Does literacy face extinction?

Literacy may not survive the Electronic Age.

Future historians will shake their heads at how much time and devotion we spent trying to shore up the dying arts of reading and writing, the same way historians view the curricula of the Middle Ages, stuffed with Greek verbs and Roman history and practical for only a few.

Or at least that's how I feel on my darker days. After all, unlike speaking, reading and writing are not skills that all children are biologically driven to learn. Literacy – and specifically print literacy – has not existed for much of human history, and people survived without it.

That is not to say that it isn't a useful and – in my English teacher's mind – essential skill. Dead authors continue to speak through the printed word. Past generations hand their wisdom to people yet unborn. We can read a book alone with no one to perform the story for us. With a few squiggles we can share our feelings or signify who we are.

Still, imagine a generation of people who have never seen written words, who give spoken commands to their household appliances, who watch the TV or listen to the radio for their news, who entertain themselves with movies and interactive electronic games.

It's not that hard to imagine.

What are we losing?

I'm not a Luddite, and I believe that most changes are usually beneficial or at least benign, but I do worry that with our increased devotion to the electronic forms of communication we might be losing something irreplaceable – a grasp of the subtleties of language, perhaps, or the willingness to reflect before we speak.

My own experience with electronic communication more exotic than e-mail began with Ruthie.

“Mrs. McSpadden,” she giggled one day this past April as she heaved her bookbag into her seat, “you need to look at the McSpadden fan club on Facebook.”

I must have looked befuddled because Ruthie went on to explain.

“It's really funny.” she said. “You need to check it out.”

“I don't even know how to get on Facebook,” I told her, and Ruthie rolled her eyes.

That night after I finished making out the quiz I planned to give Ruthie's class the next day – several killer questions from Chapters 4 and 5 in George Orwell's “1984” – I went online to Facebook.

I found the McSpadden group, which was not a fan club after all but a way for former students to keep in touch after high school. Many of my current seniors were also members, so I joined the group and started sending them messages.

“Why are you on Facebook at 11 o'clock the night before you have a quiz on ‘1984'?” I wrote. “Big Brother is watching you.”

Most of them wrote back immediately.

“Please don't send me to Room 101!” Rickey wrote, and I mentally high-fived him. He had obviously finished the book and understood the significance of the dreaded torture room.

“You caught me!” Zach wrote back, and indeed, the next day he wasn't ready for the quiz.

Since then those students have kept in touch by sending occasional notes on Facebook. They've written from their vacations and from their college orientations. They've told me about the freshman common books they have been assigned, and Ruthie sent me the list of books she will have to read in the sophomore honors English class she tested into.

“We have to read five books,” she wrote, “and three of them are ones we did in your class! You the bomb!”

No reflection, just ‘tweets'

Facebook seems innocent enough – it still requires writing, albeit in short posts on “walls” and often in abbreviated text – though some young people later regret their openness with what they reveal about themselves.

What bothers me more is how it forces the participants to live in the present. Posts are short and cover what is happening now with little or no reflection. Networks such as Twitter go a step further and pare the world into a single moment, asking one question: “What are you doing now?”

The answer can be sent to selected friends and family as Twitter updates shorter than 140 characters. Aptly called “tweets,” they remind me of a pair of cardinals whose steady call and response to each other when they are in separate parts of the yard actually communicate little more than “here I am.”

That certainly seems to be what most bloggers and e-mailers and Facebook posters are saying, and to be fair, what every writer who puts finger to computer keyboard or pen to paper is doing, too.

Is literacy really in danger, then? I don't know. Many of us in education and in the print media are worried that for all our playful paddling around in the Web, the tide is shifting and one day our boats will be stranded and obsolete.