Friday, August 5, 2011

Aliteracy Anxiety

So first of all kudos to my friend and former graduate student Mike Plugh for retrieving and uploading a 15 minute segment from the PBS program Currents featuring an interview with Neil Postman, on the topic of Literacy Lost.  The program begins with a reference to the concept of aliteracy, a term that I believe was coined by the former Librarian of Congress and media ecologist, Daniel J. Boorstin, in a 1984 US Government Report entitled Books in Our Future (which I first learned about from Postman).  The concern, as Boorstin presented it, was not so much that people are unable to read, but that people were choosing not read, and especially not to read books.  That's the difference between illiteracy and aliteracy.  Aliterates know how to read, but just don't.

Part of the problem is that there are two many alternatives.  When I was growing up, reading wasn't only a way to learn, and not just a way to amuse ourselves--it was a way to create some personal space, shut out our parents and anyone else we didn't want to pay attention to, and enter into our own private world of imagination and fantasy.  A book gave us a space of our own.  Now, though, kids can get the same effect from TVs that offer round the clock entertainment geared toward them, and from videogame systems, iPods and many other portable devices, etc.  So, why read a book?

Aliteracy may be the trend of the future.  Reading limited to short bursts.  Street signs.  Restaurant menus.  Headlines.  Status updates and tweets.  Short paragraphs online.  And reading that is limited to the functional, reading for directions, for instructions, for getting tasks done.  As opposed to reading for pleasure.  And as opposed to reading as a cultural activity.

Or maybe aliteracy is the intermediate stage between our former situation of near universal literacy, and our eventual ending as a largely illiterate society?

Well, take a look at the video, and think about whether things have gotten better since the 80s, with the introduction of many forms of electronic text, or whether that was just a temporary countercurrent, whether we are still slouching into an aliterate, and possibly illiterate future.

You might want to take a look at Mike Plugh's discussion of the video over on his blog, in the post entitled, Neil Postman – ‘The TV Guy’. Let me give you a little taste of what he has to say right here, taking a quote on the topic of Sesame Street.

I grew up on Sesame Street (Elmo was my high school graduation speaker in 1989 via Kevin Clash) and remember many of the language lessons and phonics very fondly. I suppose I remember them for the same reason that Jocko Henderson’s students remember his phonics rap and Joan Ganz Cooney’s niece was singing advertising jingles. They’re short, musical, and entertaining. It’s not about learning. It’s about the way we learn, the quality of the learning process, and our relationship to information, so while I enjoyed Sesame Street growing up and get a little twinge when someone criticizes it, that doesn’t make the critique any less valid.

Interestingly, for most of the last decade, Sesame Street has been using a different format, one much less television-oriented, one intended to be similar in structure to the schedules used at day care centers, with which so many children are familiar these days, at least according to my friend Rosemarie Truglio, Vice President of Education and Research for Sesame Workshop.  (On a side note, Rosemarie earned her doctorate through the same program and under the same mentor as Postman, at Teachers College of Columbia University,  with Louis Forsdale, one of Marshall McLuhan's earliest and most influential supporters in the academic world.  Of course, Rosemarie's position on Sesame Street diverges significantly from Postman's.)

And it was about a decade and a half ago, maybe longer, that I was teaching a graduate class at Fordham University, and Amusing Ourselves to Death was one of the books that we read (I do ask my students to read entire books), and I had Postman talk to the class and answer their questions (Neil was always very generous with his time, I should add).  My son was a preschooler then, so I played devil's advocate and mentioned how he was watching Sesame Street and that it was helping him to learn the alphabet, and wasn't that a good thing?  Postman's response was, Well, Lance, you know, the alphabet only has 26 letters, and children were able to memorize them fairly easily for many years before television arrived on the scene...  

And I forget the rest, but with that short remark he cut through all of the hype and exaggerated claims relating to the educational value of such programming.  And he did it with a wit and a charm that brings a smile to my face to this day.  It was quite memorable, and speaking of memorable, I would not discount the mnemonic value of the rap format, that's a technique that goes back to antiquity, and prehistory.  Even when it comes to literacy, we start by memorizing the alphabet song, relying on rhythm, melody, and rhyme.

Of course, memory works best in face-to-face situations.  That's where a book like Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy comes in, as Mike Plugh notes.  It reminds us of the foundation of all of our media environments.  And sure, there are a few jingles and such that get stuck in our memories after we hear them hundreds of times on TV.  But how many popular songs and the like do we think we know, and then when it comes down to it, we really only know some of the lyrics, and then it's all da da da dum da da dum dum...?  Postman was quite right in arguing in Amusing Ourselves to Death that television makes us feel like we know things, or think we know things, but then are unable to summon up anything specific, hence the saying, I know of it.  Ong says, "you know what you can recall," and truer words have never been spoken (students only realize this at exam time, though).  If you can't summon it up from memory, then in what sense to you know it?

What is knowledge, anyway?  Maybe you don't need books to have knowledge, preserve knowledge, transmit knowledge.  Maybe.  But without them, you don't have much of what could be called knowledge in the first place.  And if you have the books, but no one reads them, then you have knowledge without knowers, and that's hardly different from not having the knowledge in the first place, or having it and having lost or forgotten it.  That's good enough reason for all of that anxiety over aliteracy, after all.

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