Revisiting “E-Literacy.”

As much as I hate to admit it, there are some who would disagree with my take on the sad state of affairs in the world of American education. Indeed, there are a great many people — some of whom write books and many others who teach in that world — who insist that things couldn’t be better. They love the kids and they love the way things are going. They explain away the wealth of data that show that the kids are not learning anything with the claim that the tests are simply archaic and don’t register the intellectual skills the kids in the millennial generation are acquiring with their electronic toys. Indeed, many of them think the schools themselves are archaic and the kids are learning what they really need to know to get along in tomorrow’s world OUTSIDE of school, with those toys. While there are those of us who would insist that the toys are rotting the kids’ brains (as I have said in an earlier blog), there are a great many people who defend the toys and insist that the kids will save the world with the digital facility and e-literacy they are acquiring with those very toys.

In fact, in 2005 Randy Bomer of the National Council of Teachers of English (!) attacked as too narrow a study called the American Diploma Project that was designed to help design curricula that would assist young people become better prepared for work in a changing world. Bomer defended the use of electronic toys and applauded the proficiency with which the kids use the toys, insisting that their critics are out-of-the-loop idiots. He remarked that today’s high school graduate (who may not be a-literate, as they say) is e-literate, he or she

“can synthesize information from multiple information and technical sources. . . .[they can] analyze the setting, plot, theme, characterization, and narration of classic and contemporary short stories and novels. . . .They are inventing new forms of literature.”

High praise indeed. And a breath of fresh air for those who find the constant criticism of America’s schools unsettling. We always like to hear those things that make us feel better about the way things are and allow us to dismiss the nay-sayers with a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, however, it’s a pile of rubbish.

One must wonder what this new “viewer literacy” really amounts to — if it can be called “literacy” at all. And the claims Bomer makes are outlandish — given that every test devised (and one must agree that tests don’t always tell the whole story) reflect the inability of these young people to understand the printed word or work with figures. How can such people be said to be able to “analyze the setting, plot, theme, characterization, and narration of classic and contemporary short stories and novels.”? Especially when they don’t even read comics or cereal boxes — as the students themselves defiantly tell investigators (reading is “too analogue”). They take great pride in the fact that they don’t read and generally regard reading as a waste of time — though they will spend more than three hours a day, on average, watching television (while they send text messages and check their Facebook page) and never think for a moment that it is a waste of time.

But, in the end it is all about thinking, which requires both synthesis and analysis. Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation, has made a study of e-literacy. He quotes his critics who defend it on the grounds that e-literacy

“is not just knowing how to download music, program an iPod, create a virtual profile, and comment on a blog. It’s a general deployment capacity, a particular mental flexibility. E-literacy accommodates hypermedia because e-literates possess hyperalertness. Multitasking entails a special cognitive attitude toward the world, not the orientation that enables slow concentration on one thing, but a lightsome, itinerant awareness of numerous and dissimilar inputs.”

So say its defenders who go on to insist that

“The things that have traditionally been done — you know, reflection and thinking and all that stuff — are in some ways too slow for the future. . . .Is there a way to do these things faster?”

But, jargon and wishful thinking aside, thought does take time, much as we might hate to admit it. And faster is not necessarily better. The fact that the kids show remarkable dexterity and quickness with their toys — one claim is that they can read four books at once (!) — is praiseworthy on some level. But when we are told that this dexterity will (or should) replace the traditional way of knowing and thinking about the world we must pause. The kids feel out of place in schoolrooms. I get that. But we know enough about them to realize that this is a statement about their narcissism, not about the schools, and many would consider it a condition that needs to be addressed and remedied so these kids can make their way in the real world where things are not always to our liking and problems need to be thought through and solutions found by careful, and slow, reflection and the consideration of possible outcomes in dialogue with other thinkers. If computers can help speed up that process, perhaps this is a good thing. Defenders of video games contend that they encourage “collateral learning,” and how to “make the right decision” and do it quickly. But there is no hard evidence that these toys teach anything that can in all seriousness be called “thinking.”

In the end a human being, or a group of human beings, must carefully consider what the computer spews out and determine which of several alternatives is the best course of action. Whether games will help people acquire the necessary skills remains to be seen. The “right decision” taught by the electronic game may simply prove to be the one that directs the drones to kill the most people. But the kids themselves will become adults who are expected to play a role in this democracy. Electronic toys cannot make moral judgments or judge which of two or three political candidates will do the best job. E-literacy won’t get them there. A-literacy is required: the ability to read and understand what they read, write coherent sentences that can be readily understood by others, and speak persuasively in order to help others grasp the claims they are determined to make. And people need to judge of better or worse, whether they like to admit it or not.

