walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

Always Avoid the Word Literacy


What is it with this blog? I periodically wind up over at it because I'm tracking down some incredibly noxious, unsupported -- and unsupportable -- assertion and I want to make sure I completely understand it in case it got misrepresented by the people who were repeating it.

I was over at Digital Reader, and ran across this and honestly, I'm a little stunned.

The definition of the word "literacy"/"literate" has a long and sordid history. Currently, IIRC, it's something along the lines of has-sat-through-8-years-of-education, at least when it's not can-read-and-fill-out-a-government-form-in-our-language (at least when it comes to collecting international statistics), neither of which bears any relationship to what Adin invents and none of which capture my sense of "literacy", for that matter, which is largely irrelevant to anyone but me.

"Rather it is a statement that graphic novels can form a foundation from which literacy can grow if — and that is a big if — the graphic novel reader moves from graphic novels to more traditional textbooks in their educational process."

I've read a lot of traditional textbooks: old, new, from lots of publishers, on a wide range of topics. If there is anything that can be said about textbooks, it is that they absolutely suck. Even so amazing and sturdy an accomplishment as, say, Aho, Sethi and Ullman's Dragon Book, _absolutely sucks_. I spent weeks trying to figure out Chaitin's register allocation algorithm so I could implement it for my job at the time. I think those pages in the Dragon Book warped from my tears of pain, rage and frustration. I'm not exaggerating. This is not metaphorical. And that's an amazingly wonderful achievement as a textbook. The bad ones make you cry and you _can't_ learn anything from them because they're just wrong from start to finish.

Textbooks are such useless and disposable books that even Friends of the Libraries organizations will typically refuse to take them if they are more than a few years old. They get donated to charities that send them by the container load to Africa. And the aid organizations who receive them complain about them. If textbooks have anything to do with a measurement of literacy, then literacy is not worth achieving.

That's actually not what _really_ bothered me about what Adin had to say, however. Here's the truly offensive bit:

"Would you want your doctor to prescribe a surgical procedure for you based on a synopsis of your ailment found in a comic book or would you want your doctor to be able to read and understand the medical literature before making a recommendation?"

Here's a concrete, specific, real world example. End of life planning is arguably the most important medical decision making any of us will ever be involved in, whether it is for ourselves, a family member or close friend, or, goddess help us all, a child. It is difficult. And there's been some research on how to discuss and communicate the issues and decisions involved effectively. It turns out that graphics make a huge difference, regardless of the level of literacy of the participants.


So, you know? I would just as soon that anyone making important decisions have access to the Very Best and Most Appropriate Tools that Can Be Devised.

I have no idea what that means for literacy. But it certainly was a crappy example to rally in a questionable cause.
Tags: e-book coverage
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