Sunday, August 5, 2012

Defining "Literacy"

I'm taking a bit of a detour from grand strategy for the moment. The next post will be on a current view of grand strategy to complement my last post, but this item caught my eye and I think it worthy of extended comment.
Venkatesh Rao is the author of a great book on timing and tactics titled Tempo. I don't include "strategy" in this particular mix since from a Clausewitzian strategic theory perspective what Venkat is dealing with is primarily tactics and even operations, not really strategy, which is about collectives, although it could be seen as strategy if we limited it more to narrative or grand narrative. I'm planning to use some of his concepts in a social action/strategic theory approach to English Language Teaching that I have been working on for the last ten years, so count me as a fan.
That's not however what I wish to talk about here. Rather it's his article linked above titled Rediscovering Literacy, which brings up many interesting questions. This is an excellent article which led me to question my assumptions on literacy, but only to reinforce them after reflection. He starts off by expanding what we think of as "literacy":
Literacy used to be a very subtle concept that meant linguistic sophistication. It used to denote a skill that could be developed to arbitrary levels of refinement through practice. Literacy meant using mastery over language — both form and content — to sustain a relentless and increasingly sophisticated pursuit of greater meaning. It was about an appreciative, rather than instrumental use of language. Language as a means of seeing rather than as a means of doing.
Reading and writing — the ability to translate language back and forth between oral and written forms — was a secondary matter. It was a vocational pursuit of limited depth.
The written form itself was merely a convenience for transmitting language across space and time, and a mechanism by which to extend the limits of working memory. It had little to do with language skills per se.
Scribes, people who could read and write were simply tradesmen who took notes of what the actual literary people had to say, who may not have been able to read or write themselves. Venkat uses the example of musical ability and the ability to read and write musical notation, the former has no direct link with the latter, only to provide a written record of the artist's work. He then goes on to describe how he actually defines "literacy":
Before Gutenberg, you demonstrated true literacy not by reading a text out aloud and taking down dictation accurately, but through exposition and condensation.
You were considered literate if you could take a classic verse and expound upon it at length (exposition) and take an ambiguous idea and distill its essence into a terse verbal composition (condensation).
Exposition was more than meaning-extraction. It was a demonstration of contextualized understanding of the text, skill with both form and content, and an ability to separate both from meaning in the sense of reference to non-linguistic realities.
Condensation was the art of packing meaning into the fewest possible words. It was a higher order skill than exposition. All literate people could do some exposition, but only masters could condense well enough to produce new texts considered worthy of being added to the literary tradition.
Exposition and condensation are in fact the fundamental learned behaviors that constitute literacy, not reading and writing. One behavior dissolves densely packed words using the solvent that is the extant oral culture, enriching it, while the other distills the essence into a form that can be transmitted across cultures.
So, according to Venkat, reading and writing rank low on the totem pole of literacy when compared with "exposition and condensation". He goes on to dispel the notion that oral cultures are simply about memorization. There were in fact a whole series of different types of recitation (11 different types of "combinational recitation") used in India to orally communicate texts.
What is actually going on is not simply memorization, but what Venkat describes as "microcosmic creative destruction":
You’re taking a permutations-and-combinations blender to the words, juxtaposing them in new ways, and actively performing combinatorial processing. You are rigorously testing the strength of every single word choice and ordering decision. You are isolating and foregrounding different elements of the logical content, such as implication, subject-verb and verb-object agreement, and so forth. There is an functional-aesthetic element too. Terseness does not preclude poetry (and therefore, redundancy). In fact it requires it. Despite the compactness of a text, room must be made for various useful symmetries.
If the original has any structural or semantic weaknesses at all, this torture will reveal it. If the original lacks the robustness that poetry brings, it will be added.
Not only does all this not help plain memorization, I claim that it makes it harder. You destabilize the original line in your head and turn it into a word soup. If the original is any way confused or poorly ordered, you will soon end up in a state of doubt about which sequence of words is the correct one.
For many students, practicing recitation must have been mindless tedium, but for a few, it would have catalyzed active consideration and reworking of the underlying ideas, in search of new wisdom. These students must have evolved into new masters, the source of beneficial mutations and crossovers in the cultural memeplexes they were charged with preserving.
Being forced to juggle words like this must have helped cultivate a clear awareness of the distinction between form and content. It must have helped cultivate an appreciation of language as a medium for performance rather than a medium for transmission or preservation. It must have forced students to pay careful attention to precision of word choice in their own compositions. It must have sustained a very mindful linguistic culture.
Venkat mades some interesting claims here. I think he has a point as to our Western dismissal of oral cultures being simply about memorization, there is more to it than that, but is there not more to the Western concept of literacy as well? Here's where his analysis falls short imo. Also his example of Indian oral culture is not meant to appeal to most students, but to "a few" who don't see it as "mindless tedium". The recitation he uses as an example are religious texts, hardly ones to promote critical thinking which is another drawback.
I think the main problem is that he is conflating "orality" with "literacy" which are in fact two different things. This distinction is important because the cultural implications are profound. Following Walter Ong's distinctions, we have this:
Orality. In oral societies, all knowledge is personal knowledge; every utterance is subjective and egocentric. Because speech is always connected with specific persons, the idea of objective knowledge apart from an ego remains unknown. Because the ego-element dominates, dialogue in an oral context tends to be aggressive and emotive, “agonistic,” as Ong says, and testy. In oral societies, thinking must be formulaic; the formulas must be “coded” in simple, easily remembered verbal images—of the “stitch in time saves nine” variety. Questioning the coded veracities is rare, because interrogation might destabilize them, and because they are a matter of social survival; the ethos often forbids questioning. An oral context knows no such thing as “critical thinking.” Indeed, confronted with analytic statements or logical summaries, oral people suspect and reject them, as Ong showed by drawing on anthropological fieldwork.
Literacy. The written word, as Ong remarks, “separates the knower from the known” and in so doing opens up the space of non-ego-centered objective knowledge. Because writing overcomes the ephemeral quality of spoken language and frees the mind from the task of having to remember things through the medium of simple, “coded” images, it also opens up possibilities of reflection, which, with alphabetic literacy in particular, gives rise to the critical discourses, from physics through moral philosophy to history and law. With the aide of a text, the literate subject can “backtrack,” examining the sequence and relatedness of propositions or the logic of a story. Literacy in this way provides the basis of systematic knowledge in all the higher civilizations. Of course, in introducing the phrase “higher civilizations,” I have made explicit the implication that Ong, for argumentative reasons, de-emphasizes: that the orality-literacy opposition entails a hierarchy.
As mentioned in the article, Ong makes no judgement as to which is superior, he simply describes the characteristics of both. In response to Venkat's specific points, I would add that both exposition (essay writing) and condensation (or summary writing) were tested in the Liberal Arts and in teaching English as a Foreign Language prior to the age of mass standardized testing. What has taken us away from this has little to do with orality, let alone literacy, and far more to do with the supposed necessity of mass standardized testing. For instance in the current Cambridge exam of Proficiency in English (CPE), both skills are tested - an essay question on a set book and summary writing of a longer text. The latter is expected to be removed from the next version of CPE, since it requires a human examiner to grade, unlike the rest of the Use of English paper of the exam which is multiple choice/fill in the blank, that is can be graded by computer.
This development in turn is linked to the notion that teaching is at most a semi-skilled trade, not a skilled trade, not a profession let along a vocation, which can be preformed by moderately educated and trained people who essentially "teach to test." What I would also describe as the factory paradigm of education run amok.
Here it appears I've gone far beyond Venkat's original argument, but this is not really the case, as the next quote will indicate. He provides a specific point in time when exposition and condensation gave way to reading and writing:
