The Literacy Debate Rages On

As of right now, the most-emailed article on the is “Literacy Debate - Online, R U Reading?”, written by one of their publishing reporters, Motoko Rich. Like most articles of its sort, it touches a nerve with me.

Much like Nicolas Carr’s Atlantic article, “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?”, the title of “R U Reading” carries an inherent value judgment. Meant to be a clever imitation of how these whippersnappers write without grammar nowadays, it is a direct appeal to older people who see this kind of digital lexicon as uneducated and, well, stupid.

To be fair, Rich does a passable job of presenting both sides. And the vast majority of the arguments on the anti-digital reading side made me irate. Some examples:

“Some traditionalists warn that digital reading is the intellectual equivalent of empty calories.”    - So, if I’m reading a series of online articles and exercises about quantum mechanics, it’s “empty calories”? And conversely, if I’m reading a trashy mystery novel, it’s a crucial learning process? Come on. All of that traditional book-learning doesn’t seem to have taught much about making generalizations.

“Learning is not to be found on a printout,” David McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, said in a commencement address at Boston College in May. “It’s not on call at the touch of the finger. Learning is acquired mainly from books, and most readily from great books.”   -This one made me go off the wall. Three points: 1. McCullough is often chastised within academia for a lack of serious, in-depth historical analysis. There is an implied after thought of “great books - such as my own John Adams.”  2. You mean to tell me that someone who has made millions of dollars through book sales telling a group of young people they need to read (cough, buy) more books is not in the least bit conflicting? 3. This implies that anything you “learn” outside of a book is probably not really “learning.” Like, say, math. Or painting. Or music. Or foreign languages. Unbelievable. I lost a lot of respect for McCullough with this quote.

Rich took a particularly patronizing tone in her portrayal of fan-fiction as a poor substitute for reading. It would be like excerpting the vitriolic, racist sections of Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia to portray the entire canon of American political theory. It made me want to sic Henry Jenkins on her.

“What we are losing in this country and presumably around the world is the sustained, focused, linear attention developed by reading,”   - Again, traditionalists seem to take it for granted that a “sustained, focused, linear” style of learning is the apotheosis of scholarship. The early 21st-century world couldn’t be LESS “sustained, focused, linear.” As Rich acknowledges at one point, enthusiasts of digital literacy rarely, if ever, deny that the traditional method of reading and learning is not important - it is just that the digital kind is rapidly growing in importance.

Finally, Rich barely touches upon the real potential for digital literacy. She quotes some perspectives that champion the ability to gather and synthesize information more quickly, but basically glosses over the enormous intellectual power of things like collective intelligence, collaboration, and innovation. Just like reading is not all about Dr. Seuss or Anne Rice novels, digital reading is not all about gossip blogs and Facebook. This shouldn’t be a zero-sum game. Traditional and digital literacy can and should coexist as fundamental skills necessary for navigating today’s world.