Sunday, September 13, 2009

Literacy: Too Steep a Hill?

The whole shooting match of "literacy" daunts. So much to know in an ever-expanding world. Visual literacy. Technical literacy. Linguistic literacy. On and on. What to know? Where to search for the baseline?

It can all seem so Sisyphean. Push the rock. Push it. Wake the next morning and push it again.

Back in the day, literacy seemed a simpler thing. You learned the three Rs--reading, riting, rithmatic. If you were born in this America, and you read from a primer; you read books everyone else considered the cornerstones of literacy (The Scarlet Letter, Huck Finn, The Red Badge of Courage, and on), you learned how to spell; you learned to use words to form paragraphs to form sentences to form chunks to create descriptions, comparisons/contrasts, arguments; you didn't feel like you had to know everything.

Literacy, too, did not in those days seem synonymous with "expertise." You could have been an expert cabinet maker, expert farmer, expert milliner, expert chef--and still be illiterate. You knew a thing. You could have learned its vocabulary, its nuance, its practical and theoretical nooks and crannies. You could have "mastered" it. You could have been, in fact, a master carpenter. A master plumber. Etc. Still, you could have been illiterate. You could have been hard-pressed to read, to write a sentence, to carry on a conversation that involved anything beyond your world.

Now, we seem to use the word as a station on the expertise ladder. Literacy. You can... No, you should have multiple literacies. You should be a literate writer, a literate participant in the world of computing, a literate dresser, a... Perhaps "fluency" is a better word? You should be fluent in many areas. You should be able to talk/think/analyze computer-related matters; fashion-related matters; travel-related matters; cooking-related matters. But, how many is many enough? Shall we all strive to be Renaissance men/women, da Vincis? Or, is it enough to buy the Hirsch formula (literacy in a list)?

I'm tired here. I'm trying to know some stuff. I'm reading. I'm watching. I'm listening. I'm doing. Again and again, it seems like the rock thing, the Sisyphus thing. Up the hill. Up.

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