Oral cultures are not just, or even primarily, about quality assurance in transmission. They are primarily about quality assurance in composition, and training in the basic moves of exposition and condensation.
When you think about it this way, there is no mystery. Oral culture persisted long after the development of writing because it was not about accurate preservation. It was about performance and cultural enactment through exposition and condensation.
The Costs of Gutenberg
And then Gutenberg happened.
The results were not immediately apparent. The old culture of literacy persisted for several centuries. The tipping point came in the 1890s, when printing technology became sufficiently cheap to support mass media (there is a world of difference between ubiquity of bibles and a culture of daily newspapers).
So sometime in the twentieth century, we lost all the subtlety of oral culture, turned our attention to the secondary vocational skills of reading and writing, and turned literacy into a set of mechanical tests.
It is not that this view is wrong so much as it is misleadingly incomplete. Also this is an old argument which was explained in clear text by Neil Postman in his book, Amusing Ourselves To Death over 20 years ago. Postman also saw the tipping point in the 1890s, but it was not in cheap newspapers, but in their use of photographs and illustrations in them. Prior to that newspaper stories, even advertisements, had to be structured logical arguments, not simply a picture with a slogan, the decline of what Postman calls "Typographic culture" is the rise of the Image. Technology's influence on communication unleashed a storm with the printing press, but this development continued with the invention of telegraphy and the de-contextualization of information, as well as radio, TV and the internet.
Still, Postman has some interesting things to say about the character of a text-based culture as opposed to what came before and what followed:
From Erasmus in the sixteenth century to Elizabeth Eisenstein in the twentieth, almost every scholar who has grappled with the question of what reading does to one's habits of mind has concluded that the process encourages rationality; that the sequential, propositional character of the written word fosters what Walter Ong calls the "analytic management of knowledge." To engage the written word means to follow a line of thought, which requires considerable powers of classifying, inference-making and reasoning. It means to uncover lies, confusions, and overgeneralizations, to detect abuses of logic and common sense. It also means to weigh ideas, to compare and contrast assertions, to connect one generalization to another. To accomplish this, one must achieve a certain distance from the words themselves, which is, in fact, encouraged by the isolated and impersonal text. That is why a good reader does not cheer an apt sentence or pause to applaud even an inspired paragraph. Analytic thought is too busy for that, and too detached. I do not mean to imply that prior to the written word analytic thought was not possible. I am referring here not to the potentialities of the individual mind but to the predispositions of a cultural mind-set. In a culture dominated by print, public discourse tends to be characterized by a coherent, orderly arrangement of facts and ideas. The public for whom it is intended is generally competent to manage such discourse. In a print culture, writers make mistakes when they lie, contradict themselves, fail to support their generalizations, try to enforce illogical connections. In a print culture, readers make mistakes when they don't notice, or even worse, don't care.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, print put forward a definition of intelligence that gave priority to the objective, rational use of the mind and at the same time encouraged forms of public discourse with serious, logically ordered content. It is no accident that the Age of Reason was coexistent with the growth of a print culture, first in Europe and then in America. The spread of typography kindled the hope that the world and its manifold mysteries could at least be comprehended, predicted, controlled. It is in the eighteenth century that the scientific method preeminent example of the analytic management of knowledge--begins its refashioning of the world. It is in the eighteenth century that capitalism is demonstrated to be a rational and liberal system of economic life, that religious superstition comes under furious attack, that the divine right of kings is shown to be a mere prejudice, that the idea of continuous progress takes hold, and that the necessity of universal literacy through education becomes apparent. Amusing Ourselves to Death, pp 51-52
Notice that what Postman is talking about is more than just "reading and writing" but an interactive process between writer and reader whereby the reader performs a critical analysis of the text, what Jacques Ellul refers to as the "second stage of education" beyond the first of basic literacy. It is precisely this "rational" culture, this typographic or print-based culture which has been in decline in the US since at least World War II and the cause of that is definitely not reading and writing.
There seems to be a bit of confusion as to what Postman's talking about. He's not talking about different "technologies", but rather different "mediums". I think this also applicable to my critique of Venkat's article since it is his assumptions as to what the "medium of orality" can carry that I disagree with. So to Postman:
Such a hope represents exactly what Marshall McLuhan used to call "rear-view mirror" thinking: the assumption that a new medium is merely an extension or amplification of an older one; that an automobile, for example, is only a fast horse, or an electric light a powerful candle. To make such a mistake in the matter at hand is to misconstrue entirely how television redefines the meaning of public discourse. Television does not extend or amplify literate culture. It attacks it. If television is a continuation of anything, it is of a tradition begun by the telegraph and photograph in the mid-nineteenth century, not by the printing press in the fifteenth.
What is television? What kinds of conversations does it permit? What are the intellectual tendencies it encourages? What sort of culture does it produce? These are the questions to be addressed in the rest of this book, and to approach them with a minimum of confusion, I must begin by making a distinction between a technology and a medium. We might say that a technology is to a medium as the brain is to the mind. Like the brain, a technology is a physical apparatus. Like the mind, a medium is a use to which a physical apparatus is put. A technology becomes a medium as it employs a particular symbolic code, as it finds its place in a particular social setting, as it insinuates itself into economic and political contexts. A technology, in other words, is merely a machine. A medium is the social and intellectual environment a machine creates.
Of course, like the brain itself, every technology has an inherent b ias. It has within its physical form a predisposition toward being used in certain ways and not others. Only those who know nothing of the history of technology believe that a technology is entirely neutral. There is an old joke that mocks that naive belief. Thomas Edison, it goes, would have revealed his discovery of the electric light much sooner than he did except for the fact that every time he turned it on, he held it to his mouth and said, "Hello? Hello?"
Not very likely. Each technology has an agenda of its own. It is, as I have suggested, a metaphor waiting to unfold. the printing press, for example, had a clear bias toward being used as a the Ae of Show Business linguistic medium. It is conceivable to use it exclusively for the reproduction of pictures. And, one imagines, the Roman Catholic Church would not have objected to its being so used in the sixteenth century. Had that been the case, the Protestant Reformation might not have occurred, for as Luther contended, with the word of God on every family's kitchen table, Christians do not require the Papacy to interpret it for them. But in fact there never was much chance that the press would be used solely, or even very much, for the duplication of icons. From its beginning in the fifteenth century, the press was perceived as an extraordinary opportunity for the display and mass distribution of written language. Everything about its technical possibilities led in that direction. One might even say it was invented for that purpose. the technology of television has a bias, as well. It is conceivable to use television as a lamp, a surface for texts, a bookcase, even as radio. But it has not been so used and will not be so used, at least in America. Thus, in answering the question, What is television?, we must understand as a first point that we are not talking about television as a technology but television as a medium. There are many places in the world where television, though the same technology as it is in America, is an entirely different medium from that which we know. I refer to places where the majority of people do not have television sets, and those who do have only one; where only one station is available; where television does not operate around the clock; where most programs have as their purpose the direct furtherance of government ideology and policy; where commercials are unknown, and "talking heads" are the principal image; where television is mostly used as if it were radio. For these reasons and more television will not have the same meaning or power as it does in America, which is to say, it is possible for a technology to be so used that its potentialities are prevented from developing and its social consequences kept to a minimum.
But in America, this has not been the case. Television has found in liberal democracy and a relatively free market economy a nurturing climate in which its full potentialities as a technology of images could be exploited. Amusing Ourselves to Death, pp 83-86
This is what I think Venkat did in his article. He conflated the two technologies - printing press and telegraph & TV - as well as the two mediums, print and TV, and saw the decline in literacy as being due to the first set when in reality it was due to the second.


