels know what they mean when they say

    “LOVE ONE ANOTHER.” So did the BEATLES when they said:”ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE.”

    Patricia D’Alessandro

    Peace Advocate

    Author of “PAX VOBISCUM:Anti-War Poetry

    Collection” (Pacific Press/Sacramento, CA 2009) dedicated to Germany’s famous

    sculptor/artist/pacifist KATHE KOLLWITZ

  • timothy

    I agree with Mitrano that our society doesn’t value literacy nearly as much as it should, but I have a hard time believing that Facebook, Twitter or any other social media site has anything to do with the issue. As Mitrano herself points out, literacy rates are rising globally, where social media is available. The United States’ falling literacy rates are a product of undervaluing education, not the rise of facebook.