The Story: Old Fears over Literacy Are New Again

The present literacy crisis, new on the surface, warns that emerging technologies are making our kids dumber, distracted, and less literate. The literacy crisis in the popular consciousness is that Johnny can’t read or write because he spends too much time playing video games, texting, and Facebooking. The first line of Niall Ferguson’s (2011) recent article for Newsweek, “Texting Makes U Stupid,” puts it succinctly: “The good news is that today’s teenagers are avid readers and prolific writers. The bad news is that what they are reading and writing are text messages” (p. 11). Ferguson’s concern is that the “US is producing a nation of civilizational illiterates” who won’t be able to compete in a global economy. Bill Keller, former editor of The New York Times, is less concerned that technology use will diminish our ability to succeed economically; in contrast, he worries about our souls. He argues in “The Twitter Trap: Does Twitter Really Make You Stupid?” (2011) that using social media like Facebook and Twitter diminishes our capacity to communicate meaningfully and effectively; that they are “displacing real rapport and real conversation, just as Gutenberg’s device replaced memory.” While Keller is also concerned about our minds as well as our souls, worrying that we are “outsourcing our brains to the cloud," he is less preoccupied with this issue than Nicholas Carr. Carr has written extensively over the crisis caused by the Internet’s impact on our brains. In an article in The Atlantic Monthly, “Is Google Making us Stupid” (2008), and a book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (2010), Carr explains that widespread, consistent use of the Internet has diminished our capacity to think. He argues this chiefly on the basis of literacy: We no longer have the ability to read and, therefore, think deeply. Instead of reading deeply, we skim or “power browse” brief passages on the screen. As Carr (2008) puts it, “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

Of course, concerns about the ability of our society, as a whole, to think, read and write are nothing new. In his article, “Will the Circle Be Broken: The Rhetoric of Complaint Against Student Writing,” David Gold (2008) notes that as long as English has been an academic discipline, “hardly a generation has gone by without national hand wringing over an impending literacy crisis” (p. 84). He continues:

In 1987, E. D. Hirsch warned that our nation was on the brink of cultural illiteracy. In 1975, Newsweek fretted that Johnny couldn’t write (Sheils). In 1955, Rudolf Flesch proclaimed that Johnny couldn’t read. Over a hundred years ago, professors at Harvard sounded the alarm at declining standards (p. 84).

Gold goes on to note that this trend continues even further back, to the very beginning of English as a university subject, when it was regarded with “suspicion” by faculty members loyal to Latin and Greek (p. 85). Gold succinctly puts into far-ranging historical context the point made by Trimbur that literacy crises are reoccurring; Gold makes it clear that this pattern of crises goes all the way back to the origins of the American university, and beginning of English studies itself.

Detail of wall with painted figures of Aristotle, Plato and Socrates

Reggio Calabria, Santuario di San Paolo by Saverio Autellitano. Used under CC BY 3.0 license.

Similarly, John Trimbur (1991) notes that while literacy crises became part of the public consciousness in 1975, they have surfaced as early as the mid-nineteenth century (p. 293). Trimbur argues via Antonio Gramsci that literacy crises serve as a “strategic site” for what Gramsci calls the reorganization of “cultural hegemony” (p. 281). What this meant in the early 1990s, as Trimbur puts it, was the affirmation of literacy as “the middle classes’ primary hope of upward mobility, social status, and respectability—a cultural marker to divide them and their credentials from the poor and the working class below” (p. 293). Trimbur argues that literacy crises emerged in the late 20th century over concerns about the decline of the power of the middle class—the fear that what distinguishes the middle class from those below will be lost as the nation becomes more multi-cultural and, as articulated by E.D. Hirsch and Allan Bloom, cultural literacy, knowledge of the Western Canon, is diminished.

James Paul Gee (2008), likewise, argues that fears over literacy are, if literacy is defined literally, overblown, and that literacy crises are instead really about fears over other changes to society. Gee notes that 95% of young adults possess basic literacy. Gee points out, however, that when asked to complete more complicated tasks requiring critical thinking, the percentage of those successful lowers. He therefore makes the distinction between functional literacy that 95% of those tested possessed and what might be called “school literacy” (or, to use the current term, “academic literacies”). He writes that as tasks became more complicated and “’school-like,’ less and less of the population could complete them” (p. 33) Both Trimbur and Gee note that, if there is a literacy crisis, it is not about eroding middle-class literacy, but instead about a system of education—which has undergone changes as cultural hegemony has been reorganized—that serves, via literacy, to create and reinforce the gap between the lower classes and those above.

And yet, despite the fact that literacy crisis narratives come and go, without ever leaving evidence of a decline in the basic skills of reading and writing, a new crisis narrative has arisen alongside the emergence of networked, digital technology. While Ferguson, Keller, and Carr have specific individual concerns regarding the way that technology negatively affects us as individuals and as a society, their mantra is the same: current technology is making us stupid. In each of these authors’ works, this crisis is expressed and understood chiefly as a crisis of literacy. Ferguson sees the U.S. becoming a nation of illiterates, unable to keep up in the increasingly competitive global marketplace, and Carr worries about our ability to think and read deeply (indeed, according to Michael Agger’s (2010) Slate review of The Shallows, “Carr has written a Silent Spring for the literary mind”). Even Keller, who believes that what we have on our hands is a crisis of the soul, makes his argument on the basis of literacy, suggesting that communication through platforms like Twitter make complex discussion and argumentation impossible and may, in fact, be diminishing our capacity for expressing complex thought outside of such platforms as well. And so, with the advent of Twitter and text messaging, yet another—this time high tech—literacy crisis narrative has emerged.

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