  1. Seydlitz,
    A public tv program recently made a good point.
    The western world pulled ahead of the Islamic culture b/c of our use of mass printed matter(gutenburg). This allowed widespread diffusion of scientific knowledge, while the east relied on hand written scribe type work.
    From there we can go on to literacy.

  2. seydlitz -

    Rao may be right about Western dismissal of oral cultures. Some of his other points seem akin to sophistry. And it was not just the Indian subcontinent that had oral traditions. It just lasted longer there.

    Wasn't Greece, the cradle of much of western thought, an oral based culture? Rhetoric meant something good back at that time and in that place, not as it is meant now. And thank God there were a few scribbling scribes around at that time like Thucydides and an unknown copyist or two to preserve and write down some of that great elocution. Although I think the Greek oral tradition had more to do with the judicial and the political rather than the religious case in India as mentioned by Rao above, Point in case would be the 'Mytilene-Debate' or 'Pericles-Funeral-Oration' to name some of the more famous ones.

    I have always wondered about the oral literacy of multilingualism. It was not something that I ever had, in spite of studying and eventually being able to speak a broken form of tieng Viet. But I served with many who were truly multilingual in four or five languages and were able to converse in them fluently?

  3. Interesting thoughts.

    You are right that I conflate orality and literacy. That was deliberate. I do not agree with Ong that orality is to be identified with subjectivity. That is true of specific tribal lore and bardic type cultures. Subjectivity/egocentricity is an unrelated variable. In fact it is my argument that the practices of disciplined orality actual sustain objectivity and distance better than the nominal objectification achieved by writing. The academic consensus reflects, imo, its own intellectual traditions more than the ones it seeks to illuminate, so I don't take it too seriously. That's why I prefer the blogosphere to academia.

    There is also no East/West distinction here. I was careful to note that I was only using Indian oral traditions as an example. I am pretty sure you'd find the same phenomena in the West. For that matter, old/new is also not relevant. Many modern subcultures that are primarily oral. Inevitably, despite my qualified use of the example, the casual reader of the post is going to be tempted to read an East vs. West angle in my post, especially since I am myself Indian. That's a battle I never fight since it goes nowhere.

    As for the rest, I agree with some points, disagree with many others, but I won't contest them. Overall, you seem to be heading in some interesting directions with these thoughts, and I look forward to your further explorations on this stuff.

  4. Seydlitz,

    I think you’re referring to high-level writing that can be approached critically so that the commentaries are at least as meaningful as the original text. That is a basis for civilization, as the Jews and Chinese so well demonstrate.

    But most of the things we read – corporate memos, military correspondence, technical manuals, forms of all sorts – are intended to freeze meaning. Scholars attribute the shrinkage of the English vocabulary in the 18th century to the demands of empire. Orders and reports had to be written in simple language to avoid ambiguity. This sort of written communication is always detailed and specific, since appeal to general principles invites individual interpretation.

    Cook-book writing enables poorly trained technicians to function, so long as things do not become too complicated. Engineers have their own cook books in the form of computer programs.

    The end result of dumbed-down, top-to-bottom communication became the motto of the 1933 Chicago Century of Progress Exposition:

    “Science finds. Industry applies. Man conforms.”

  5. And I think that another factor in what Paul is describing is the explosion of literacy in the 19th Century.

    Prior to that literacy itself was confined to a fairly small slice of the upper end of Western societies. The bulk of the population didn't read at all, much less engage in critical analyses. It's not that they were idiots, or not rational, but that their exposition and summation took place in an oral culture, not a written one.

    But the Industrial Revolution made it possible for every swinging richard to get their hands on books and newspapers. And it meant that teaching literacy had to be industrialized, too, to reach all those people.

    So the slow, specialized, high-end Oxfordian sort of teaching, learning, and discourse remained where it was, at the high end of the social spectrum. The rest of us got the "Industry applies" version, where we learned to read and write and got a little bit of textural analysis if we were lucky.

    And, meanwhile, the breadth of knowledge increased by several orders of magnitude. In 1770 a well-read man or woman could reasonably claim to be fairly knowledgeable about a wide range of human achievement - art, music, science, politics...

    By the middle of the 19th Century and certainly by the middle of the 20th it would have required a lifetime of study to be a truly "Renaissance" person, capable of discoursing knowledgeably about a broad range of subjects. Instead we have to get either a deep but narrow or a broad but superficial brief on certain subjects.

    So I think the high-end discourse is still there, it's just not in the common purview. So what we tend to run across most often is the sort of middlebrow, reading-and-writing level thing you're describing.

  6. Welcome Venkat to our humble blog. Your thoughts regarding constraints and boundary conditions in regards to modeling are very applicable to Clausewitzian strategic theory in my view. You've opened up a whole new line of thought in terms of strategic theory concepts the list of which is growing . . .

    I assumed that your full view on literacy was more nuanced than what was presented in the article which printed out to only 9.5 pages. So this post is very much a response to what I understood as that argument which I in turn took as an opportunity to question my own assumptions on literacy. Agree very much on academic attitudes reflecting their own traditions/interests which is why I am so pleased that there is yet to be any degree offered in strategic theory . . . essentially anyone can speak/write on it after having invested the time, effort and contemplation necessary to understand the basic texts . . .

    The cultural connection is difficult to avoid: "disciplined orality actual sustain objectivity and distance better than the nominal objectification". I think you would have difficulty selling this to a Westerner since the connection "Truth = written word" is difficult (for us at least) to get away from, although it would make a very interesting argument.

    And yes I do see this whole argument of "literacy" or lack of literacy (in Ellul's concept of the second stage of education) leading to a strategic theory application (as I suppose I would), that being the "contingency" of political action in terms of strategy/grand strategy formulation or the inability of such.

    Just wondering if you have any comments on Albert Borgmann's "device paradigm" in regards to our perceptions of technology? I see a very interesting connection here with strategic theory as well.

  7. jim-

    It was the wide dissemination of ideas which the printing press allowed that in turn offered the spark for the reformation and later the Enlightenment . . . so very much agree.


    Our daughters have been raised tri-lingual (English, German & Portuguese) and they are able to operate effectively in all three. It's much different for me who was raised with one language and hardly use my second language (German) much at the moment. Portuguese ranks a distant third. I would say I'm only truly literate in English at this time, that is speaking, writing, discerning . . .

    It's interesting that this same level of ability is what we try for in advanced English . . . speaking, writing and critical thinking in terms of what one is exposed to regarding English . . .

  8. seydlitz: Notice that what Postman is talking about is more than just "reading and writing" but an interactive process between writer and reader whereby the reader performs a critical analysis of the text, what Jacques Ellul refers to as the "second stage of education" beyond the first of basic literacy. It is precisely this "rational" culture, this typographic or print-based culture which has been in decline in the US since at least World War II and the cause of that is definitely not reading and writing.

    You have hit upon the key question concerning contemporary US "culture". With so much written matter at our disposal, why are we becoming more and more a society of, as jim so aptly termed it, "Goof Balls". Is it that we have so many "answers" at our disposal that we no longer concern ourselves with the "questions" from which the answers arise? If so, then that would be one cause of the lack of critical thinking which we bemoan.

    Reminds me of the scene in Douglas Adams' magnificent social commentary, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy", where after years of work, the great computer, "Deep Thought" provides, as requested, the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything - "42". The "Thinking Class" is scandalized, as "42" makes no sense and they tell the computer so. Deep Thought's response is, "That's because you don't know the question."

    Far too many of us are living in a world of answers, oblivious to the questions they address. If we simply wish to spout answers, where is the critical thinking? Do high school students know what Social Security was in answer to, or is it just on a list of things that "happened" in the 1930's.

    Similarly, in a discussion amongst my Vespa riding friends on the merits of the GPS, one rider said, "The great think about using a GPS is that I always know where I am." Another rider asked, "Do you know where you are, or does the GPS simply tell you when you look at it?" A bit of nuance, but it definitely stirred a considerable bit of discussion over the whole concept of what "knowing" is. After all, before the GPS, one was totally dependent upon maps, one's senses and mental process to determine where one was on a cross country trip. Now you simply look at a 4.3 inch LCD screen.

    Here's a news item to consider. Papa John's Pizza says they will have to raise the price of their pizzas by 11 to 14 cents to provide the employee health insurance mandated by "Obamacare". How many people with employer provided health insurance will pause to think about how much their coverage adds to the cost of their employer's goods and/or services? How many even realize that it is their firm's customers that actually finance the company health plan? How many people realize that one key to keeping a fast food meal cheap is to let the employees fend for themselves on health care? Rather, they will simply accept the "answer" that Obamacare raises prices and costs jobs. That the price structure of their employer can include this "benefit" never enters their thought process, or lack thereof.

    If all "literacy" does is provide packaged "answers", WASF.

  9. Paul-

    The type of "literacy" you mention is a component of modern bureaucracy, which requires written directives, instructions, records and archives. Nothing happens without a paper trail to explain the whole sequence of actions. The meaning of the literacy I'm referring to is linked with education firstly, but then also how the medium in question forms our perceptions . . . as text did in the past and electronic images do today . . . So isn't it the effects/characteristics of bureaucracy, which is all about administrative control, that you are referring to rather than literacy as in the ability to read, comprehend and discern texts . . . ?

