Access and the Literacy Myth

“Seeing Eye Computer Dog”

John S. Pritchett Cartoons
(click the pic above to visit the site)

One of the primary arguments for [national large-scale projects] to expand technological literacy rests on the claim that such an effort will provide all Americans with an education enriched by technology and thus equal opportunity to obtain high-paying, technology-rich jobs and economic prosperity after graduation. The truth of this claim, however, has not been borne out and is not likely to do so. (Technology and Literacy in the 21st Century, p. 135)

In his 1991 publication The Literacy Myth, Harvey Graff explores literacy in the 19th century and reminds readers that literacy can be both a very subjective and ambiguous concept; the definition of literacy may be reliant on the culture in which it is defined. In discussing this phenomenon, Graff coins the phrase “literacy myth” (1991) and it is this myth that Cynthia Selfe explores and… addresses in Technology and Literacy in the Twenty-First Century (1999).

Selfe’s thesis focuses on the American Technology Literacy Challenge (TLC) of the late 20th century, a government program aimed at changing what constitutes citizens’ ideas about and acquisition of literacy while establishing a national concept of literacy that includes and is focused on technological literacy. Selfe’s book is subtitled The Importance of Paying Attention and she does just that by examining how the literacy myth has been perpetuated in the United States, especially at the end of the 20th century, and how the question of access – who has the ability (financial, academic, etc) to acquire literacy – highlights the TLC program’s downfall.

Selfe encourages her audience to pay attention to not only the benefits (often perceived) of technological literacy but to ask the questions for whom and how is this literacy taught, implemented, etc. Selfe helps the reader pay attention by quoting Brian Street:

The reality [of national literacy movements] is more complex, is harder to face politically….[T]he level of literacy is less important than issues of class, gender, and ethnicity; lack of literacy is more likely to be a symptom of poverty and deprivation than a cause.…Governments have a tendency to blame the victims…and ‘illiteracy’ is one convenient way of shifting the debate away from the lack of jobs and onto people’s own supposed lack of fitness for work. (Street, 1995; Graff 1979; quoted in Selfe, 1999)

The assertion that the literacy movement can provide all Americans with equal opportunities rests on the assumption that all Americans have equal access to instruction, equipment, technology, etc. This is where Selfe finds greatest fault with TLC (an ironic acronym); access to technological literacy is not equal for all peoples and the lack of such access may in fact widen the gap between technology “haves” and “have-nots.”

However, TLC – a challenge for the 21st century – was initiated in 1996 and Selfe’s book written only three years later in 1999. I believe that we have yet to fully understand the long-term ramifications of such a program. But because Selfe immediately recognizes the danger inherent in such a challenge, she serves as a troubleshooter, firing warnings to educators to re-think the TLC in light of the literacy myth and question of access.


About Marlen Harrison

Dr. Marlen Elliot Harrison has been teaching language, communication, composition, literature and gender/sexuality studies at universities in Asia, Europe and North America since 1997.
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