What Does It Mean To Be Literate In The 21st Century?

By Sheila Moorcroft, Shaping Tomorrow, posted on Alternet.org, June 19, 2012

Excerpt

Our economies have for many years been moving away from old style manufacturing to services. That transition is set to continue, and requires new skills sets. Meanwhile, traditional and digital technologies are converging and becoming more integrated; and changing how we find, use, present and understand information….All of these will require new literacies not only for work but for living a fulfilled life, coping with the new complexities of our societies, and engaging as a citizen. Literacy refers, traditionally, to the ability to read and understand printed formats. Transliteracy has been coined to highlight the need to be able to ‘read and understand’ concepts and ideas across a growing range of formats and platforms – oral, print, visual, digital – as technologies merge and integrate, enabling radically new approaches to presentation, verification and distortion of content. They focus ever more on critical thinking, the ability to question, analyse, challenge; seeing arguments from different perspectives; articulating ideas…It is almost certainly a case of both and, not either or nature and nurture. With social mobility, unemployment and the need for growth all hot political topics, new literacies could be the key to opening new routes to success. 

© 2012 Shaping Tomorrow All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/155975/

Full text

Our economies have for many years been moving away from old style manufacturing to services. That transition is set to continue, and requires new skills sets. Meanwhile, traditional and digital technologies are converging and becoming more integrated; and changing how we find, use, present and understand information. Robots are becoming ever more intelligent and have been forecast to be capable of replacing millions of lower skilled, and increasingly higher skilled, jobs in the USA alone in coming decades.

All of these will require new literacies not only for work but for living a fulfilled life, coping with the new complexities of our societies, and engaging as a citizen.

Literacy refers, traditionally, to the ability to read and understand printed formats. Transliteracy has been coined to highlight the need to be able to ‘read and understand’ concepts and ideas across a growing range of formats and platforms – oral, print, visual, digital – as technologies merge and integrate, enabling radically new approaches to presentation, verification and distortion of content. They focus ever more on critical thinking, the ability to question, analyse, challenge; seeing arguments from different perspectives; articulating ideas.

As with all skills, the need for these skills can be seen as a continuum from the functional – enough for day to day life, through socio-cultural to enhance life chances through to transformational which can underpin high levels of innovation.

Practical life skills are in short supply.  A recent survey in the UK indicated that 45% of children under the age of 13 could use a DVD or iPod but not tie their shoelaces – not in itself a problem given the availability of Velcro and slip on shoes, but tying a knot is important.

Another item highlighted 27 essential literacies under six headings, – financial, thinking, success, social, practical, happiness – which it claimed were not being taught in schools.  These ranged from critical thinking to knowing how to mend things, listening skills to budgeting.

Science literacy is also a growing necessity. Issues such as addressing climate change and the benefits of new technologies, feeding growing populations all require an understanding of science. In order to understand the complex trade-offs and underlying issues, cause and effect.

Why is this important?

On one level, these discussions are not new. Howard Gardner discussed the idea of multiple intelligences as early as 1983. Daniel Goleman had a best seller in the 1990s with Emotional Intelligence. Work related profiling systems such as Myers Briggs examine individual capabilities across different skill sets. The discussion of ‘new literacies’ could be seen as little more than rebranding of old ideas, but in doing so it may focus attention and gather momentum for change and new solutions for our new economies.

Countries in the OECD face a double whammy: high unemployment and skills shortages. 23 million people aged 15-24 – about 17% on average are unemployed and not in education or training across the OECD; youth unemployment in Spain and Greece rises to 50% and over. At the same time, 40% of employers across the OECD complain of skills shortages affecting their ability to grow. The new OECD skills strategy aims to help identify and best enable the development of the skills needed to support economic growth. The question will be what skills, taught where, when, how and by whom? Soft skills and the new literacies will need to be part of the process.

A report from the Work Foundation in the UK bears this out. It looks into the issue of those young people not in employment, education or training. Its conclusion is that many of them lack not only formal qualifications, but the ‘soft skills’ needed in today’s economy such as communication. It makes a range of policy recommendations on how to develop these skills.

The nature versus nurture debate in achievement and life success is a longstanding one. Recent research may indicate that soon we may be able to untangle some of the intricacies. A research team has identified small but significant links between 200 (of out 25,000 or so) human genes and ability in maths and language. It is very early days, but they think they may be able to develop genetic tests which are predictors of ability.

Elsewhere, nurture continues to focus strongly. Research into levels of early communication by parents with their childrenunder the age of 3 demonstrates a link between the numbers of words heard and later achievement. A difference of about 23 million words heard separated the highest from the lowest achieving. This includes not only the number of words, but also the type of communication – discursive and exploratory or repetitive and narrow.

It is almost certainly a case of both and, not either or nature and nurture. With social mobility, unemployment and the need for growth all hot political topics, new literacies could be the key to opening new routes to success. 

© 2012 Shaping Tomorrow All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/155975/

Holy Book Learning – Americans are shockingly illiterate when it comes to religions — including their own by Christoper Shea

Boston Globe, March 4, 2007

Excerpt

This ignorance about basic religious and Biblical matters crosses all sorts of sectarian lines…  it’s about citizenship. Because religion isn’t going away — on the contrary, it’s booming — and because it is central to so many of the most important issues facing us today, knowledge of religion matters more than ever. “You need religious literacy,” he writes, “in order to be an effective citizen.”religious literacy has been held hostage in the culture wars between Christian activists, who believe nothing short of returning “Judeo-Christian” moral instruction to the schools will stop America’s moral slide, and secular activists wary of any mention of religion by public-school teachers… 

Full text

CRITICAL FACULTIES – . That’s a problem in today’s world, a BU professor argues. But it won’t be easily fixed.

