Literacy for the 21st Century

Two of the most interesting articles I read this past week each had to do with a different kind of essential literacy for the 21st century.

First was Rick Perelstein’s NYT article, “How Much Can 1968 Tell Us About 2020?” The historian’s answer, in a word, is probably not that much. This is a refreshing, bracing look at the importance of taking care with our similarities, differences, and path-dependencies. Invoking 1968 instantly conjures up certain images and storylines in many people’s minds, but those might not be predictive these days: even if we’re now seeing the biggest protests since 1968, we’re seeing them through post-1968 eyes — and there’s absolutely no guarantee that the outcomes are the same. (We might also wonder about the exact outcomes of 1968, of course. History didn’t stop then.)

The second was Zach Baron’s profile of Jason Lanier in GQ, “The Conscience of Silicon Valley.” [Hat-tip to Longreads for this one.] Lanier is hailed as a “tech oracle” and possibly “the last moral man” in the Valley; Baron, immersed like the rest of us even deeper in the internet’s imitation of life as a result of the pandemic, desperately wants to know if everything’s going to be OK. (Spoiler alert: maybe.)

So where does all this leave us? I’d argue it points to the two kinds of literacy most needed now: in the historical method, and in the changes wrought by technology.

It’s widely lamented that Americans don’t know their own history very well, but still less do many of us know the historical method well enough to apply it. On one level, whataboutism is about facts. But on another level, it’s often about false equivalencies, non-sequiturs, and mangled analogies. (“What about 1619?”, asks one side. “What about 1945?!” bellows the other.)

And then there’s technology — specifically the internet, and most specifically the social networks — which is changing not only what we see and claim to know, but who we are. (“[C]igarettes … kill you,” Lanier says, “but you’re still you.” In contrast, he asserts that social media addiction actually changes us as people.) In any case, what used to pass for literacy no longer suffices, as Kevin Roose’s writes in his NYT article “What if Facebook is the Real ‘Silent Majority’?“:

“We live in two different countries right now,” said Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist and digital director of Marco Rubio’s 2016 campaign. Facebook’s ecosystem, he said, is “a huge blind spot for people who are up to speed on what’s on the front page of [t]he New York Times and what’s leading the hour on CNN.”

That’s exactly right: it’s easy for NYT readers to scoff at “those” people walking around in a reality of their own (or the president’s) making, but 40 percent of the country isn’t walking around in a consciously false reality. Are there monstrous, intentional falsehoods afoot? Of course. But they can’t be understood — historically, or in their persistent electoral efficacy — if they’re not seen in the context of an ongoing, evolving, multi-level, multi-media system.


Speaking of history, the article I’m most looking forward to reading is “‘This Story Cannot Be Told Unless We Start From the Beginning:’ A Conversation on Black History, Sorrow, and Protest,” in the summer/fall Oxford American. It’s an interview with Minnijean Brown Trickey [one of the Little Rock Nine] and Crystal C. Mercer, moderated by Danielle A. Jackson.