Digital Illiteracy

Besides being a Pulitzer Prize winning film critic, Roger Ebert is a serious reader, and in a recent post on his blog, he blasts a “retelling” of The Great Gatsby that dumbs down the prose of the original novel for “intermediate level readers,” thereby robbing them of the full experience of the novel’s literary richness. After providing a few comparisons between the original and the new version, Ebert made a claim that jumped out at me:

“You can’t become literate by being taught illiteracy, and you can’t read The Great Gatsby without reading it.”

No doubt Macmillan, the publisher of the Intermediate Gatsby, had good intentions. It might seem to be an utterly reasonable thing to provide young readers with an entrée into a great work of literature with some of its confusion-inducing complexities stripped away. However, as Ebert points out, many times those complexities are what make a work of art unique and enduring.

This is an important point, one that often gets lost in debates about digital literacy. Lacking the skills to successfully navigate digital environments isn’t the only way of being digitally illiterate; students can also be taught poor methods of techniques of dealing with digital culture, methods that will harm them in the future.

An example: a colleague who teaches at a preparatory school once related a story to me about a talk a local police officer gave to a group of high school girls. The talk was supposed to educate these students about social media (it was likely the only preparation they received on the topic), focusing primarily on its dangers, rather than the positive aspects of its use. The overall tenor of the advice was encapsulated in the speaker’s telling the students that they should avoid Facebook because it might one day embarrass their future husbands, if one day these men wanted to enter politics or take a high-profile position in business.

This speaker also undoubtedly had good intentions, as did Macmillan. But in reducing Facebook to one element (a scary place where people embarrass themselves and their families) he missed an opportunity to discuss the real concerns that might face a young person who wants to use social media, creating an kind of Intermediate (or beginners) Facebook to replace the original.

In the case of digital literacy, if we strip away  the confusing or troubling complexities of social media (to name one example), we help them become digitally literate. As Ebert wrote, teaching illiteracy isn’t a stepping stone to literacy. If we provide our students with the digital equivalents of the Intermediate Gatsby, we aren’t doing them a service, we may be harming them in the long run.

Bonus link: The Great Gatsby for NES

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