Are the electronic media exacerbating illiteracy and making our children stupid? On the contrary, says Colin MacCabe, they have the potential to make us truly literateby / May 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in May 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
Universal teaching must precede universal enfranchisement,” John Stuart Mill wrote in 1861. Mill, and many after him, have assumed that full citizenship is only available to those who can read and write. Logically separate, but historically connected, is the idea that a modern economy requires a literate work force. When Britain introduced universal education ten years after Mill wrote these words, it was motivated as much by fear of being economically eclipsed by a better educated Germany and US as by the desire to equip its citizens for democracy.
The economic developments which both required and produced universal literacy were also soon to produce the technologies of sound and image: film, radio and television came to challenge the central status of the written word established in the post-Gutenberg era. These new media-the advent of television in the 1950s in particular-are invariably seen as the enemies of literacy.
The debate surrounding literacy is one of the most charged in education. On the one hand there is an army of conservatives convinced that traditional skills of reading and writing are declining. On the other, a host of progressives protests that literacy is much more complicated than a simple technical mastery of reading and writing. This second position is supported by most of the relevant academic work over the past 20 years. These studies argue that literacy can only be understood in its social and technical context.
In Renaissance England, for example, many more people could read than could write, and within reading there was a distinction between those who could read print and those who could manage manuscript. An understanding of these earlier periods helps us understand today’s “crisis in literacy” debate.
There does seem to be evidence that there has been an overall decline in some aspects of reading and writing-you only need to compare the tabloid newspapers of today with those of 50 years ago to see a clear decrease in vocabulary and simplification of syntax. But the picture is not uniform and doesn’t readily admit of the simple distinction between literate and illiterate which had been considered adequate since the middle of the 19th century.
While reading and a certain amount of writing is as crucial as it has ever been in industrial societies, it is doubtful whether a fully extended grasp of either is as necessary as it was 30 or 40 years ago. While print retains much of its authority as a source of topical information, television has increasingly usurped this role. The ability to write fluent letters has been undermined by the telephone and research suggests that for many people the only use for writing, outside formal education, is the compilation of shopping lists. At the same time, the forms of entertainment which do not require command of the written word are expanding.
The decision of some car manufacturers to issue their instructions to mechanics as a video pack rather than as a handbook might be taken to spell the end of any automatic link between industrialisation and literacy. On the other hand, it is also the case that ever-increasing numbers of people make their living out of writing, which is better rewarded than ever before. The printed word is both gaining and losing power.
Schools are generally seen as institutions where the book rules-film, television and recorded sound have almost no place; but it is not clear that this opposition is appropriate. While you may not need to read and write to watch television, you certainly need to be able to read and write in order to make programmes.
Those who work in the new media are anything but illiterate. The traditional oppositions between old and new media are inadequate for understanding the world which a young child now encounters. The computer has re-established a central place for the written word on the screen, which used to be entirely devoted to the image. There is even anecdotal evidence that children are mastering reading and writing in order to get on to the internet. There is no reason why the new and old media cannot be integrated in schools to provide the skills to become economically productive and politically enfranchised.
Nevertheless, there is a crisis in literacy and it would be foolish to ignore it. To understand that literacy may be declining because it is less central to some aspects of everyday life is not the same as acquiescing in this state of affairs. Indeed, the exasperation of the conservatives may underestimate the current dangers. There is a risk that the information revolution may intensify the division between classes. On the one side, there will be those who come from homes with full access to the new media and who, partly for that reason, will be literate; on the other, there will be those who are simply consumers of a diverse audiovisual industry and who lose more and more of the skills of writing and reading. The phrase “media literacy” may simply legitimise ignorance.
The production of school work with the new technologies could, however, be a significant stimulus to literacy. How should these new technologies be introduced into the schools? It isn’t enough to call for computers, camcorders and edit suites in every classroom; unless they are properly integrated into the educational culture, they will stand unused. Evidence suggests that this is the fate of most information technology used in the classroom. Similarly, although media studies are now part of the national curriculum, and more and more students are clamouring to take these courses from GCSE upwards, teachers remain uncertain about both methods and aims in this area.
This is not the fault of the teachers. The entertainment and information industries must be drawn into a debate with the educational institutions to determine how best to blend these new technologies into the classroom. (To this end the British Film Institute together with the Times Educational Supplement is holding a conference at the National Film Theatre on 1st and 2nd May.)
Many people in our fin de si?cle era are drawn to the pessimistic view-that new media are destroying old skills and eroding critical judgement. It may be true that past generations were more literate but-taking the pre-19th century meaning of the term-this was true of only a small section of the population. The word literacy is a 19th century coinage to describe the divorce of reading and writing from a full knowledge of literature. For Dr Johnson and John Milton it would have been impossible to divorce the two. The educational reforms of the 19th century produced reading and writing as skills separable from full participation in the cultural heritage.
The new media now point not only to a futuristic cyber-economy, they also make our cultural past available to the whole nation. Most children’s access to these treasures is initially through television. Each time a Jane Austen or a George Eliot classic is serialised, tens of thousands of copies of the books are sold. The success of Four Weddings and a Funeral enabled Faber to sell over 100,000 copies of Auden’s love poems. It is doubtful whether our literary heritage has ever been available to or sought out by more than about 5 per cent of the population; it has certainly not been available to more than 10 per cent. But the new media joined to the old, through the public service tradition of British broadcasting, now makes our literary tradition available to us all.