The problem with “literacy”

I’ve always been a little annoyed with people appropriating the word “literacy” for things that have nothing to do with literacy. Literacy derives from the Latin word for “letter,” and refers specifically to the ability to read.

The problem I have with using literacy for other domains is that even in the world of literature it has no agreed-upon meaning. Is it simply the ability to understand written words? How many words do you need to know? Or do you have to understand the meaning of those words and how to write your own? Some would say you’re not “literate” until you’ve read Shakespeare: Think of the difference between saying “he’s quite literate” and “90 percent of the U.S. population is literate.”

That said, “literacy” has a much more concrete meaning for most of us than simply “knowledge” or “competence.” I could know about reading without knowing how to read. By contrast, in order to be “literate” in the Shakespearean sense you must first be able to read and understand the literary works in question.

So even though literacy is ill-defined, everyone has the sense that there is a requisite series of skills, some of which must be acquired before the rest are attainable.

If we start talking about “computer literacy” rather than “computer knowledge” or “computer competence,” we’ve implicitly said that there is a requisite series of skills need to be an effective computer user—whether or not this is really true. The problem, when you’re talking specifically about computers, is that there’s much less agreement on what that set of skills is. I don’t need to know HTML to surf the web. I don’t need to understand the file structure of Windows to create and save a file in Microsoft Word. Sure, these skills are useful, but I can muddle along fine without them. By contrast, if I don’t understand the different combinations of letters and what sounds they represent, I can’t read Shakespeare.

By using terms like “computer literacy” and “science literacy” we imply that these things are just like learning to read. But these things aren’t like learning to read. They’re actually more like learning Shakespeare. Just as I can save a Word document without understanding the file structure of Windows, I can also read Shakespeare without knowing what iambic pentameter is. If I had those abilities, I’d be more competent in both fields, but I could certainly manage without.

I can become an expert in Microsoft Word without understanding Excel, just like I could be an expert in Shakespeare’s sonnets without having read the plays (although plenty of people might expect me to do both). But to be “literate” in a general sense, do I need to read Shakespeare? What about Langston Hughes? Virginia Woolf? Chinua Achebe? It depends on whose definition of literacy I use. Similarly, is a “computer literate” person required to know how to do a Boolean search? Use HTML? CSS? Or just understand the difference between a slash and a backslash?

The problem with using “literacy” for computers, or science, or art, or emotion, or any number of non-literary fields is that there’s no agreement at any point for the basic abilities that are needed. None of these fields have anything like “reading” as a core ability. But implied in using “literacy” to describe them is that there is such a core ability. I suspect that many people who use the term “literacy” are actively using it to impose their own set of assumptions on a field of knowledge or study.

In the end, I suppose I’m okay with using “literacy” to describe general competence or knowledge in a field. But I don’t agree that every field of study has a well-defined set of core competencies and concepts. Even literature.

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2 Responses to The problem with “literacy”

  1. Ing says:

    You hit the nail on the head: “many people who use the term “literacy” are actively using it to impose their own set of assumptions on a field of knowledge or study.”

    I’d actually go further and say most, if not quite all, do this. *Especially* people in the literal field of literacy. And I say this as somebody with an MA in 19th century British literature (which probably tells you a lot about the literacy assumptions I’m likely to make).

  2. Mark Sample says:

    I’ve got my own problems with the overuse of the term “literacy”—and I’m supposedly a literature professor! Check out this conversation on 21st Century Literacies, where I add a few comments, the sum of which is that I like the idea “practices” over “literacy.”

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