Literacy for the Year 2018

Monica Porteanu has written her fifth installment in our Emerging Fellows program. Here, she explores the evolving meaning of the word literacy. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members. 

At its origin, the term “literacy” meant “the ability to read and write.” Although it was first recorded in the 19th century, coinciding with the beginning of the industrial era, specialists have studied its evolution starting from much earlier times. One of the ways they have tracked literacy was through signatures on marriage certificates. When discussing literacy and the industrial revolution, economic historians such as E.G. West, note that “the evidence on literacy and schooling is interdependent.” His study suggests that “literacy specialists usually describe figures of schooling as ‘indirect evidence’ of literacy. Schooling specialists, meanwhile, regard literacy as ‘indirect evidence’ of schooling.”

With the transition from the Industrial to the knowledge era, the term has evolved to convey the message of “competence or knowledge in a specific area.” For example, in addition to reading and writing, organizations such as OECD discuss numeracy and financial literacy. Futurists advocate for future literacy. Others address health or science literacy, with reading and writing is now considered fundamental literacies.

What does it mean for the era we are in? Arguably, we are still attempting to understand what that is. The knowledge era seemed to have been first identified by Peter Drucker, in 1959, when he introduced the concept of the knowledge worker. Today, the term seems more relevant as ever. Some suggest that 2018 belongs to the era of the humans or the Anthropocene, while the World Economic Forum points to the fourth industrial revolution. Eras, nevertheless, seem to be better defined after the fact. Literacies, however, seem to prepare us for what’s to come. Asking what these literacies are, regardless of how we choose to name an era, seems timely. Today’s literacy types include technological and informational competencies, which have been essential for a while now. Such a trend appears to continue, but for how long could it last? With the current aims of developing systems that are highly usable by humans, will there continue to be a need for deep technological literacy?

What might the literacies for tomorrow look like? Would they still be interdependent with schooling, as noted for the industrial era? How could one prepare for a future when the current rate of change is high already?

While possible but unknown tomorrows unfold in our imagination, they still have two things in common: (1) they are uncertain; and (2) preparing for them is ambiguous. At the same time, most of us have difficulties dealing with ambiguity. In fact, social psychologist Geert Hofstede has identified “uncertainty avoidance” as one of the six dimensions of culture. His study across about 100 nations, reveals that globally, the human comfort with ambiguity sits, on average, at about 36%. The other 64% of the time, humans seem to prefer to control the future. The higher such preference is, the more rigid the codes of beliefs, behaviour, and intolerance are.

But how could one control the future? At best, we can prepare. Getting ready for next year seems attainable with current competencies. Bracing for five years from now would include a multitude of assumptions, and potentially competency changes. How about ten years out? Or fifty? The longer the time horizon, the more we seem to joke about and care less how far ahead we talk about. At the same time, such a view would encourage us to switch our thinking beyond what we know today.

In this context, let’s say, the year is 20018, eighteen thousand years ahead of now. What literacies would prepare us for 20018? By that time, we could be back to an agrarian era, or become Martians, or non-existent altogether. Who knows? Breathing might become the literacy of those times. What would prepare us for such eras, seems to be our ability to deal with the ambiguity awaiting us. Shouldn’t we think about ambiguity as critical literacy? How might such literacy be developed?

Some might argue that ambiguity develops during critical thinking or resilience practice or training events. The same event though still sets the expectations for a determined outcome by the end of it, such as earning a grade, job, or advancement. Others might point to life events or religion as good teachers of ambiguity.

Overall, the current schooling system cannot train us to be at ease in ambiguous environments. So do most of existing societal dimensions, including economics, politics, and governance. Isn’t it the time to address that?

© Monica Porteanu 2018