What is Literacy in the 21st Century?

A new development in education is deciding what "literacy" should be in the 21st century.

With a swirl of technological breakthroughs all around us, elite educators are gaga at the plethora of excuses for pooh-poohing subjects routinely taught in the dark age known as the 20th century.

The National Council of Teachers of English recently announced: "Literacy has always been a collection of cultural and communicative practices shared among members of particular groups. As society and technology change, so does literacy."

These people give good sophistry. Presto, literacy can now be defined any way they want. When these Teachers of English get through, it's a safe bet they won't spend as much time teaching English.

The NCTE states: "[S]uccessful participants in this 21st century global society must: develop proficiency and fluency with the tools of technology; build intentional cross-cultural connections and relationships with others so to pose [sic] and solve problems collaboratively and strengthen independent thought; design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes; manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information; create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts; attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments."

A bunch of school teachers presented the NCTE's thinking in a video titled "What Does It Mean to be Literate in the 21st Century?" They concluded: "[N]ew media in a technological world is shaping the lives of youth and that as a result, redefining the literacy skills that will be necessary for youth to be able to function successfully in the world they are growing up in. The latter implies, by necessity, that the how, what and why of teaching literacy must also change."

These teachers, not too literate themselves, expect that the "static, print-centric notion of literacy" will be discarded.

So here's the unfolding plan. Concoct dozens of phrases containing the word literacy. Insist that kids must have them all: computer literacy, digital literacy, information literacy, social literacy, visual literacy, critical literacy, financial literacy, entertainment literacy, health literacy, etc.

My favorite bit in this video is when a teacher says: "There is no way teachers know a fraction of what the kids know. Most of the kids in the higher grades know way more than we do." This is capitulation. Teachers (now called facilitators) aren't expected to teach, so they don't have to know a lot. All the things the kids know by using iPhones and iPads will define a literate person. Students walk into school almost a finished product.
Skill with computers is a wonderful thing. But does it follow that traditional skills become trivial?

The invention of the telegraph and telephone were probably bigger breakthroughs than the things we have now. Suddenly you could communicate with someone 1000 miles away. Was this considered a catalyst for abandoning traditional education? In fact, traditional skills remained as important as ever, just as, I suspect, they remain as important today. Imagine a poor reader trying to navigate the Internet.

It's casually assumed that life changes fundamentally because technology changes. Why? People meet, talk, prepare reports, make decisions. The Romans did it. Napoleon did it. Then came the car and television. Did everything change? No, the best educated, best prepared people still win in most situations.

Keep in mind that the stats on literacy have been declining for 80 years. Way before anyone heard of computers, public schools routinely neglected the basic skills. Clearly, progressive educators never considered literacy a top priority. Now, they have a new excuse for giving it even less attention. Instead of emergency action on the reading front, which we desperately need, the people in charge of teaching English are saying no, don't bother with that old-fashioned stuff.

The following quote is from two college-level experts (professor and administrator) waxing orgasmic about the techno-future: "Experts in the field suggest that the current generation of teenagers -- sometimes referred to as the E-Generation -- possesses digital competencies to effectively navigate the multidimensional and fast-paced digital environment..... In our 21st century society -- accelerated, media-saturated, and automated -- a new literacy is required, one more broadly defined than the ability to read and write.... Most people will have technologies at their fingertips not only to communicate but to create, to manipulate, to design, to self-actualize.... The senior population approaches the new literacy like a foreign language that is complex and perhaps of questionable use.... Ironically, while some see the profusion of realities as threatening to us, to our children, and even to democracy, the new media is nothing if not simply another way of viewing our world, of interacting with one another, of opening ourselves to learning in realms of possibility we never conceived of before."

The professors assume that children, able to experience all this information because of digital tools, will be able to make shrewd judgments about the information. Why does that follow when children are not learning history, science, geography, math, literature, anthropology, sociology, or much else of intellectual substance?

Picture bringing a primitive teenager out of the jungle and into a modern city. He can certainly see it but what intelligent thought could he have about that city?

This whole shift is dishonest and as well a kind of slumming. The teachers gush, Oh, look how the kids use the new technology. They are so cool. Look at us dinosaurs. We can't even start a blog.

So teachers participate in their own degradation, and celebrate sending children cool but ignorant into a dangerous world.

Bruce Deitrick Price explains theories and methods on his site Improve-Education.org.

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