The uselessness of literacies

ABC flashcards

Has the literacy metaphor finally passed its sell-by date? A short polemic.

In my previous post, I discussed the relatively new concept of ‘data literacy’. Some of the feedback has encouraged me to take another, somewhat broader look at the uses of this fashionable but complicated term literacy.

Data literacy is just the latest in a succession of literacies that have been proposed as means of addressing a whole range of social problems. Readers of this blog will be familiar with concepts like media literacy, digital literacy, information literacy, news literacy, and so forth – and certainly accustomed to my acerbic comments on the way such ideas are used by policy-makers. But the use of the term goes well beyond this. In recent years, I have seen references to financial literacy, political literacy, physical literacy, health literacy, food literacy, emotional literacy, spiritual literacy, and many more. It seems hard to imagine an area of human life that could not be defined as requiring a form of literacy. In case you’re wondering, there are indeed people talking about sexual literacy – and even ‘critical sexual literacy’ (presumably as distinct from the uncritical variety…).

This use of the term is more than just a matter of passing fashion. On one level, it implies a claim for the importance of whatever field one wishes to draw to attention. Nobody disputes the importance of literacy (in the ‘old’ sense of reading and writing), and nobody is likely to argue for illiteracy. By extension, it should also be hard for anybody to deny the importance of all these other literacies as well. Yet this implicitly polemical use of the term also invokes broader theoretical and political assumptions.

In many of these contexts, literacy is essentially a synonym for competence: it may include some basic knowledge, but in many cases it is little more than a matter of functional or instrumental skills. Yet literacy in the old sense (that is, print literacy) is something much broader than this: it implies a much more profound form of cultural awareness and understanding. A ‘highly literate’ person isn’t just somebody who is able to read and write efficiently: being fully literate means understanding and consciously employing one of the dominant forms of communication in modern society. Literacy is not just an individual attribute: it implies a form of social or cultural action, and a level of power and agency.

517SZ8BC2QL-1In my view, literacy remains an important and generative term, yet it is one that is now frequently extended well beyond its usefulness. I have history here. Back in the late 1980s, my first-ever funded research project was called The Development of Television Literacy. Even then, this wasn’t an original idea. At that time, most media teachers in the UK would define their work as being about Media Studies (a distinct academic subject, taught in some secondary schools, and in higher education) and/or media education (something that included Media Studies, but was also an aspect of other curriculum subjects, and of education more broadly, which was at least potentially taught to younger children). The term media literacy wasn’t widely used in the UK until the early 2000s, when it became fashionable among media regulators and policy-makers.

MeekHowever, when I first began exploring the connection with literacy (inspired by, among others, the late great literacy educator Margaret Meek), I quickly discovered a considerable body of work on visual literacy (mainly in the field of art education, dating back to the 1960s), and a range of educational initiatives under the banner of television literacy (beginning in the 1970s, mainly in the United States). In practice, these early versions of television literacy seemed unduly mechanistic, and many of them were motivated by a protectionist approach that media educators in the UK (if not in the US) were largely moving beyond. There were also good reasons to question the idea that a linguistic approach (implied in the idea of literacy) could or should be extended to non-linguistic phenomena: film or television, for example, could not easily be understood as ‘languages’, despite many efforts to do just this.

Yet the parallel with print literacy still seemed to me to have value, in terms of research and educational practice, at least if we were to take a broader and more sophisticated view of literacy. I wrote a long theoretical paper at the time – published in the journal Radical Philosophy and now available online – in which I attempted to explain what that would entail.

StreetI was particularly drawn to the ideas of another late great literacy scholar, the anthropologist Brian Street. Street distinguishes between what he calls ‘autonomous’ and ‘ideological’ conceptions of literacy. Briefly, the autonomous model regards literacy in essentially psychological terms, as a set of skills that live in people’s heads, and have effects regardless of the social settings in which they are used. This is the approach that, for example, informs programmes of international aid, where functional literacy becomes an instrumental tool for economic growth. By contrast, the ideological model suggests that literacy takes different forms in different social situations, depending on people’s aims and purposes. Here, scholars will talk about ‘literacy practices’ and even ‘literacy events’, rather than abstract notions of transferrable skill or competence. I find Street’s terminology here a little confusing, and I would prefer a more basic distinction between social and a-social theories of literacy – although the term ‘ideological’ is still useful, in that it emphasises the inevitable relationship between literacy practices and social power.

