Today on Blogcritics

The New Literacy

In a recent rant, entitled Neo-Illiteracy, Joe Harris launches a full blown knee-jerk assault on the degeneration of the cultural forms that he prizes so much. Here is a sample:

    When the hell did Dickens or Hemingway ever write in pidgin English? As a conscientious literary mind, I gasped in horror upon cracking the “LOL” code. Freshly evolved gray matter reverts to ooze. Mark Twain wants to see us all in Hell. There are neither “Xs” nor “Os” in “hugs and kisses.” Both forms of human contact are too much to bear, yet not enough to get me there. How does an intellectual pig write, “go die somewhere.”

He is, of course, alluring to the simplification that emerged as part of the text messaging phenomenon. But this contemporary critique of modern language is not uncommon, nor is it new. People were — and still are — apt to blame television for people getting stupider, just as Plato had Socrates lament that literacy would limit our mental faculties.

Contrary to this vision of despair, however, there is a great deal of potential in this generation of network dwellers. What we now see emerging is not the end of civilization, but the triumph of the new literary that is by and for the people. A writing that develops form the ground up without the need to be imposed from above. A skill that children feel compelled to learn because they see it in constant use.

For instance, my nephew, who is only in 4th grade approaches the challenge of reading with enthusiasm because he knows that I won't help him to surf the net for whatever it is he wants – be it games, cheat codes or funny pictures. He understands from observation that knowing how to read is crucial, because it is so necessary to getting anything done.

Immersed in writing more than any previous generation; with text messages, forums, chat, and multiplayer video games, rudimentary reading and writing is becoming the minimum standard for having fun and engaging with friends. Such continuous exposure and practice can only make for better readers and writers.

And yet there is no shortage of reductionist pessimists who seem to believe that such competence will remain at the entry level. To quote Harris again:

    We use money and technology when brainpower trumps them both. Thought is bypassed with acronyms and teenage girl-esque slang. Even a dog's bark is a language. Is alpha grunting the next hot fashion?

Contrary to the hyperbole, English has a long and colourful history of incorporating slang and onomatopoeia. In fact, the Macquarie Dictionary's latest Word of the Year is 'Toxic Debt', which just goes to show how language adapts to serve its context. The emphasis on shorthand in chat and messaging, which is so often decried, neglects the fact that the longer and deeper craft of traditional letter writing was necessitated by an infrequent postal service.

Far from the allegations that modern technology shall bring about a breakdown and disintegration of grammatical coherence; the truth is a bit more subtle. After all, in a literacy centered world the inability to write coherently is equivalent to having a speech impediment and tends to produce the same kind of alienation. And this social pressure doesn't just come from senior netizens like myself – I have also seen teenagers apply it to their friends on a regular basis.

More to the point, chat and SMS are not the only way that young people express themselves. Online forums and sites like BlogCritics provide young writers like myself an opportunity to be read and responded to without having to rely on the sugarcoating of our friends, family or neighbors. In the former especially, there are presently multitudes of young people honing their literary craft by their own volition. And with more time for literary practice than schools could ever provide, we may see a renaissance-like boom in the next 10-20 years.

As Malcolm Gladwell points out in in his wonderful new book Outliers, what makes for greatness is not innate talent but the availability of time to practice. He even puts a number on it – 10,000 hours, which holds true for musicians, chess masters and even computer programmers. Heck, William Shakespeare and Amadeus Mozart were lucky to have grown up in such close proximity to their mediums. The children of today have been empowered to learn their craft from the bottom up, with exposure and assistance from those at many different stages of development.

About Jonathan Scanlan

  • Cindy D

    I think I love you Jonathan Scanlon (In a sort of auntly way, of course).

    This article is brilliant!

    …kicked out of an education degree for telling high school students that their teachers often mislead them.

    Yeah, telling the truth is dangerous. Are you still planning to teach?

  • Cindy D

    The link to your blog is bad, by the way.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Great Article…

    Though, I feel that “Texting” and SMS came about not as slang or jargon but as a more efficient way to get your point across considering the time it took to scroll through the letters on a cell phone. Of course, I agree, that now it has become a way for young people to express themselves beyond mobile devices.

  • STM

    lol. Ooops.

    Nice one Johno … I have a 14-year-old.

    She writes on her computer in what appears to be a combination of hieroglyphics and riddles, although has a perfectly good grasp of “normal” English. Perhaps that’s the clue … no pesky adults having a clue as to what the latest myspace/msn/text communication was from Becky, Lauren, Vicky, Alana et al, especially when they’re about Tim/John/Jarod/Mark/et al.

    I am just leaving now to drive her to school and the phone’s going off left, right and centre already.

