Thursday, June 17, 2010

ILL Literacy

by Drew Martin

Illiteracy, the inability to read and write, should not be a problem of the 21st century and yet over 25% of the world's adult population is currently non-literate. That's about one billion people. Two-thirds of this figure are women. More than half of non-literates live in India and China. More than 40% of Africans cannot read or write.

In 1960, Fidel Castro was determined to make Cuba the first country in the Americas to be completely literate. He motivated a few hundred thousand volunteer teachers (some were students only ten years old) to travel across the country to teach the poor to read and write Spanish. The volunteers wore uniforms, not unlike a scout outfit, and even gave free eye exams and glasses in addition to providing learning materials.

A year later, Cuba was entirely literate. The teachers returned triumphantly to Havana and marched with large pencils and declared their victory over the odds as well as opposition: several of the young volunteers were murdered by counter-revolutionaries.

Cuba's National Literacy Museum archives more than 700,000 colorful letters from the people who completed the course, many of them old farmers, most of them thanking Castro. The letter itself was the "final exam" of the new pupil.

The term media literacy suggests that while we may be amused and distracted by media, we have no idea how to read media and don't understand how media functions. Media Literacy is also a subject taught to students in order for them to interpret media and to look beyond the entertainment value. It focuses on journalism, the business of media, representations of various groups, advertising, political campaigns, violence and sexuality. The subject is not widely taught in the United States but it has been part of the elementary education in Australia, Canada, England and Holland.

Illiteracy is a condescending term and it is quite a biased one with a tone of western superiority. While the Aztecs and other natives had a pictographic written form of their language, most natives in the part of North America, which is now the United States and Canada, were by all means non-literate despite having rich and complex languages as well as an established oral tradition. It was recorded, however, that the natives of the United States were amazed by the written language they encountered with the English adventurers.

Let us not forget, however, that the ancestors of our own western culture were suspicious of the invention of writing and the habit of reading. Socrates and Plato discuss this very problem in the Phaedrus. We associate illiteracy with ignorance but the early philosophers and orators were incredibly intelligent and had extensive memories.

Despite this romanticism of the early Greek life, none of us would want to lose our ability to read and write, even if it would mean better memory. Although most people would scoff at the idea they are media illiterate, they also would not want to give up the insight they acquired in the subject. It is the difference of being able to discuss a film or a book in depth, as opposed to simply chiming in on whether you liked it or not or simply adhering to the plot. It is about really understanding art, literature, cinema, television, radio, computers and the Internet.

None of us, myself included, use the Internet to its fullest capacity. We are still too easily distracted by its immediacy and hyperlinking. We do not apply the same amount of academic rigor to it as we would if we were learning a language and we do not study from it the same way we would a Ph.D. program. We will either all spiral into a mess of attention deficit disorder dunces laughing at silly YouTube loops or we will grow to respect what the Internet can offer us academically and intellectually.