Literacy, part 1

We live in an age of specialization. The advantage of this is that we are able to devote resources to finding precise solutions to narrow problems. There is something very intellectually gratifying about “honing” the finer edge of our competences. The disadvantage, of course, is that we sometimes lose sight of the broader issues, which, if we neglect them, can overwhelm our more delicate efforts.

I talked a little about this this in my last post about the under-exploited resource of student effort–which is to say, deliberate practice–in writing instruction. All the resources we devote to teaching students how to write in the classroom will come to nothing if they don’t train their abilities on their own. We might say that there is nothing there to sharpen if they aren’t also getting stronger.

Hemingway famously pointed out that the “dignity of the movement of an iceberg lies in eight ninths of it being under water.” That is, the quality of your prose depends much less on what you put on the page than what you leave off it. And in order to leave it off, of course, you have to write it out at some point. The quality of every particular piece of writing you produce comes out of all the writing you’ve done before. Just as the speed and ease with which you run today’s 5 kilometers, come from all the other running you’ve done before.

I’ve been thinking about this recently in relation to the concept of “information literacy”, which has been gaining in currency since the mid-1970s. On the face of it, information literacy constitutes a narrow problem within the broader problem of literacy. Here’s what Wikipedia says about the latter:

Literacy is traditionally understood as the ability to read and write. The term’s meaning has been expanded to include the ability to use language, numbers, images and other means to understand and use the dominant symbol systems of a culture.

You’ll notice that this does indeed leave room for something like  “the ability to know when there is a need for information, to be able to identify, locate, evaluate, and effectively use that information for the issue or problem at hand,” which is how the United States National Forum on Information Literacy defines information literacy. Part of understanding the “dominant symbol systems of a culture”, especially a culture that calls itself a “knowledge society”, must include knowing when you need more information and knowing how to get it.

So my worry here, as with my worry about the ratio of teaching to training in writing instruction, is simply that we’re spending too much time and effort on improving the information literacy of students and not enough time developing their basic ability to read and write. It’s true that they will not be able to read and write the texts they need to if they don’t know how to manage the information they have access to. But no matter how conscious they are of the information problem, they will get nowhere if they can’t read and write in the traditional senses of those words.

What happens, I think, is that once a new and exciting frontier opens up — and the Internet is certainly an information frontier — we are eager to explore it. We then assume that someone will continue to do the maintenance on the “old school” skills that still constitute the bulk of the competence in question. But what if that doesn’t happen? What if students begin to worry about their information literacy to the detriment of their general literacy? Teaching someone who doesn’t know what a paragraph is to distinguish between Google and EBSCO seems rather pointless.

The solution, I think, is to integrate “information literacy” in the overall composition curriculum. In my next post I want to begin thinking about the proper balance of content.

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