  • Jonathan Scanlan

    Thanks Cindy,

    The University actually asked I take a leave of absence to decide what I want to do. I’m trying to push for a lesser qualification without going after teaching per se. Failing that I’ll consider banking my credits so that I might do something we’re my recklessness and risk taking are more appropriate.

    I still know I’d be a brilliant teacher. But I’m too much of a threat to the status quo.

    PS: I just fixed the link to my blog.

  • Jonathan Scanlan

    *where not we’re.

  • http://www.futonreport.net/ Matthew T. Sussman

    We don’t beat up each others’ articles with more articles quite enough around here. Tip of the hat, Scanlan.

  • Baronius

    This article would be more persuasive if it didn’t have so many errors in grammar and punctuation.

    “Immersed in writing more than any previous generation; with text messages, forums, chat, and multiplayer video games, rudimentary reading and writing is becoming the minimum standard for having fun and engaging with friends.”

    The first clause doesn’t stand alone, so it shouldn’t end with a semicolon. Reading and writing are two things, so the verb should be plural, as should the word “standard”. But “standard” isn’t the right word there, is it? Maybe “requirements”.

    I wouldn’t normally fuss about such things, but if the article were written better, it would have been more readable.

  • Cindy D

    Jonathan,

    I have spent awhile at your blog. I would like to ask my question in a different way. Do you want to be a teacher?

    Here Baronius this is a good video on using proper English. You may or may not appreciate it. Who am i to say?

  • Cindy D

    We don’t beat up each others’ articles with more articles quite enough around here.

    Whatever that means.

  • Jonathan Scanlan

    Cindy, while I certainly do want to be a teacher, I have come to understand that public education is no place to do it.

    Even in Queensland, with a world class education system effectively run by teachers. If I am to teach, I need a place where I’m allowed to be the candid critical thinker that I am, so at this stage I am thinking that I might be more suitable to adult education.

    At least there I won’t be told off by conservative dingbats.

  • http://madcashier.blogspot.com Joe Harris

    Mr. Scanlan, this article is not a touche but a weak blow from the peanut gallery.

    Truly charming. Thanks for the attention.

    Cindy, in regards to your comment on my article; I’m no intellectual. I’m just a dumb menial laborer. Sadly, many people are simpletons who only think they use their brains. It’s all relative.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    Baronius’ comment would be more persuasive if it didn’t have so many errors.

    “Reading and writing are two things, so the verb should be plural”

    Wrong. It’s obvious the writer is referring to “rudimentary reading and writing” as a singular concept. Also, standard is the right word.

    You can’t expect all writers to dumb things down enough so they are more readable for you.

  • STM

    Cartoon:

    News vendor in booth with newspaper poster:

    DEATH SHOCK

    Journalist murders English language …

    Starts paragraph with subordinate clause

    (And we’re all guilty …)

  • Cindy D

    Joe,

    I’m no intellectual. I’m just a dumb menial laborer. Sadly, many people are simpletons who only think they use their brains. It’s all relative.

    I see contradiction there.

  • Cindy D

    RE#11

    Jonathan,

    I’m sorry to here that. Children need teachers like you. I met a fellow who got into big trouble when he went to do his practice teaching. He refused to teach in the standard way–even just to get his degree. But he did make it through. He teaches at the High School for Civil Rights in Brooklyn. They allow his teaching style.

    I was wondering if they had any schools like that in Australia.

    Sometimes teachers have had success here in the U.S. being allowed to move outside standard teaching practices, by teaching in schools where children have already been “disposed of”. No one cares or expects them to succeed. Like in the case of Erin Gruwell (who managed despite opposition*) and the Freedom Writers.

    Here is their home page.

    I am amazed at your blog. I can learn a few thngs there.

    * Amazingly enough, though faculty in Erin Gruwell’s case did not care at all about the kids, they still tried to stop and block her efforts to teach. They wanted her to join the consensus that the kids were just bad.

  • Cindy D

    Mr. Scanlan, this article is not a touche but a weak blow from the peanut gallery.

    What do you know then? You are a self-proclaimed “dumb menial laborer”.

    I find it very odd that your air of superiority conflicts with your view of menial laborers as “dumb”.

    What does that serve? To make you look even more superior for your self-taught intellect?*

    * this is a sentence fragment. it’s illegal in some places.

  • http://madcashier.blogspot.com Joe Harris

    Cindy, your comments are just mind jarring. Not a compliment.

  • Cindy D

    Joe,

    Well apparently my mind-jarring technique is a little rusty then.

    Okay, I will try it this way. Can you answer this?

    What is language for?