BartonThis approach to literacy has been highly influential among literacy scholars: David Barton and Mary Hamilton’s book Local Literacies is one pre-eminent example of how it has been applied in detailed empirical research. In my own work, in books like Children Talking Television, I was trying to develop a similarly situated or contextual approach to studying children’s engagements with media, drawing on the tradition of ethnographic audience research within Cultural Studies. Equally, I was keen to make connections between this approach to studying children-and-media and the approach to studying (and teaching) language developed within English teaching at the time (I’m thinking here of the tradition of Harold Rosen, Douglas Barnes and others). In these respects, the idea of ‘literacy’ offered a very constructive meeting place for several complementary perspectives: for me at least, that was the whole point of talking about literacy in the first place.

This continues to be the case for many literacy scholars. There is a whole range of research on so-called ‘new literacies’ and ‘multiliteracies’; and while some of it seems merely to celebrate children’s seemingly innate facility with new media, some of it is more thoughtful and critical. Yet in the meanwhile, within the field of education, literacy itself has been significantly narrowed in scope. In the 2000s, New Labour’s ‘literacy strategy’ effectively reduced print literacy to a matter of functional or instrumental skills (Street’s autonomous model). Literacy became a set of building blocks that needed to be taught in sequence, a set of techniques for encoding and decoding written text, with little regard for questions about meaning and social use. Mastery of these techniques then became the focus for reductive measures of performance data – a process driven more by political imperatives and public perceptions of what counts as ‘success’ than by any real evidence of their educational value.

DCMSOMLSAlthough there was increasing talk at the time about ‘media literacy’, the connection to education and to literacy in schools was conspicuously absent. This remains the case today, for instance in the government’s latest proposals on media literacy. It may be that the proliferation of all these other literacies has allowed Literacy to continue to go about its business in education, and in ways that (over the past two decades) have become increasingly reductive and instrumental.

In some ways, media educators have been somewhat blind-sided by these developments. More recent initiatives in media and related literacies often appear to adopt a similarly reductive approach – and indeed in some ways, they take us back to the protectionism of the early American television literacy initiatives of the 1970s. It’s media literacy that will apparently solve the ‘problems’ of fake news, or internet addiction, or hate speech, or whatever it may be. Literacy skills are seen here as a means of protecting us from various forms of risk – in effect, as a form of psychological character armour; and they are increasingly listed and enumerated in tiresomely abstract taxonomies. There is little sense here of the social purposes and uses of literacy (Brian Street’s ideological model). As I’ve argued elsewhere, this essentially individualistic approach serves political purposes: it pushes the burden of responsibility on to individuals, and effectively precludes the need for policy-makers to address the systemic problems of an increasingly challenging communications and cultural environment.

Aside from its other limitations, this functional approach also locks us into equally reductive arguments about the ‘effectiveness’ of media education. We are called upon to justify media education by measuring the levels of protection it provides against the evils of commercialism, or misinformation, or online abuse, and so on. It’s worth noting that we don’t ask such questions in such a utilitarian way in relation to other curriculum subjects. We pretty much take it for granted that it’s important for young people to know about history, for example: we don’t test how far they use their knowledge of history outside the classroom (although there are undoubtedly some who would like to test how far it makes them patriotic).

My title here was intended to be provocative – and I apologise to fans of Richard Hoggart. Ultimately, I would contend that many advocates of digital literacy and information literacy (and the rest) aren’t actually talking about literacy at all – or at least, that they’re thinking of literacy largely in terms of functional skills, rather than the broader forms of knowledge and understanding that truly ‘literate’ people should possess. There are certainly grounds for recovering this broader social model of literacy, but in the current climate of educational and cultural policy I see very few signs of that yet. Merely pluralizing literacies, or conceiving of ‘new’ literacies as somehow separate from ‘old’ literacies, allows the ‘old’ to maintain its dominance: what’s required is a more fundamental rethinking of literacy itself.