Monday, August 11, 2014

Is This The End of Literacy as We Know it?

People no longer learn to write because they don't need the skill. Yes, lawyers need the skill, but doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals do not. Most of the masculine jobs--building trades, truck drivers, steelworkers--do not. Many of the feminine jobs--waiting tables, administration, retail sales--do not.

When we look at the jobs that are available in this economy, more and more of them do not require writing skills. If they do require such skills, the jobs are done badly and no one seems to care. I remember in my college days watching Chinese students trying to shelve library books. They would look at the spine of the book with a mystified look in their eyes. They had spent ten years of their lives learning to read and write Chinese characters and now were faced with the question of whether "i" comes after "j" in the alphabet.

Ezra Pound remarked--actually preached--that a society that does not value poetry cannot produce great poets. It is the same with writing skills today. Our society values those who can speak, not those who can write. Illiterate people get elected to congress--my congressman in Florida had several new car franchises, but I doubt whether he could pass a freshman English class. Corporate CEOs need to present themselves well in person, but they can hire people to write their autobiographies. The skill of writing will inevitably erode as long as it is not the passport to highly paid positions.

Today, there is no job description called "writer". Even the job of journalist is disappearing--Huffington Post, the most successful online news aggregator, pays most of its writers nothing. Newspapers and magazines are going out of business in a cascade of business failures because an article written for the NY Times today can appear in 500 newspapers tomorrow. Only one journalist got paid!

There is no solution to this problem. The importance of the written word is declining. People who can think rationally will always be in demand, however. We should learn to use our reasoning skills in channels that do not include putting words onto paper.

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