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 Colin MacCabe / May 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
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…