Literacies

College helps its traditional-age students complete the transition from adolescence to adulthood. For decades (actually centuries!), however, people have been debating with which constellation of knowledge and skills a graduating student should enter adulthood. Many employers want to new graduates who can communicate and problem solve creatively; others want graduates with experience in their specific hardware or software platforms. Other leaders claim a college education should enable graduates to contribute to the civic good of society, not merely its business profits and tax base.  Advocates of this approach argue a broad-based liberal arts education, with a balanced curriculum of courses in the arts, humanities, social sciences, and sciences, provides the best preparation for individual graduates as well as society at large.

What any single model looks like in practice, however, is also up for debate. Most humanities disciplines, for example, have experienced a shift in their canonical texts over the past four decades. In a recent essay excerpted in the Mail & Guardian, author J. M. Coetzee declares himself a passionate partisan for the humanities, but then claims universities need only require students to take a year-long course in the humanities. He writes to John Higgins, author of a new book on academic freedom,

You argue that only the faculties of humanities are equipped to teach students the critical literacy that allows a culture to continually renew itself. But I envisage a telling question will be asked of you: even if we grant that critical literacy is as important as you claim, do students really need to know about Hesiod and Petrarch, about Francis Bacon and Jean-Paul Sartre, about the Boxer Rebellion and the Thirty Years War, to attain a sufficient competence in such literacy? Can you not simply design a pair of one­-semester courses – courses in which all undergraduates, no matter what their career track, will be required to enroll – one course to be entitled “Reading and Writing”, in which students will be trained to dissect arguments and write good expository prose; and the other to be entitled “Great Ideas”, in which they will be briefed on the main currents of world thought from Ancient Egypt to the present? A pair of courses like that will not require an entire faculty of humanities behind them, merely a school of critical literacy staffed with bright young instructors.

I’ll have much more to say about that passage, and the rest of Coetzee’s essay, soon, but for now, let’s take up Coetzee’s consideration of “critical literacy.”  He seems to be referring to a student’s awareness and understanding of the big concepts that have shaped (at least) the Western world over millennia.

For our purposes, Coetzee’s definition of literacy is too narrow.  We should be talking instead of literacies.

See, before you even begin to make a list of colleges to which you’d like to apply, you need to be clear on why you’re going to college in the first place.  (Alas, “to get a job” is no longer a sufficient answer.) If you are a particularly clear- and future-minded student, you might be able to trust your vision of whom you will be in four to six years—I have known, students, for example, who know from day 1 in which federal agency they want to work, and the steps they must take to get there—then you can get away with some fairly specific objectives.  The vast majority of students, however, find college to be a process of discovery, and they graduate with a different view of themselves and the world than they had when entering college.

Most high school juniors and seniors, therefore, might be better off thinking about literacies rather than specific career objectives.  You may have already had opportunities to develop some of these, but others you may want to develop in greater depth—and some you might not even have considered as sets of knowledge and skills you might prioritize in college.

Cultural literacy: This category might include traditional cultural literacy, such as being able to speak another language, pick up on literary allusions, identify musical genres, or determine the aesthetic genealogy of a piece of contemporary art.  However, it also might also include understanding how to talk (or, perhaps even more importantly, how not to talk) with someone whose life experiences have been very different from your own because of their national citizenship, race/ethnicity, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic class, disability, political commitments, or religion, for example. Avoiding chronic foot-in-mouth disease is an excellent, and much undervalued, skill. Colleges that attract a highly diverse student body offer all kinds of opportunities to develop this literacy.

Civic literacy: In my mind, this overlaps with cultural literacy.  You should know how your government functions, on local, state, and national levels, and what roles residents and citizens can take in shaping that function. You should be able to have a civil and potentially mind-changing (yours or theirs) conversation with someone whose views occupy a very different point on political spectrum from your own. You should be able to evaluate all kinds of data (including statistics, anecdotes, people’s moral stances, etc.) and formulate a recommendation for action (e.g. passing a local bond to support schools; voting for one candidate over another; advocating for a rule, policy, or law) based on these data.

Scientific and mathematical literacy: This literacy might include more than a basic grasp of the content and methods of biology, chemistry, physics, math, and the various fusions of these fields, including earth science, computer science, kinesiology, certain areas of linguistics, nanotechnology, environmental engineering, and countless others—and you should develop the ability to update your knowledge in these fields once you graduate. Part of this literacy involves understanding that science is influenced by culture—e.g., what kinds of research we choose to fund, which groups of people are most likely to benefit from (or be harmed by) particular research, or what and how individuals observe in the lab or field—and advocating for a better, more democratic, more equitable scientific practice.

Technological literacy: This one is ever-changing, thanks to the pace of technological development. For most students, it’s enough to emerge from college able to figure out how to use all kinds of software with almost no formal instruction—but I don’t want to make this process sound easy or natural. Developing this literacy means getting practice with lots of different platforms, and for some students, it also includes engaging with code or markup.

Moral and ethical literacy: This literacy involves developing a compass that resonates with you, rather than adopting the compass provided to you by your family or community. Ethics instruction can come from just about anywhere—courses in philosophy, literature, economics, religious studies, journalism, social work, and biotechnology, for example, all regularly touch on issues of ethics and/or morality. But you also might be the kind of person who wants to explore moral and ethical issues outside the classroom; maybe you need a college with a good debate team, informal and interdisciplinary student-faculty group discussions, or a city packed with all kinds of churches, temples, and mosques.

Social and sexual literacy: If you ever feel socially awkward—and hey, who doesn’t?—college provides many opportunities to work on your interpersonal and communication skills, including dating and sex. If you know your sexuality is other than traditional hetero, for example, but you haven’t had a chance to explore it, you might want a college that explicitly embraces sexual and gender diversity and has thriving communities of LGBT people.  If you are straight, and you’re hoping to find your life’s love in college, find one that is relatively gender-balanced; if you’re a woman looking to date men, for example, a former women’s college that only recently began to admit men might not be your best bet. Conversely, if you’re looking to focus exclusively on your intellectual development, and you feel dating has been distracting you or you have no interest in it whatsoever, then such a college might actually benefit you.

Health and wellness literacy: This literacy encompasses all kinds of learning to take care of yourself physically, mentally, emotionally, and psychologically.  Many traditional-age students arrive at college to discover that, once removed from their familial environments, they need additional support because they are, for example, depressed or anxious. Other students experience dramatic shifts in health, including dramatic weight loss/gain or addiction. Understanding how your body and mind work, and getting informal or professional help when you need it, is an important skill, and one that is more often acquired through experience than through formal classroom instruction or “book learning.”