Stephen Prothero, a professor of religious studies and chair of the religion department at Boston University, thinks he may have found something that conservative Christians and liberal secularists can agree on: It’s not a good thing if students, whether religious or not, think Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife — or stare blankly when a teacher (or President Bush or Hillary Clinton) refers to a “Good Samaritan.”

In his new book, “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t,” Prothero lays out the evidence of what he considers Americans’ paradoxical, and troubling, religious ignorance. According to various surveys conducted since 1990, half of all Americans can’t name even one of the four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), the cornerstone of the New Testament. A majority can’t name the first book of the Bible (Genesis). This suggests a curious unfamiliarity with a text that two-thirds of Americans believe contains the answers to all of life’s questions.

This ignorance about basic religious and Biblical matters crosses all sorts of sectarian lines. In a survey from 2000, 60 percent of evangelicals, but only 51 percent of Jews, answered yes when asked whether Jesus was born in Jerusalem (the New Testament says he was born, as we’re reminded by all those Christmas carols, in Bethlehem). Less surprising, students do even worse when asked almost anything about religions besides Christianity. Prothero has replicated these findings in surveys of his own students at BU.

For Prothero, there’s a lot more at stake than basic cultural literacy of the E.D. Hirsch variety, though that’s an important part of his argument. (“I am convinced,” he writes, “that one needs to know something about the world’s religions in order to be truly educated.”) And his concern is not morality, though he believes it’s possible that students who are more knowledgeable about the Bible “would have smarter discussions about moral questions,” as he put it in a recent interview. Strengthening morality, he says, “is not my issue.”

Instead, it’s about citizenship. Because religion isn’t going away — on the contrary, it’s booming — and because it is central to so many of the most important issues facing us today, knowledge of religion matters more than ever. “You need religious literacy,” he writes, “in order to be an effective citizen.” When biblical teachings are invoked by politicians and activists on issues from abortion and same-sex marriage to poverty and global warming, how, he asks, can a person engage in political debate without at least some fluency in the language being spoken?

“For me,” Prothero says, “the hope is that we can have more and better political conversations. My hope is that a huge portion of the American population won’t feel disengaged from political debates because they don’t know enough about religion.”

Unfortunately, for Prothero, religious literacy has been held hostage in the culture wars between Christian activists, who believe nothing short of returning “Judeo-Christian” moral instruction to the schools will stop America’s moral slide, and secular activists wary of any mention of religion by public-school teachers. 

Prothero plunges straight into this thicket. He proposes that high schools require one Bible 101 course (given the Bible’s particular importance in European and American history) and one on world religions. These courses would, he stresses, abide by guidelines the Supreme Court has laid down: They would be objective and not “devotional.”

Prothero’s proposal dovetails with the agendas of several other organizations. The Bible Literacy Project, based in Front Royal, Virginia, has produced two reports, with funding from the Templeton Foundation, a nonprofit group that supports efforts to bridge the divide between religious and secular culture – one on what teenagers actually know about the Bible and one on what teachers at various levels think they should know. Yet it finds that only 8 percent of American schools teach the Bible in any way.

On the Bible Literacy Project’s advisory board sit such leading scholars as Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago and Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School. Its proposed curriculum, which includes a textbook called “The Bible and Its Influence” and a Bible of the student’s choice, has been praised both by the conservative evangelical leader Charles Colson and Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt.

The Project in Religion and Secondary Education at the Harvard Divinity School has also worked to make clear to teachers and administrators that teaching about religion in high schools is appropriate and desirable. It is co-sponsoring a conference next fall at which teachers can learn from scholars about the latest thinking on religion, and offers joint degrees in theology and education.

So are we all on board with Prothero’s project? Well, the middle ground of non-devotional Bible education may be more controversial than he thinks. The National Council for Biblical Curriculum in Public Schools, another group advocating “non-devotional” Bible courses, has attacked the Bible Literacy Project as the tool of secularists. Language on its website speaks of “reclaiming our families” while a letter posted on that same site, from the televangelist John Hagee, refers to the statements about theology in the Bible Literacy Project textbook as “wolves in sheep’s clothing” — and equates discussion of other religions’ creation stories with a celebration of polytheism.

Prothero says such fighting is a fringe phenomenon: “There is more conflict in theory than in practice.” Still, this remains a contentious field. Daniel Mach, a lawyer in Washington with the ACLU specializing in church-state issues, says Supreme Court precedent certainly leaves room for teaching the Bible in a non-devotional way. In practice, however, “the problem is that it is rarely taught objectively.”

Daniel Dennett, the Tufts philosopher and noted defender of atheism, has made the case that a course on world religions ought to be mandatory for high school students, given the enormous influence of faith. “The toxic forms of religion thrive only under conditions in which the ignorance of the young can be enforced,” he writes in an e-mail message. But, he adds, “a class that only taught the Bible would not be appropriate at all. It is important for students to compare the different religions frankly.”

And it’s not only church-state watchdogs and atheists who are skeptical about whether teachers can pull off the non-devotional tightrope walk. “My own sense,” says Mark Noll, an acclaimed historian at Notre Dame who is an evangelical Christian, “is that the Bible is a pretty explosive book. If students read it carefully, they’d be changed in a way that public schools couldn’t handle — and appropriately so.

TChristopher Shea’s column appears biweekly in Ideas. E-mail critical.faculties@verizon.net.
http://www.boston.com/news/education/higher/articles/2007/03/04/holy_book_learning/