Literacy Lost

By Thomas F. Bertonneau for

Recently at SUNY Oswego, an online conversation burst forth among faculty members about the pandemic reluctance of college students to complete, or even simply to begin, the assigned readings in courses. I refrained from participating because it struck me as an old story. I have been writing about the declining literacy of the young since the 1990s, when I taught in Michigan. I noticed, from my first public utterance on the topic, that it incited terrific hostility from the faculties—especially the writing or composition faculties. They seemed willfully opposed to seeing what I plainly saw—or, if they did see it, they were determined to excuse it by various romantic hypotheses premised on the supposed naïve authenticity of the sub-literate.

I guess that the breakthrough in faculty perception represents a good development, better than nothing anyway; but it is terrifically belated, perhaps too much so to help us out of the pervasive social crisis of our emerging “post-literate” condition.

In my first article in this series, I wrote about the failure of many of my SUNY Oswego undergraduates to understand the movies with which I supplement the readings in my literature courses. I argued that students who are not readers and who struggle to interpret novels, plays, and poems also struggle to interpret movies. Understanding the relation of cause to effect in film is difficult for people who are not habitual readers. There are reasons why this should be the case. These reasons have to do with the difference between the thinking of habitual readers and the thinking of those whose primary experience of language is with speech rather than the written word or whose thought processes are heavily influenced by images unaffiliated with language, either oral or written.

I argue that we are witnessing a decline of literacy, which will have widespread social effects.
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