Who Needs Literacy

Here we were, decrying the decay of America's schools, the decline in test scores--and now it turns out we had it all wrong. A Washington Post column by Leonard Steinhorn tells us not to worry about kids who can't read or write. Today's kids have a new kind of literacy, he says, and it's better than the old verbal kind: They have visual literacy, from watching so much TV and playing video games. You see, when youngsters play Super Mario Brothers, they're not just having fun, Steinhorn says. They're "processing information." So who needs Aristotle or Shakespeare? Why worry about geography or history? In the modern world, Steinhorn tells us, it's much more important for kids to be able to "dissect a Madonna video or a Nike ad." But there's the problem. Are they really learning how to "dissect" a Madonna video--or anything else? Just picture a group of teenagers analyzing each frame of Madonna's latest video, engaging in serious intellectual debate over why the technical director chose a particular camera angle, or what artistic considerations lay behind the choice of black fishnet stockings. Teens don't talk like this, of course, and the reason is that sheer exposure to visual images doesn't teach people how to think and analyze them. The facts show that even with TV blaring seven hours a day in the average American household, people aren't processing very much of what they take in. The American Association of Advertising Agencies ran a study in which subjects were shown 30-second videotapes from news clips, commercials, and prime-time programs. They were then asked simple true-or-false questions about what they'd just seen. Many of them couldn't answer the questions. On average, the study found, Americans fail to understand a quarter to a third of what they watch on television. So while American society is becoming more visual, that doesn't mean we're becoming visually literate--in the sense of comprehending what we watch. The truth is that the electronic age still requires old-fashioned verbal literacy. Words heard on television or read off a computer screen are comprehended exactly the same way as words in a book. We still need the ability to understand sentences and follow a line of argument. People like Steinhorn mean well, but they're merely providing the education establishment an excuse for incompetence. Sure, we've failed to teach literacy, they say. But don't worry--people don't need it anyway. They get all they need from watching TV and playing Nintendo. That mentality is a sure ticket back to the dark ages. In medieval times, when only the priests could read, people were intellectually enslaved to the Church. They had no way of searching out the truth on their own. A major work of the Reformation was to translate the Bible and print it in the language of the people. For the first time, people were free to search the Scripture for themselves and come to God through His Word. If we fail to teach our children how to read and write, we condemn them to intellectual and spiritual slavery to some form of elite group in society, who will tell them what they should know. So literacy is much more than just a practical skill. It's a doorway to freedom.


Chuck Colson


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