In the end, we may well admire the skills these kids show with multiple electronic toys, and even their ability to learn new ways to do things that take their elders seemingly forever. But we should hesitate to admit that this way of doing things will prove superior at the end of the day — especially since we really don’t know where e-literacy will take us. And as a general rule, we should not allow the kids to tell us how to design educational curriculum: they have no idea where they are going: their toys may indeed be taking these kids down an intellectual blind alley. In any event, given the addiction that has already been attributed to so many of them, we will have to depend on the toys themselves to pave the way to a new tomorrow: the kids will simply be doing what their toys tell them to do. I prefer to take the path well-travelled. At least I have a pretty good idea where the traps and pitfalls might be found and I can use the wisdom of past generations as a guide.


8 thoughts on “Revisiting “E-Literacy.”

  1. Hugh, thanks for sharing. In today’s world, the ability to find an answer or help is amazing. With hand-held devices, answers to many questions can be found. Yet, the ability to analyze and consider where the information came from is important. Is it from a reputable site? Is it from an ad? Does what it says make sense? Is the information contrary to what people have noted?

    An easy example is many restaurant and movie reviews may be paid for or done by people related to the enterprise. Knowing this would give you pause and may lead to a different use of your time.

    Being able to analyze and understand is one facet of learning, but also the ability to collaborate with other kinds of people is key. An educator once said innovation occurs at the intersections of various disciplines, like the old Venn diagrams showed. Involving people with different skills is an approach that one of the Apple suppliers touts.

    To this point, some of the coolest inventions have evolved out of folks inspired by science fiction novels or movies. Star Trek included references to Greek mythology, Roman history, World War II, race relations, etc. Its writers read and communicated their experiences. And, people learned. And, some invented things from hand held computers, to speaking instructions to computers, to lasers, to hand-held health readers, etc.

    Teaching people philosophy, rhetoric, history and storytelling teaches us how to think, argue, know and communicate. And, what do employers say they need – people who can communicate and convey complex topics.

    So, we must challenge ourselves to be better students and look for learning (rather than a grade) in everything we do. The teachers and educational leaders should further that cause rather than the parenthetical one. Keith

    • We tend to confuse information with education — as when we say “he needs to be educated about this.” You are exactly right: education is more about what we do with the information we receive. And electronic devices can inform us but they cannot educate us.

  2. Dr. Curtler.

    I hear you and I agree.

    In so doing, I do not assert that cyber literacy involves no cognitive skills. It certainly does. Pattern and image recognition, foreground/background recognition, rapid visual scanning, and rapid response,

    These are not utterly useless or harmful, in themselves. They might serve one well in a fight-or-fight situation. They are simply limited situations where quick, reactive responses to simple choices are necessary or appropriate. Perfect for the shopping mall society.

    However, these cognitive skills contribute little to careful thinking, to thoughtful reflection, to considered evaluation, or to self-assessment. The latter take time and, often, solitude. They require an inclination not to overreact to external stimuli, not to simply make obvious choices, not to make hasty and superficially-informed decisions, and not to take one’s own viewpoint for granted.

    I am not dismissing computer technology. Far from it. One can certainly use computer technology to great advantage for research and writing purposes. I really appreciate that word processing breaks the link between editing and re-typing, for example. I remember doing statistical analysis on a slide rule and writing my doctoral dissertation in long hand. Still, while I would not readily return to using a slide rule, writing in cursive still appeals to me. Arthritis be damned!

    The problem arises, I think, when we confuse the means to efficiency in certain tasks with the goal we supposedly are pursuing in the first place. I saw a lot of this in higher education before I retired — and I was not pleased. The lot of a curmudgeon twas ever thus, I fear.

    As for those who boast about not reading, they might as well boast about not thinking, either. Disinclinations to do either go hand-in-hand.

    To paraphrase Francis Bacon, “Reading maketh one full, conference maketh one ready, and writing maketh one exact.” Information and image scanning and “processing” contribute little to Bacon’s equation, in my experience.

    Once again, thanks for a thoughtful post.

    Regards, respects, and best wishes,

    Jerry Stark

  3. Hugh – I remember that moment as a teacher when I could close my door to the outside world and simply teach in the best way I knew how for the students in the room. Teaching is a complicated venture, and I appreciate you continuing to raise our awareness about it’s ups and downs – Many thanks – Susan

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