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.