    I would add that basic literacy was promoted by every communist regime which achieved power in order to communicate (sometimes exclusively) their maximum plan and communist doctrine as the regime saw it. The more advanced level of critical dialogue was discouraged to say the least . . .

    Nice quote from the Chicago World's Fair . . .

  10. Another thought to chew on; I think that we need to distinguish between levels of literacy here.

    From the earliest written texts there appear to have been a relatively small number of people, and fora, which participated in the sorts of extensive analyses you're categorizing as the higher level of literacy, seydlitz. There still are; look at what we're doing here.

    At the same time, I suspect that the vast majority of people took little or no part in those discussions. They either preferred, or were only exposed to, the Greek, Roman, Byzantine, or whatever-equivalent of "Keeping Up With The Kardashians". They still are.

    We still have Homer because (whoever the hell he really was) his oral product, and the resulting commentary thereon, was so good, so powerful, that it survived to the present day. The Homeric equivalent of "Kardashians"? Not so much.

    We still have the artifacts of the "rational" culture of the pre-WW2 U.S. because it's those artifacts we consider worth preserving. The scandal sheets, the yellow press, the Police Gazette, the Victorian tits-and-ass tales...not so much.

    So I think that we may be a bit premature in bemoaning the decline of literacy.

    But - what I DO think we're seeing is a tremendous uptick in a sort of visible "goofball literacy" with the ascent of moronic popular culture into the foreground. I'm not sure this has as much to do with the actual effect on U.S. society - I don't see us making political or social decisions that much worse than, say, Jim Crow, Dred Scott, or invading the Philippines - as it does the fact that a) we're here to see it, and b) for perhaps the first time in U.S. history we lack an overt elitism that crams the rude pop culture stuff down the memory hole.

    In 1920 there were all sorts of examples of moronic Papa Johns/GPS sorts of literacy. But they were categorized, and stigmatized, as just that - moronic pap for the masses. Just like you put on a coat and tie before going outside, you didn't flaunt your affection for scandal sheets or tits-and-ass mags.

    Now we parade about in T-shirts and cutoffs or worse, and we have wide acceptance of the weapons-grade stupid as popular literacy...

    Again; I don't see some huge difference in how this has dumbed-down the Great American Public. The Great American Public loved the shit out of genociding the natives, lynching, apartheid, invading other people's countries, Tang, and bobby sox. The Great American public - hell, MOST publics, are and always have been as smart as a bag of hammers. I think the difference now is that we've stopped trying to pretend to any degree of sophistication and just wallow about in our public ignorance.

    Just sayin'...

  11. So to continue:

    "The meaning of the literacy I'm referring to is linked with education firstly..." and pre-WW2 a relatively huge proportion of the world's people GOT little or no education. So, again, we're largely talking about a social, political, and economic elite here. And...

    ..."but then also how the medium in question forms our perceptions." No question that the rise of a visual culture tends to make extensive verbal or literary analysis less common. But, again, I'm not sure that this is as much a real change as a change in perception resulting from the explosion of popular culture and the decline of the stranglehold of eliteism on said culture.

  12. FDChief "I think the difference now is that we've stopped trying to pretend to any degree of sophistication and just wallow about in our public ignorance."

    Absolutely spot on, but I would also offer that far too many arrogantly wallow in ignorance.

  13. Chief,

    Absolutely. Industrialization required basic literacy. As manufacturing processes became more complex, many of the better jobs involved reading drawings and some skill in mathematics. What was unusual about the period was the proliferation of tinkerers who pursued technology (and often dreams of wealth) on their terms. Most of the innovations that made the industrial revolution possible came off the factory floor.

    The passion for tinkering lasted, by my reckoning anyway, until the 1950s. Men, mostly old-timers, busied themselves with “inventions” and the young people who could afford it built hotrods. Hock shops were full of precision measuring instruments and “Popular Science” magazine instructed readers how to perform all sorts of complex endeavors, such as carbide-fueled welding, machine tool construction, and lens grinding.

    Now that the notion of careerism has been exploded or, at least, deflated, we might be seeing a re-birth of the tinkering spirit. “Make” magazine is not too different than the old science and mechanics mags, and Tech Shop has opened tool rental and instruction centers in major cities. Amateurs are, with a few exceptions, the force that drives the 3D printing revolution.

    The future will be interesting.


    I agree. Merely learning to read does not impact freedom and certainly opens new possibilities. What I was trying to say is that bureaucracies, command structures of all types, try to freeze the meaning of words. They invent bureaucratic, imperial, priestly, or whatever dictions to do so.

    Literalness of language accounts for the terrible absoluteness of poorly educated people and works hand-in-hand with the social-control mechanisms imposed by their betters. Whatever dictum – the Second Amendment, the Bible, marriage, the most recent lab report – means what it says, no more and no less. American Blacks and oppressed people everywhere respond to these dictates with irony, undercutting and shifting the meanings of words.

    Any finally, I would like to say that MilPub is an amazing website that it gives strangers like us, with different histories, living in distant parts of the world, the opportunity to carry on such a dialogue.

  14. Seydlitz -

    Years ago I had read an short article that cited greatly improved literacy in multilingual children. I tried a websearch for it but could not find it. However, I did find a good explanation on wiki that indicates your daughters will have a great advantage and not just in literacy because of their multilingualism. Studies have shown its impact among other benefits gives a better effect on memory, better ability to filter information, and even significant improvement in non-verbal tasks.

  15. Gentlemen-

    You've brought up a whole series of interesting questions. Let me think about this for a bit.

    For some background on my view of literacy, I very much agree with Postman's argument as presented in Amusing Ourselves to Death. I've used the book as a set text for three years.

    The Advanced English students read the book and we discuss relevant topics in class. They are assigned the task of writing a summary of one chapter. They choose, but I confirm since I expect a class to cover all the chapters in the book if possible. I provide them with a sample. Students have found it the most difficult writing assignment that they've had. Some of the chapters and thus summaries are very long and involved - Postman's writing is necessarily a bit dense. Most come away with a different view of "literacy" and an appreciation for the characteristics of an image-based medium and its affects.

    Prior to this they've been exposed to a whole series of critical thinking topics for class discussions (mostly pair work). In addition the whole language focus is on reading skills, with grammar, listening, writing and speaking all covered but with this reading emphasis. Over a 90 hour course they have to churn through a lot of text.

    I think this provides at least two benefits. We have noticed an increase in attention span and a clear distinction between classes using this approach and those not. Second, I cover a lot of current events which stimulate reading outside of class should their interest be aroused. They get a wide variety of types of texts to summarize and compare/contrast: reporting, opinion pieces, and blatant propaganda, rational and otherwise.

    Teach them the language, but also give them the tools to deal with it as informed and literate individuals . . .

  16. I think one issue you're dealing with is that much of the written word that your students - that all of us - are exposed to is not designed to or intended to be analyzed.

    It is intended purely as, well, propaganda of one form or another. Propaganda in the form of advertising, particularly, but also propaganda in the form of political tracts, or popular nonfiction of the Coulter variety. We're constantly bombed with this stuff, intentionally constructed to be difficult to parse, analyze, and either confirm or refute. Much of it is purely opinion gussied up as "facts".

    But I would take issue with Postman's fundamental distinction of a "literate" versus a post-literate or "image-based" culture. For example, just in the excerpt you cited above, Postman claims that "In a culture dominated by print, public discourse tends to be characterized by a coherent, orderly arrangement of facts and ideas. The public for whom it is intended is generally competent to manage such discourse." That being the case, then the literate culture of the 18th and 19th Centuries, those eras that Postman states were encouraged by literate discourse to cultivate an "...objective, rational use of the mind and at the same time encouraged forms of public discourse with serious, logically ordered content." should have been free of quackism, fakery, know-nothingism, credulity, hysteria, and weapons-grade moronity of the pro-slavery sorts of arguments. That fact that those centuries are larded with political, economic, and social decisions as foolish or even more foolish than our own suggests that the matter is more complex than a simple issue of text versus pictures...

    Believe me - I am a great believer in the value of learning and teaching all the skills of advanced literacy - I wouldn't bother to write the way I do if I didn't.

