To ask what is “digital literacy” is to ask first from what “literacy” derives? It is inexorably intertwined with history -- articulated self-consciousness. Archeological evidence from the Mesopotamian Valley suggests that trade fostered the first forms of this kind of communication. That makes some sense. As hunter/gatherers transformed into early agricultural societies, social organization inevitably came to assume greater degrees of specialization. Trade among members of the community as well as with outsiders would naturally emerge as a primary activity. Transaction records go hand in hand with the rise of governance structures, the establishment of laws written down for the dual purpose of memorializing and communicating them, all together with the first recorded reflections on human origins and significance.
The role that literacy plays in that overall effort is to give expression to the inclination we have to ask the questions anew for each generation: Who are we? Why are we here? How do we tell our story to the next generation? Well, what is our story? It depends, doesn’t it, on what perspective we take, who is doing the telling, how it is being recorded, preserved, “curated” if you will. Once we acknowledge that combination of determining factors, we stumble upon an insight that we cannot ignore.
Each society will deploy literacy in service of its ideal. If our earliest records of literacy are about trade, it is because trade is what defined the core dynamic of that society. If in early Chinese civilization, literacy grew out of what we would call “civil service,” it is because attention to social order has long been the hallmark of China’s civilization. If literacy in Ancient Egypt reflected the glorious reign of the Pharaohs, we know that that society attributed divinity to leadership. Literacy assumed a very different meaning in Ancient Greece. It was all about the shining new example of governance: democracy. In Ancient Rome, literacy reflected its “grandeur,” a kind of beauty that only aggressive empire building and prodigious wealth can display.
What does literacy means for American society? Historically we took our lesson from Ancient Greece: literacy was about citizenship. Different insofar as our government from the beginning was a republic and not direct democracy, literacy nevertheless has been regarded as the necessary tool for governance. Citizens must educate themselves about the issues, positions and people for whom they will vote to represent them in government.
Everything about the history of education comes down to that point. Why were schools bursting forth in the republican period and proliferating throughout antebellum society? To be the means that would meet political ends. Education for girls followed in tandem especially in higher education after the Civil War, and public schools emerged as the norm by the end of the century. Why is higher education the jewel in the crown of American society? Today’s colleges and universities are the greatest institutions of learning ever, trans-historically and cross-culturally, the culmination of our founding ideals of freedom, liberty and equality in service of society. Whatever else is imperfect and tarnished about the United States: yesterday, today or tomorrow, higher education remains at the pinnacle of our experience.
So why are we now in a tizzy about literacy? As literacy rates rise globally, they fall in the United States. Illiteracy or sub-literacy, it should surprise no one, is often found to be at the root of many social ills, crime not least and drug traffic the most. Illiteracy and sub-literacy are a reflection of an alarming financial and class disproportion, a trend that is growing rapidly. If the trend, propagated largely by tax policy in the last twenty years, continues unchecked, American society will surely assume the bimodal shape that current sociologists have depicted: a lot of money in the hands of a few people and families at the “top” of the society and many people in need at the “bottom.” Through waning or lack of employment opportunity, a drumbeat of market pressure to buy consumer items and more recently licenses and services, often if not always in a posture of debt through credit cards resembling a sophisticated form of debt-peonage of the post-civil war era among ex-slaves in the south, and a middle class that is taxed to death – because no other principal class is paying taxes in the society – a bi-modal society of rich and poor is bound to emerge.
This news is bad for literacy. Literacy in the United States is bound up with the rise of the middle class. In fact, if you asked me “what is the single worry” on my mind about American society, I would pin the tail on this donkey. I place it in bold relief because it has a profound influence on just about everything else I will say.
Information literacy studies find a digital divide that has a logical and deep explanation in this economic landscape. People without access to connectivity or computers – whether they be my Appalachian neighbors five miles down the rural road in Tompkins County where I live or five miles from here in urban poverty – will undoubtedly lack digital or information literacy skills. Often people with even poor bandwidth or quickly outmoded devices have had no or inadequate training to use information technology resources skillfully.
Moreover, even a cursory glance at trends in contemporary higher education in the United States shows that we are entering at least a two-tiered system of haves and have nots, those who have the luxury of a liberal arts education and those who go to college for some form of vocational training. I suspect if we took off our blinders -- blinders we willfully keep on because we don’t want to see how we have devolved from the more egalitarian post World War II ideals of higher education into the bimodal, shrinking middle class social structure of the twenty-first century -- we could not fail to notice this two tier system. It is not the failure of administrators. It is not the failure of educators. It is not the failure of students. It is the failure of a society to value education as a social good. Rather than regard education as foundational pillar of citizenship, it has become a brand name to brandish or bandy about in a commercialized and commoditized marketplace, on the one hand, or a certification to get a position or a raise on the other. In the meaning we confer on education we seem to be in transition of what literacy meant from Ancient Greece to Ancient Rome.