I am sure the rhet-comp-literacy blogosphere is going to be buzzing in response to the literacy-technology-society series of articles that the NYTs kicked off today. As a once avid reader now frequently distracted by the Internet and its various acoutrements, and as the parent of a 9 year old who would really rather not read, just happily consume information in various forms, yet is still able to score in the 99th percentile on standardized reading tests, I really don't know what to make of the various literacy trends being documented.
If I put on the McLuhan goggles, I have to believe that commentators of various kinds are focusing on the figure, and not paying much attention to the ground. What is the real goal of literacy / education / information absorption? It certainly isn't high test scores.
On a global scale, I'd like to think that the goal is world peace, but as McLuhan (or perhaps somebody else) has noted, as literacy rates have risen, so has global violence. Lots of complicating factors here, but a few generations really plugged into the global village might have a chance to bring about more world peace than the series of generations absorbed by their isolating nationalistic texts.
Literacy and education are often invoked in the name of economic prosperity, personal, regional, and national. The countries of the world that have been able to stabilize their educational systems have generally increased personal and national wealth. I guess the nagging question here, however, is still "how much education, and what kind of education"? But maybe the grounded answer is that it doesn't matter much. Simply establishing and stabilizing an education system is likely a key to personal and national wealth, in part because a stable education system also means a stable society. There has likely been very little continuity in the history of literacy levels globally, and yet we muddle forward.
At an atomistic, personal level, literacy levels as a source of anxiety seem really problematic. What I'm trying to think about here is all the people in my life who are happy, productive, and successful despite "low" literacy levels (as measured by standardized tests and length of book read), and all the people who are unhappy, no more productive, and no more successful despite "high" literacy levels.
If the ground, rather than the figure, of literacy were the focus of the article(s), the issues would not be length of book read, or time spent reading for enjoyment, but the stability on a nation, region's, or family's life, the opportunities for education, the opportunities for personal growth and fulfillment. And unfortunately, or problematically, I almost always find myself coming to the realization that the content of education doesn't seem to matter very much. It must matter somewhat, but the medium / ground (understood in a very expansive, systemic way) matters just as much, perhaps more. No wonder educators hate McLuhan.