    But I think there is very little grounds to move from there to advancing a thesis that connects the late 20th Century transition from a text-based to an image-based literacy to a general decline in the analytical/intellectual skills of the Western public (which I take as his main point).

  17. FDChief: a thesis that connects the late 20th Century transition from a text-based to an image-based literacy to a general decline in the analytical/intellectual skills of the Western public

    Probably the biggest shock I suffered when beginning to substitute teach in 2000 was the lack of textual material in "TEXT BOOKS" as compared to my memory of high school. And, much of the "text" was bullet points. Lots of pictures, though. Big pictures.

  18. I’m not convinced that – if I understand Chief’s position correctly – images and words are merely interchangeable containers for ideas. Words are accessible, you can parse them, construct alternate arguments, seek out hidden assumptions, and so on. Images merely are. For example, one can and does argue about the Vietnam War, endlessly. But the two or three iconic photographs that came out of that war make all argument futile. The screaming girl burning with napalm, crumpled face of the Viet Cong prisoner at the moment of assassination, the soldier hanging off helicopter skids during the evacuation of the American embassy – drown out words.

    The only way to refute an image is with a more powerful image.

    Substituting images for arguments must have an effect upon one’s ability to think critically. Certainly the effect on writing, the other dimension of critical thinking, has been profound. Detroit Diesel manuals were, back in the 1950s and 60s, technical treatises. The current DD manuals are picture books of the kind that one might give to a child. Once Toyota and Japanese manuals generally were full of the sort of attention to detail that one expects from craftsmen. Today these manuals, while often more comprehensive that their American counterparts, have a patina of slickness, a quality that is always purchased at the expense of critical thinking. And so it goes.

  19. Yes, picture books! The American history textbook used in the high school where I substituted sported a wonderful, half page picture of FDR signing a piece of legislation, with the usual smiling crowd looking on. What this contributed to the students' understanding of the legislation and why a half page was consumed with the picture escapes me.

    However, with the advent of TV, I would suspect that it takes visual imagery to hold the current generation's attention.

    Here's a sample of one American History textbook.
    In my view, it's a bit "over visual". perhaps I've just become a curmudgeon?

  20. Hi all-

    Been occupied with family stuff, so have been unable to provide this post with the attention it deserved. I've added a postscript with another long quote from Postman which deals with what I think many of the comments have been about. Conclusions to follow . . .

  21. Hi there,

    I've been lurking for some time, my long-held precept being that one learns more with mouth shut than open.

    Writers in this blog rarely if ever need to hear my 2-cents worth. Hell, I even agree with Andy most of the time these days.

    The full Texas 2012 Republican Party Platform can be found at

    Having spent some time in Texas ("don't go AWOL -- after three days we can still see you walking"), most of this screed is no surprise. But this paragraph made my jaw drop:

    "Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority."

    So the masks are off, at least in TX.



  22. I guess what I'd want to see to proof Postman's theorem regarding the effect of substituting visual images for text on public policy would be a quantifiable decline in the quality of decision-making.

    So if the idea is that the 20th Century shift from text that lends itself to thoughtful deconstruction and logical arguments to emotion-laden images then we should see a clear shift away from, say, elections based on rational debates on substance and towards purely emotional decisions based on propaganda and marketing...

    And I'm not sure you can see that. I think a huge part of the problem is the noise-to-signal ratio; the social changes between the late 18th Century and the late 20th overwrite the effect of the media. But I also think that there's no real sign that people in 2012 are any less emotional, irrational, and easily swayed by image than people in 1912 were by tracts, partisan broadsheets, and posters.

    Keep in mind; I agree that the ability to closely parse ideas in print and conduct a rigorous internal analysis of contentious issues is an important and needed thing, especially to a citizen in a democracy. But I think that the contention that the changes in things like textbooks and news stories has and is resulting in a general "dumbing down" of democratic publics has to still be considered no more than a hypothesis. No disagreement that the sort of groups that benefit from a widespread indifference to, or inability to discern, outright lies from "differences of opinion"(coughTexasGOPcough) benefit from such a dumbing, if this CAN be related to the change from text- to image-centered communication.

    But I'm not sure whether that's the case, or whether these groups are simply willing to be more open about hitting for the "stupidity of the American public" sweet spot that's ALWAYS been there and always will be, that willingness, delight, and tendency to wallow publicly in our own ignorance that has produced stuff like social darwinism and know-nothingism...

  23. FDChief: No disagreement that the sort of groups that benefit from a widespread indifference to, or inability to discern, outright lies from "differences of opinion"(coughTexasGOPcough) benefit from such a dumbing, if this CAN be related to the change from text- to image-centered communication.

    I would offer two issues here. First, as we remove the tools for intelligent discourse, we reduce the odds that it will take place, as we reduce the number of people who may enter into same. What someone chooses to do with an available tool is one thing, but if the tool is not available in the first place, then that's another. Obviously, the TX GOP do not want the tool made available.

    The second issue, which I think arises from the "dumbing down", is the elevation of "opinion" to fact, or, perhaps, the confusing of the two. Actually, our society is confusing "knowledge", "belief", "opinion", "assumption", "conclusion", "fact" and a myriad of other terms when it comes to discussing the world around us. Thus, we have "opinions" and/or "beliefs" identified as "facts".

    Couple the semantic and definitional issue above with historical ignorance, and "beliefs" or "opinions" result in revisions of history. For example, the other day, the Mrs and I were having a delightful discussion with two Austrian women on the beach. They were confused over the differences between the Roman Church and the Orthodox Church. I said, "Consider that the Orthodox did not directly experience the Reformation, Counter-Reformation or Enlightenment. Now you would have an idea of how profoundly different 'Eastern Christianity' is from 'Western Christianity' and some of the reasons why." While both women are not "religious", they were bright enough, and well enough versed in European history to imagine how profoundly the example I gave would effect the two Churches. Both then offered examples of what they had seen in the Greek Church over the years they had come here on holiday that now made great sense. Tell that to the average Yank, and you would just get the deer in the headlights look. For most Americans, "history just happens", without greater context or impact.

    Why do I have a reasonable grasp of the difference between "knowledge", "belief", "opinion", "assumption", "conclusion", "fact", etc? Because Mrs Margaret Shea, my high school English teacher, no less the rest of the faculty, demanded we know the difference. Mrs Shea's name comes to the forefront simply because of the very colorful and eccentric techniques she used in the classroom to reinforce our learning of the differences. It isn't really that hard to understand, but it does have to be taught.

    But today, far more than in the 1950's and my high school days, "beliefs" supplant facts. "Opinion" has been elevated to such a lofty state that factual matter topples to the individual's "right to his or her opinion". It's far more important to prove WHO is right, not WHAT is right. Can there really be such an egocentric underpinning to learning?

  24. FD Chief-

    There's lots of information out there on the drop of literacy in the US. Some make a clear link with TV . . .

    Even among college grads the level of literacy is dropping . . .

    Consider then too, what was defined as "literacy" for this test:

    --The test measures how well adults comprehend basic instructions and tasks through reading -- such as computing costs per ounce of food items, comparing viewpoints on two editorials and reading prescription labels. Only 41 percent of graduate students tested in 2003 could be classified as "proficient" in prose -- reading and understanding information in short texts -- down 10 percentage points since 1992. Of college graduates, only 31 percent were classified as proficient -- compared with 40 percent in 1992. Schneider said the results do not separate recent graduates from those who have been out of school several years or more.--

    "Short texts", including labels . . . Now, you could say, "yes, but none of this proves causality" and you would be right. You're a scientist and think in terms of hard facts, and cause and effect. Which are both important for a geologist. But here we're talking about levels of education with in a specific and large population and what is causing decreases in terms of "literacy" variously defined. But not only that, since we are seeing a broad decline in a host of areas . . . which is what Venkat's original post was all about.

    My first point is that we have to use a different methodology, one more suited for the social sciences. Also you are not going to end up with the type of clear cause and effect relationships that one finds in the natural sciences. Societies aren't like that, and neither are social systems, or social interactions . . . such as war or profound changes in political communities.

