Today is Family Literacy Day in Canada, an initiative organized by ABC Life Literacy Canada, which encourages families to incorporate reading and other literacy-related activities into their daily routines.
There’s no question that developing literacy in children is necessary and important. Adult literacy in Canada, however, doesn’t appear to be getting the attention it also sorely deserves. Nine million adult Canadians struggle with low literacy; that’s four out of 10, ages 16 to 65. Surprised? Well, what may be even more disconcerting is the fact that the number of Canadians with relatively high literacy skills — that is, who can integrate several sources of information and solve complex problems (that is, who can think critically) — is dropping over time.
A study by economists at the University of British Columbia, based on the 2003 International Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey, found that university-educated adults aged 26-34 years old in 2003 had lower literacy scores than the same age group in 1994. The study also reported that literacy levels for university-educated adults in Canada had generally declined from 1976 to 2003.
An earlier study by those same economists found that literacy tends to drop once individuals leave school, because the skills they acquire in the classroom are no longer used on a regular basis. Apparently if adults aren’t forced to think, most of them won’t.
One possible reason for the decline between generations comes to mind: the Internet. Why try to use your brain to come up with an answer to a question when the Great and Powerful Google can do it 0.62 seconds?
The Web also appears to have a peculiar power over people — as in, if it’s on your computer screen, it must be true. Facebook in particular has become a fount of absurd and baseless “knowledge,” such as quotes from Einstein that Einstein never said. These are, of course, immediately shared with another 75, or 5000, people. The phrase “Google it” in itself implies that the search engine provides only accurate and fact-based information. Perhaps we should add “and carefully examine where the information is coming from and cross-reference it.”
Whatever the reason for Canada’s declining literacy rate, the result is the same: democracy suffers, because people with low literacy levels are less likely to exercise their right to vote and get involved in bettering their communities. Let’s face it: it takes a lot to sling through politicians’ bullshit and really understand their positions, let alone the complex issues behind them. The last thing we need are more apathetic and disengaged citizens.
With the results of the 2011 international literacy survey due out later this year, it will be interesting to see if literacy levels among the university-educated continue to drop. If so, it might be high time to examine technology’s role in the problem, and if it is to blame for our brains slowly turning into corn mash.