29 September 2015
To Mr. “Kids Today are Illiterate”:
I read a recent letter this newspaper received about kids today being illiterate, and I just could not let that one go. The person who wrote in did not seem to understand what exactly being literate is and I would like to set the record straight. In fact, kids today are more literate than they have ever been before. To say that kids are illiterate is to overlook the facts. But perhaps most people simply do not know the facts, I am more than willing to share the information that I have read on the topic. For my first foray into what literacy is, let us consider what literacy looks like in today’s culture.
Although it may be correct to think that children are not reading what people traditionally learned in school, they are reading – just in a very different format. I would like to note that in the letter I read the person ranted that kids only used the internet and watched “weird” shows on television. However, to say that using the internet and watching television shows are not a form of literacy, when used in good ways, is to ignore one of the biggest forms of literacy. Henry Jenkins, in his paper about our changing culture, “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century”, argues that “participatory culture shifts the focus of literacy from one of individual expression to community involvement.” He discusses how teens are engaging in online literacy by creating web content and communicating with others to build projects, such as new websites, through the use of the internet. This is a new type of media-based literacy that would not have been possible thirty-years ago that many people do not consider literacy because they grew up without it.
Another writer, Bronwyn Williams, in “What South Park Character Are You?”: Popular Culture, Literacy, and Online Performances of Identity” studies the internet and how people interact on Facebook and Myspace, as well as how they express themselves on their “pages” and in their “about me” sections. She has found that people use social media to express themselves in different terms that standard writing cannot express. For example, people post favorite artists, books, and activities instead of writing about them in their “about me” section. So, when other people read these profiles, they do not necessarily read actual text but instead can infer the person’s personality from what they post and “like.” Williams thinks that this is a new type of literacy.
Social media literacy is definitely a new idea, but it should not be discounted as false just because it has not been around for a long time. In this sense, most kids are just as literate, if not more literate, than some older adults. Social media is everywhere. Any major business has a Facebook page and a website. Communicating through the internet has become immensely popular, and people who communicate through it, like those “illiterate kids”, should be respected as engineers of a new type of literacy.
On that note, old types of literacy are also still alive and well. A good example of the older type can be found in Shirley Heath’s essay “Protean Shapes in Literary Events” which follows the neighborhood of Trackton and their literary endeavors. At one point in her paper, Heath discusses how people in the town of Trackton all gather on the front porch to discuss a letter about preschool than one of the mothers had received in the mail about enrolling her child. Instead of calling the actual preschool, the mother discusses what she should do with her friends; everyone chips in to tell her what their previous experiences had been like. In this scene, all of the people are essentially negotiating a text. This is a literary event in its own right. Despite the fact that the women may sound “uneducated”, they know how to discuss the written word. This is part of the definition of what it means to be literate.
Heath goes on to discuss how many of the children in the town are familiar with reading early on in their lives, not through books, but through reading their environment. The parents in the town helped their children to become more literate by helping them to read signs and logos. So, even though these children are not necessarily reading canonical literature, they are not illiterate. Thousands of years ago, reading was reserved strictly for the upper-class. The common man could not read. Now, in the working-class city of Trackton, people can. This is real change and a move towards the literacy that perhaps the man who wrote in was referring to.
I think that I have made my point. The definition of what it means to be “literate” has changed. We can no longer judge children by the same standards that even we were judged by. With the advent of social media and the other powerful impacts that the internet has had, it is unfair to judge children by their knowledge of canonical works of literature or what they read. The important part is that they do read, whether they are reading magazines, blog posts, or social media profiles. They are becoming literate in ways that we never imagined that could.