    My second point is an old one. We've disagreed on this same basic point before. You say "same ole, same ole" and I say "something has really changed". What I see as the rise of radical right-wing nihilism has no parallel in US history. I have friends back home who don't have a "pot to pizz in" but will vote GOP based on the issue of "gay marriage" alone, that and/or "guns". There is no recognition of what their basic economic interests actually are.

    This from a Congressional District that supported the Bonus marchers in 1932 and reelected a radical New Dealer to Congress that same year. Our man was a populist Democrat because that was what the people demanded. He was also a friend of small business and an enemy of the big banks.

    This guy, whom I met as a kid . . .

    I'm a product of state education in Texas, both public school and state college. I think my generation are basically literate, as were those before me, and if any were not it was nothing to do with the "system", but something has happened and it is getting worse . . . something that hasn't happened before in this country . . .

  25. Al-

    Great stuff. That history book had easier language content than what our 12-14 year olds are faced with here, that is students of our organization, and that's dealing with English as a second or even third language . . .

    Islam too has never gone through a reformation, let alone the Enlightenment.

  26. JP-

    Hey, don't be a stranger! And thanks for that link . . .

  27. "...but something has happened and it is getting worse . . . something that hasn't happened before in this country"

    But in a sense it HAS, seydlitz; we called it the "Gilded Age". It was dominated by many of the same forces that are pushing their way to the head of the line today; economic elites, "manifest destiny/national greatness" war-lovers, and the usual grifters, leeches, and remoras that fasten themselves to these sharks.

    What I see as the difference was that then there was no real need to co-opt the unwashed. If you could control the government, enough of the press, the troops and the police you could just bash the strikers, the "radicals" and the commies on the head.

    And that really was the story of the U.S. from 1789 to 1932; the rich, the well-born, and their coterie ran the joint. The rest of us got a 12-hour workday, cholera, financial panics, and the back of their hand when we got out of line.

    So I guess my sense is that it's the 1932-1970 period that was the anomaly. The New Dealers grabbed the opportunity caused by the economic bed-crapping of 1929 and rode that to a relatively widespread national prosperity. But the people who lost out in '32 never gave up, and now they've found the issue they need to lever the nation back to the way they like it.

    And IMO that issue isn't as much a drop in public literacy or general understanding of their economic best interests as it is, to put it bluntly, all about the niggers.

    Let's be honest with ourselves; the big watershed between the social compact of the New Deal and the New Gilded Age of today was Civil Rights. Until then there was a pretty damn broad consensus for just the sort of thing you describe: "...a Congressional District that supported the Bonus marchers in 1932 and reelected a radical New Dealer to Congress that same year. Our man was a populist Democrat because that was what the people demanded. He was also a friend of small business and an enemy of the big banks."

    And that was fine - so long as everyone involved was white.

    But when U.S. progressives insisted that this largesse be distributed to people that didn't look like "us"; black people, brown people, women people, gay people...well, as you say, you had a critical mass of Americans who were and are willing to sell out their own economic interests to take a slap at what they think of as niggers, beaners, bitches, and fags.


  28. (con't from above)

    This isn't a coincidence and it didn't just happen; it was deliberately engineered by the GOP who assembled this coalition of racist mouthbreathers and Christopathic dominionists.

    But I'm not sure that it has as much to do with people being unable to deconstruct Krugman's prose or parse the GOP platform as a bunch of racist mouthbreathers and Christopathic dominionists being willing to well themselves into slavery to Goldman Sachs to ensure that the darkies and the wimmins and the homos don't get the same "rights" they do. I think that they have some dim awareness that they're screwing themselves. They'd just rather ensure that their "enemies" are screwed than share the goodies they'd get by putting the thumbscrews to the plutocrats.

    Hell, you're a Southerner, you grew up with this; the only thing the "white trash" had in common with the owner of the Planter's and Merchant's was whiteness...but by God, they'd sooner let him foreclose on their shack than vote for a damnyankee Republican who'd let some damn darky sharecropper own the 40 acres next to theirs. The only thing they had to be proud of was that "they weren't niggers", but that was enough to keep them supporting the people who screwed them over for generations.

    Anyway, we're just gassing on. There's no support for a return to the old standards of teaching and learning textural analysis and, even if there were, I have no confidence that at this point that the results would tend to push the nation back towards a less feudal mindset.

    Anyone with an idea for the next topic? I'll be honest and admit I just haven't the heart to tackle U.S. social, political, and economic problems right now. Given the contemptable state of the U.S. public they're just not tractable.

  29. FD Chief-

    "Gilded Age"?

    That actually confirms my point. In 1894, there was a record 1,394 strikes. Eighteen "hobo armies" set forth on marches to Washington. Henry Adams wrote to a friend in England, "The public temper here is, in my opinion, a very ugly one and likely on the smallest pretext to become exceedingly bitter, not to say dangerous . . . we are the Rome of the Gracchi". Walter Karp's great book, "The Politics of War" describes how the political establishment saw themselves in a losing situation and had to make radical changes in order to survive. Even Anti-Populists used the language of Populism, they had to . . . Americans knew the system was corrupt, they wanted change, NOW, and the money bags were running scared . . .

    Compare that to today. The Tea Party has been folded into the GOP (the most corrupt of our two corporate parties) with barely a whimper. The "conservatives" support radical policies without blinking an eye. Obama is described as a "Marxist", while the Democrats don't really seem to believe in anything except getting Obama re-elected. Americans know the system is corrupt, but who can do anything about it? Still, "America's the greatest country in the world", so why complain? And there are ever soooo many distractions to focus on instead of all that "negative stuff" . . .

    Could the distinction be any clearer?

  30. You might very well be on to something, Seydlitz – we do seem to be in the presence of something not previously seen. Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of “liquid modernity” may cast some light on the situation. Frankly I’m a bit at sea with his central idea that all “solids” – institutions, traditions, stabilities of all kinds, including one’s notions of self-worth – have been corroded and melted by the passion for “liquefaction.” The quote that follows is from his “Liquid Modernity,” which can be downloaded at

    We stand at:

    “the end of the era of mutual engagement: between the supervisors and the supervised, capital and labour, leaders and their followers, armies at war. The prime technique of power is now escape, slippage, elision and avoidance, the effective rejection of any territorial confinement with its cumbersome corollaries of order-building, order-maintenance and the responsibility for the consequences of it all as well as of the necessity to bear their costs.

    “This new technique of power has been vividly illustrated by the… Gulf and Jugoslav wars… Engaging in a ground combat was resented…for its total uselessness and even counter-productivity. After the conquest of territory with all its administrative and managerial consequences was … an eventuality meant to be by all means avoided, viewed with repugnance as another sort of 'collateral damage', this time inflicted on the attacking force itself.

    “Blows delivered by stealthy fighter planes and 'smart' self-guided and target-seeking missiles - delivered by surprise, coming from nowhere and immediately vanishing from sight - replaced the territorial advances of the infantry troops…. Military force and its 'hit and run' war-plan prefigured, embodied and portended what was really at stake in the new type of war in the era of liquid modernity: not the conquest of a new territory, but crushing the walls which stopped the flow of new, fluid global powers; beating out of the enemy's head the desire to set up his own rules, and so opening up the so-far barricaded and walled-off, inaccessible space to the operations of the other, non-military, arms of power. War today, one may say (paraphrasing Clausewitz's famous formula), looks increasingly like a 'promotion of global free trade by other means'”

  31. "Hell, you're a Southerner, you grew up with this; the only thing the "white trash" had in common with the owner of the Planter's and Merchant's was whiteness...but by God, they'd sooner let him foreclose on their shack than vote for a damnyankee Republican who'd let some damn darky sharecropper own the 40 acres next to theirs. The only thing they had to be proud of was that "they weren't niggers", but that was enough to keep them supporting the people who screwed them over for generations."

    Yes, I've seen "Mississippi Burning" which this reminds me of, ya know the part where the redneck FBI character - played by Gene Hackman - talks about his pappy and that mule. Says ever soooo much about the South, right?

