Friday, October 8, 2010

Literacy and thoughts thereon.

One of the social concerns that seems to be rising is the idea of the 'death of literacy'. Its not young...how long ago did Bradbury write Fahrenheit 451? (The title, incidentally, is the temperature at which standard pulp paper, of which most books are made, burns).

On the one hand, we are consuming more of our media by computer. More by video and audio files. Podiobooks are a big thing. On the other, we are communicating by means of the written word more than ever. Those who worry about the death of literacy forget a basic fact: If you want to communicate without those in the room knowing what you're saying...you send a text or an email. For a while, it seemed literacy might die under the weight of textspeak, but I think we're safe from that.

The written word is not in danger until and unless we develop telepathy (By which I do not mean mental powers, but communication by thought through technological means...which is not unfeasible). At that point, I rather suspect there will be a campaign to protect books, and the value of books...as archives if nothing else.

But there are other aspects to literacy. We have people who can't do simple arithmetic without reaching for a computer.

The one that came home to me, though, was when I was in Nowhere, Illinois and an intelligent, articulate woman in her twenties asked me if I had mapquested (it's a verb now) my route back to Chicago.

To which I told her... "I have a map."

She looked at me like I had descended from Mars and had tentacles! A well educated young American woman who not only could not read a map, but could not comprehend that somebody would rely on one for navigation.

I love maps. I was raised to *adore* maps. I literally do not remember learning how to read maps...a skill I was taught by my father using the British Ordnance Survey maps...now those are maps! I do remember learning to navigate with a map spread out on the living room floor, a map wheel (how many people even know what a map wheel is...they're like slide rules, I suppose) and the dog getting in the way.

(For those who don't know, a map wheel is a small device with a wheel on the bottom and a dial that shows miles and kilometers in various scales. Before Mapquest, you used one to work out how far you had to travel on a certain route).

Maps are FUN for me. My expensive atlas is a prized possession and when National Geographic happens to send us a map insert, me and my husband will pore over it, spread out on the floor...sadly no dog to get in the way.

It appears that entire generations of humanity may be denied maps...not taught to read them, not taught to use them, not even comprehending their use.

For a scenario, imagine you're on a road trip through, say, North Dakota...and your smartphone dies. You were using it as a GPS. There you are, middle of nowhere, in one of the most human-forsaken places on Earth...with no phone and no GPS. I would get out my map. What would most younger people do?

Besides. Maps are a dimension of human understanding. If you can read them you can understand the Sahara, or the bottom of the Atlantic, or the surface of Mars in a way no photograph can transmit.

The child who cannot read a map is a limited child, and it does not matter what technology we use to replace them. It is not as limiting as true illiteracy, but it is a limit parents and teachers should not allow to fall on any young mind.