Confusing literacy with talking on the phone

Is literacy really just talking?

I now have 490 unread emails in an AdultLit folder in my email inbox.  The vast majority of these come from Google.  I feel I ought to keep up with the field, and so, each day, at my request, Google Search sends me an email containing four to eight stories about adult literacy.  Unfortunately, the content of these emails - the literacy news and views they send my way - so vex me that I generally just avoid opening them.  Instead, I file them for later - a silly and useless compromise with myself.

Tonight, I thought I'd take a peek at one of these gems. This time, Google sent me five items:
  • an Ontario job posting for a part-time (10-15 hrs per week) adult literacy facilitator;
  • a post from a library blog (with very generic copy&paste information about America's reading problem and how libraries can help);
  • a 3-day old media release wrapping up last month's Bow Valley College conference on international literacy surveys;
  • a NALD hosted resource on helping children and families learn about "other cultures";
  • and an op-ed piece from India.

It was this last that caught my eye: Change literacy's definition, a column published on the LiveMint website - LiveMint being the web version of Mint Money, a journal on personal finance and markets which makes up part of HT Media (which, in turn, harkens back to the 1924 newspaper Hindustan Times published by none other than Mahatma Gandhi).

"Change literacy’s definition," urges Osama Manzar.  He states:
India’s literacy rate has increased six times since the end of the British rule—from 12% to 74% in 2011. Yet, India has the world’s largest population of illiterates and, at the current rate of progress, it will take until 2060 for India to achieve universal literacy. Global literacy experts say 70% of Indians are functionally illiterate—that’s twice the official government estimate.

Now these are odd numbers.  Surely, if there's a 74% literacy rate (what wonderful news! a better than 500% increase in literacy since independence!), there's a corresponding 26% "illiteracy" rate.  Twice that would be a 52% illiteracy rate.  If those "global literacy experts" say there's a 70% illiteracy rate, that would be thrice the official count.  I must say I look for better math skills in a personal finance journal.

As for the claim that "it will take until 2060 for India to achieve universal literacy", this surely is also incorrect.  If the population improved 500% - or even a more modest 250% - in some 65 years, it will hardly take another 45 or 50 to close the gap.  (Though I feel bound to point out that "universal literacy" seems like an unlikely event given the reality of uneven cognitive abilities and physical health among human beings.)

In any case, there's a crisis - there's always a crisis - and the question is: what does India do about it? Simple, says Manzar.  Stop thinking of literacy as the ability "to communicate in writing or through reading" and instead define it to include oral communication through "cellphones, multimedia, the Internet, etc."

"We’re illiterate not because we’ve lesser resources," he writes rather confusedly, "but because of a mental block to using newer technologies."  He's apparently unaware that we've been talking on telephones for more than 100 years.  In any case, he is clear about the value of moving the goal posts:
The best way to achieve complete literacy is to adopt the mantra that the medium is the message. The ministry of communication and information technology, along with stakeholders from civil society, telcos, academic institutions and value-added services companies, has started working on mass digital literacy through mobile phones. Content is already being generated, consisting of text, audio, video, animation and so on. This indicates we may have to consider changing the definition of literacy from being based on written communication to the oral medium.

It's astoundingly easy, apparently, to raise literacy rates.  You show up at someone's house, offer them a telephone, and say, "Congratulations - you don't have a literacy problem anymore!"

And this, friends, is why we need a modest, sensible definition of literacy which begins with littera and litterarius; with letters and their odd and pleasant worlds.

And also why I'm reluctant to read those other 490 emails.


Michael Chalk said...

Wendell you've raised so many interesting topics here.

I have a similar issue with the google "adult literacy" search - for some reason i usually receive stories only from the USA.

Low numeracy skills are quite endemic among journalists I think.. but you've found some glaring mistakes.

I think it is important to keep expanding our definitions and understandings of literacy. However, adding technology to the mix doesn't make it easier to achieve universal literacy does it! In fact, the more communication media at our fingertips, the more different social contexts our learners need to grapple with. And with each different social context comes a whole new set of social practices to master.

Plus telephones are a whole lot more complex than they used to be.

kind regards, michael

Wendell Dryden said...

Thanks, Michael. :)

I confess to having been quite exasperated when I wrote that post. Helping adults who struggle with decoding or processing text is sometimes heartbreaking, and I don't need to end my day with some dingbat telling me that oralacy is an appropriate substitute for literacy.

In fairness, I could have noted that texting devices are providing increased opportunity to read and write, or that multimedia offers struggling readers a richer context (i.e. attached, non-print cues) than traditional books or worksheets. But I didn't really want to make Buddy's argument for him.