    Personally I always thought Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" said much more. And of course Mark Twain, Robert Penn Warren, Stark Young, and William Faulkner and their writings, and Faulkner's concept of "blood" which meant far more than "race", not to mention tragedy, which the South knew very well. Perhaps that's the real problem in the South today, we've lost that Southern culture and all that's left is movie clips, cheap beer, NASCAR, chest-thumping militarism, clueless complacency, and sadly racism, it would have survived, unfortunately.

    In fact you could say the same thing of many things. What do we actually know about, say, World War II? Its written history, what we heard from veterans of that conflict? Or rather movie clips? "Saving Private Ryan"? We, as in the US, "won the war" effectively single-handedly with a little help from the Brits . . .

    Al spoke about a teacher he had in grade school who helped educate him. I had teachers like that too, dedicated Southern women, "Southern matrons" I've referred to them as, who transferred that specific culture to me, who allowed me to understand both its strengths and tragic weaknesses, if only unintentionally. But I was always allowed to question, encouraged to question, expected to find my own truth with the understanding that eventually I would return to the fold . . . the problem is that I have returned, but there seems to be no "fold" left to return to . . .

  32. Paul-

    Looks interesting. I'll have a read. Be warned though, that I've already possibly been influenced/poisoned by "French thought" . . .

  33. seydlitz-

    Unfortunately, many of the most important elements of American society have been "industrialized" - turned into business enterprises. Chief amongst them are education and health care. I'll only address education:

    Read about all the "for-profit college scandals". With CEOs, not deans, who are paid mega bucks, financed by taxpayer loans and grants, with the highest drop out and loan default rates of all categories of schools. But while these these for-profits may fail academically, they are wildly successful business-wise.

    Look at the text book industry. No longer do they simply sell scholarly textbooks. Now they sell "Complete learning packages" of textbooks, teachers' guides, student workbooks, student study guides, test banks, audio video materials and more. (BTW, the bold italicized items are consumables, guaranteeing repeat sales every year. The materials make it easy for a teacher to become a "course administrator" versus a "teacher", as so much of the conduct of the course is dominated by the publisher's materials. It's hard to encourage "critical thinking" when all the "answers" are already canned for you. But just selling books would be to miss market potential and profit.

    Note that many of the standardized tests being given at the state level under "No Child Left Behind" are constructed by private contractors and consultants.

    I'll quit here, before I start a rant!

  34. Great thread, sorry I'm late to the party. This all is pretty interesting to me since I'm interested in cognitive theory, which certainly relates to literacy.

    IMO the two big factors affecting literacy, are biology and technology and how they interrelate. Biologically, humans are primarily visual and auditory animals and that is just something we can't get away from - it's bred into us. Given the choice we prefer audio/visual communication.

    Secondly, communication technology over the centuries developed to provide the greatest advantage to our biological audio/visual bias. As Postman suggests, it's not so much technology itself, but communication via new mediums brought about by technology. Our biology determines which mediums succeed and which fail given the technological constraints in existence at a certain points in time.

    For a while technology limited us to the written word, and so it became the standard for "literacy." We became proficient at it even though it conflicted with our biological predispositions because it was, simply, the only game in town and it enabled the development of more complex and capable societies.

    However, we don't naturally think in terms of written language - it's a skill which must be developed and our comprehension of the written word is actually a complex system of translation inside our brain. This system requires a degree a commonality between people within a society - a common frame of reference - in order to make sense of the abstract meanings conveyed by the written word. Most people, for example, can't understand the classics on any kind of deep level without being taught, or indoctrinated into, the contextual knowledge that allows us to really understand those texts. That's why, I think, learning the classics is a bit like learning a foreign language - it's not sufficient to read and understand the words to really understand the work. Seydlitz mentioned southern writers and that's a good example of this. It takes an American to really understand Twain or Faulkner, but a southerner will typically have an even deeper understanding as they grew up in the culture that influenced those authors.

    So, once we entered an era where technology was good enough to enable mass communication via the written word we, not coincidentally, built an industrial education model to give people the common frame of reference necessary to communicate and function in a society dominated by mass written communication. As a result "literacy" came to be defined by that paradigm - but I think there are other kinds of literacy and new forms of literacy that are growing and taking shape today.


  35. cont....

    Jumping to the present, the old model is, without doubt, falling apart. Technology is removing the preeminence of the written word through the creation of new mediums. Additionally, technology enables much more diversity in the traditional medium of mass written communication.

    So I disagree with Al on this:

    First, as we remove the tools for intelligent discourse, we reduce the odds that it will take place, as we reduce the number of people who may enter into same. What someone chooses to do with an available tool is one thing, but if the tool is not available in the first place, then that's another.

    We are not removing any tools - instead we are adding tools and people are choosing to use the old tools less frequently than they used to. I don't see this as necessarily a bad thing because future generations will have to able to comprehend and operate in the new mediums being created today. Although I agree that some of the good aspects of the old paradigm will be lost in this process (just as some good things were lost when we humans went from oral to written as the dominate medium), I think at the end we will be better off. That's just a guess, obviously, but what I think will happen is that we'll have more than one way to skin a cat - in other words, we'll be able to engage in abstract thinking, critical analysis and all the rest through multiple mediums instead of a single medium. The downside is that society is likely to become more fractured as these new mediums enable the creation of stronger and more independent subcultures which could make "common" communication more difficult.

    I do think we are still in transition to whatever awaits us and I think it's messy now because things are still in flux, the new mediums haven't yet fully developed to fill the roles we are accustomed to with abstract thought based on the written word.

  36. Al,

    Although I share your concerns about the commercialization of educational materials, I have to say that my kids (2nd and 3rd grade) are getting much better materials and education than I ever had. For me math at that age was memorizing tables and then taking weekly speed tests. My grade-school math experience turned me into a math-hater that lasted until well after college.

    My kids are getting much better math education and are actually learning about relationships between numbers - something I never got. Just as one example, they use "fact family" triangles to learn relationships between numbers. Here's an example. They also started to get math word problems beginning in 1st grade.

    They are doing similar things with language and are learning the difference between "fact" and opinion. You can google "fact and opinion worksheets" for some examples of the kind of things I see come home.

    Although there is a lot I don't like about our education system, some parts are much improved from when I was in school in the 1970's.

    I do think a big problem is credentialing and throughout our system. Teacher ability is less important than their credentials. Course materials are accredited and then become mandated so teachers have teachers have to teach the approved, credentialed curriculum, on the approved timeline using the approved materials. This isn't a model that's going to work much longer IMO.

  37. Andy

    Good points. However, what I am attempting to say is that were have not just shifted to "modern tools", but have dropped material as well. What does a picture of a circa 1863 locomotive, occupying page space, add to an understanding of the Civil War. While "A Picture can tell 1,000 words", if the relevance of the picture is marginal.....? If you look at the text book sample, a major portion of the available page space is devoted to pictures. What does the portrait of Sherman add to understanding

    “I think it is to be a long war....”
    —General William Tecumseh Sherman

    When a student is shown a video in class, it can indeed capture his or her attention. However, other than notes the student make take, that evening or the next day, the student cannot refer again to what he or she saw. Nor can the student pause the video, thumb back to refer to some previous material to gain understanding and/or context. Nor can the student raise his or her hand in the middle of a video and get a clarification that might make subsequent material in the video understandable. Unfortunately, the video can be an isolated experience, and often is.

    I did a 2 week sub for a middle school science teacher. All of the materials were packaged by the publisher in one hour blocks. There were three videos for each week. Since I didn't sign on to be a VCR operator, I previewed the videos and prepared to present the material in them via lecture/discussion, and the slides included for teachers who chose not to use the videos. Thus, instead of opening the class with a video and then using the prepared "Discussion Guide", the entire period was interactive. The next day was the same, and at the close of the period, a friend's son asked, "Is the VCR broken?" I said, "No, I prefer not to use it." "I told you," shouted the kid to his friend across the room. It left me a bit confused, but that night I got a call from the young man's mother, a retired Navy doctor. She said that her son had come home raving about how great science class was without "all those stupid movies". She said they learned more in the discussions and via the slides, and found it infinitely more interesting. He asked his mom if they could make a "petition" to have their regular teacher stop using videos! She wisely told them that every teacher has their own style, and such a petition would be inappropriate, and could even cause me to lose substituting opportunities.

