Tuesday 29 January 2013

One Essential Skill for Prospering in the New Economy

 Now that we're in 2013, I've been reading some prognostications about the future of technology. The idea of robots working on farms reminded me of the loss of jobs in manual labor. Not long ago I read the prediction that robots would be doing any repetitive manual work. However, since computers are becoming more and more sophisticated, it seems that many jobs that also require creativity will be done by robots.

This is significant on two fronts. The first one is that literacy itself is becoming a great divide like the technological divide that affects the generations, and the economic divide that separates the classes. Those who can read can learn the most; those with less reading skill will always be one step behind. I know you can learn almost anything from a YouTube video, but didn't someone have to read the instructions once? Or we just going to return to an oral culture?

The truth is that most people don't care which side of the cultural divide they fall on. Most don't care too much about the technological divide, and they certainly don't care about a literacy divide. But the economic divide affects our lives in deep and profound ways. Unfortunately, recent recessions have shown that one can move from comfortably affluent to practically homeless very easily.

Our culture tends to blame the victim for poverty with charges such as: They should have stayed in school. They should have chosen a more practical profession or they should have been able to see the writing on the wall and adapt. But the truth is that change is coming and few of us will not be affected.

I've been concerned about the future of literacy for a while. Like many teachers, I have noticed that students' writing skills are declining, but their reading skills are declining as well. In the US and Canada schools are challenged to try to reverse this decline.

Impossible, I say. And that's not because I'm a member of a teachers union. I believe teachers are doing the best they can to slow this trend. But the truth is that our culture does not value literacy. We simply don't encourage it. No matter what teachers do in school, when kids don't read at home, literacy declines. People don't value literacy. How many parents are reading themselves at home, providing role models for children?

Look at the decline in newspapers. People don't read for information as much as they used to. I know, like me, they read newspapers on line, but what I notice is that even newspapers provide video. Marshall McLuhan nailed this half a century ago: the medium is the message. We no longer train our children to pay attention enough to read. We give them Sesame Street when they are little because "young children have short attention spans." And it works. But when to we ask them to try something harder? Like sustained attention to printed text?

I don't think there is a place in the brain that is hard-wired to read. It's not like speech. If we don't work, as a culture, to get young people to read, they will not be able. They will not be reading philosophers in University; they will not be reading great literature; they will not be reading deep texts of various professions. In fact, the kid who can't read the Hobbit in grade 8 will never become a lawyer, or a doctor, or a CEO.
Updated April 2, 2014.