    An additional goodie in all this is that one HS Social Studies class package in use where I subbed was set up so that the students left their textbooks in the classroom and only took their workbooks and activity books home, unless a "special assignment" was made. The "selling point" was that it increased the life span of the textbooks! The workbooks and activity books were consumables, replaced every year.

    There is a time and a place for technology. Being the "latest and greatest" doesn't mean something is the most appropriate tool for a given situation.

  38. Al,

    I just looked at the texbook example and I see your point, but I have to wonder if that's the totality of what's being taught. Again, things are changing - It used to be that a student had the textbook and nothing else as reference material - the totality of the information for the class was contained in one book plus the lectures.

    I'm doubt that's still the case today and I'm pretty confident that won't be the case in the future. I seriously doubt I'll see my daughter in 10 years carrying around a 700 page tome on American history in her backpack, which is what I did in high school and most of college.

    In the traditional model based on that kind of textbook, the challenge is get as much information into the book as possible because the book serves as the primary reference material for the student. It was important, therefore, to be efficient with regard to use of space.

    That's not the case anymore. If anything, students will soon have access to too much information. There is only so much a student can study or read in a day but there are tens-of-thousands of pages of material available electronically, so the challenge will be limiting the scope of research material instead of trying to cram as much as possible into one tome. Simply put, the textbook is not going to play the central role it's played for many years and it's only a matter of time (IMO), before it's replaced by digital textbooks.

    Like I said, I think we're in the transition phase now and it could well be the case that new mediums haven't yet "caught up" to take over some of the burden from textbooks. So while I think your concern is valid, I also think it is likely to be short-lived.

    Your anecdote on substitute teaching reminded of my own experience in the early 1980's when my middle and high school began experimenting with TV in the classroom thanks to the first cable systems that came online in our area. There was a lot of excitement about this new "tool" and there was much controversy as well over what to broadcast, how to pay for it, how to integrate it into the existing system, etc. Overall it was a failure for a variety of reasons, but I think the biggest problem is that TV is a rather limited medium, like what you described with the videos you dispensed with. Personally I think TV and videos are part of the industrial educational model and I think they will be short-lived as an educational medium.

    Similarly, I think the days of hefty, dense and informationally efficient textbooks are gone and I think we'd be doing our children a disservice by trying to keep them relevant since, in all likelihood, kids today won't be utilizing that kind of medium much as adults.

  39. Paul-

    Interesting book. Bauman obviously has a lot to say. I think he reads Max Weber wrong, but he ties so many ideas together it would be worthwhile giving the whole book a careful read. Btw, my first exposure to Bauman was last year when I saw this . . .

    He talks about the separation of power from politics due to Castells's "space of flows" . . . which is very similar to Joxe's view . . .

  40. Andy-

    Great to have you commenting as always . . .

    "Biologically, humans are primarily visual and auditory animals and that is just something we can't get away from - it's bred into us. Given the choice we prefer audio/visual communication."

    Agree, and human communication is mostly non-verbal, but what happens when the main medium of communication is not actual images and sounds but manipulated and artificial images and sounds to "sell" a specific idea/notion/emotion or simply to "entertain"? Think of all the images the average American has in their mind that are simply so invented, that is false images . . . can we even tell the difference any more? That is what the "Matrix" movies were all about - mind control - and why they touched uncomfortably close to home . . . ?

  41. seydlitz-

    Funny thing you should mention, but the textbook I linked does have a "PhotoShopped" image of Grant and Lee (pg 491) that could give the impression that they were physically together at the time, especially when the caption says, "The Commanders Ulysses S. Grant (below)and Robert E. Lee (right), had the greatest respect for one another."

    I have no issue with images used to illustrate a valid or necessary point. As I think I said above, explaining the Rosetta Stone is definitely aided by pictures. What Sherman's portrait adds to the quote in the text book escapes me. Similarly, there are other photos that do not appear to be in any context with the written material.

    I would wonder if all of the visual material might result in a form of disjointed, "snippet learning" where the student remembers "seeing something", but the context and intent are not clear enough for concrete understanding.

    "Context" is a vital part of understanding anything. As our 9th grade history teacher put it in his introductory course remarks about having to know the dates of the events we were going to study, "History has this odd habit of taking place in chronological order. Consequently, earlier events tend to effect later events, but not vise versa. If you don't know the date of something, it sure is difficult to know if it might be a cause or effect in relation to another event about which you may later become aware." At our various class reunions, while reminiscing about our high school faculty, virtually everyone remembered Dr Smith's remark, and the many jokes we made about "chronological order" over the remaining school years. However, all of agreed that his comment was sage, stuck with us and benefited us considerably.

    I worry that the trend in text books is "images for the sake of images".

  42. Al-

    Agree on context. Also I was thinking of the two pix in the history book you linked. Big pix of the locomotive and small pix of Sherman. Technology was very important, an advantage for the North, and of course remains fundamental today . . . Sherman as an example of the "great men" guiding history . . . obvious use of symbols?

  43. Seydlitz,

    but what happens when the main medium of communication is not actual images and sounds but manipulated and artificial images and sounds to "sell" a specific idea/notion/emotion or simply to "entertain"?

    We've been living with that for a long time. I think the old adage may apply here - "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time."


    I would wonder if all of the visual material might result in a form of disjointed, "snippet learning" where the student remembers "seeing something", but the context and intent are not clear enough for concrete understanding.

    Certainly possible, but I think that's a problem that isn't confined to visual media. For example, I read many Russian history textbooks during college and was amazed at what different authors thought was useful context meriting inclusion. It was particularly interesting to compare the mainstream English-language histories with those written by Soviet authors....

  44. Andy-

    Ok, but Lincoln was talking about a text-based and highly literate culture. Postman uses the Lincoln/Douglaus debates as an example of exactly that. Consider in contrast the effect of moving pictures, over generations? Where in the last generations the moving pictures become the dominate form of communication. Remember the mind sees movement as "real" and we habitually expose our children to how many hours on average of TV? By the age of 50 how many hours of TV in total? And a culture which is becoming more illiterate? I wonder if you are operating with an assumption which is over a hundred years out of date?

  45. Seydlitz,

    As I mentioned before, I think there is more than one kind of "literacy." There is text-based literacy, but there is also digital/visual/media literacy, or whatever one chooses to call it.

    People are also lot more sophisticated about these "moving images" than they used to be. Just look at special effects in movies - things that wowed audiences and looked completely realistic 10 or 20 years ago appear amateurish today. In the age of photoshop and photo-realistic computer-generated effects, I think people generally are a lot more skeptical and sophisticated about the "truth" of images than they used to be. I look at my kids and they are much more discerning and sophisticated than I was at their age. And they know to question what they see - just last night we were watching a show about pulsars and black holes that contained, naturally, a lot of realistic-looking renders of what these things might look like up close. One of the first things they asked me is if those were real pictures or not.

    That's not to say that imagery, even when altered, isn't powerful - it obviously is. (Reminds me of this famous video.) But by the same token, print was very powerful when it was the only medium for mass communication. Deception was a huge problem back then - just consider the role of propaganda in the Spanish-American war, or the Russian Revolutions, etc. "Literate" publics were not immune back then.

    One advantage we have today is a rich and diverse media environment which prevents any single entity from controlling the narrative regardless of the medium, but people being people tend to go with whatever confirms their biases.

    As for TV, I hardly watch it at all, so I admit I'm an outlier and most of what I do watch is at least somewhat educational. But again, technology is changing and I wonder if TV in 20 years will be anything like what it is today.

  46. Andy-

    We're definitely outliers, as are most reading this I suppose.

    I schutter to think what this social process has led to politically or is that even the word any more? . . . greased as it is by drugs, porn and "circuses" . . .

  47. One aspect of propaganda – its vulnerability – has not received comment. Propaganda is, after all, only a story. People in the Soviet Union understood the world until, one day, they no longer did. Dimity Orlov describes how ordinary Russians shrugged and carried on their business. After the war there were hardly any fascists. The Allies thought denial was a form of self-preservation, but many had simply lost faith. The Mayas appear to have experienced something similar, as are Roman Catholics today. Propaganda doesn’t wear well and when it collapses it often takes the propagandizing class with it.