27 January 2008

Global Literacy

A visitor asked me if I had written any article on global literacy. Yes, I have. It appeared in Fusion: Papers Read at FUSE Assemblies, volume 2 (December, 2000). I delivered it on 26 October 1999 to members of the Foundation to Upgrade the Standard of Education (FUSE) in Manila. Here is the unedited file I retrieved from my computer:

To prepare Filipino students for the 21st century, educators must make them globally literate. Global literacy is the amount of information that a person needs in order to live in the world. Global literacy is made up of three elements: cultural literacy, scientific literacy, and multiple literacies. Global literacy for a Filipino is the amount of information that a Filipino needs in order to live in a Philippines that is situated in a global village. Philippine Global Literacy is nothing else but literacy for a global Philippines.

Fellow educators, ladies and gentlemen:

What I want to talk about this morning should be – and will be, when I go on sabbatical – a book. Necessarily, then, this talk will be sketchy, but I hope anyway to give a little bit of flesh to the idea I am going to try to sell to you today.

Today I want to sell you an idea – the idea of literacy, not the literacy that comes with being able to read and write, but the kind of literacy that makes a person literate. I want to sell you the idea of global literacy, not global only in the sense of transcending the physical and geographical boundaries of our archipelago, but global in the sense of encompassing not just culture or what has been called cultural literacy, not just science and technology or what has been called scientific literacy, but all types of literacy, including multiple literacies or the different literacies based on multiple intelligences.

Since most of you are familiar with these types of literacy anyway, let me very quickly review them with you.

First, cultural literacy. In 1981, a literary critic from the University of Virginia, E. D. Hirsch Jr., electrified the academic community by claiming that he had found a way to solve the problem of poverty in the United States. At the annual convention of the world’s largest professional association of literary critics – the Modern Language Association of America, to which I belong, which has about 35,000 members around the world – Hirsch outlined a theory of reading that eventually became known as Cultural Literacy and, today, as Core Knowledge. That talk was published in the periodical The American Scholar in 1983 and attracted the attention of Exxon Education Foundation, which funded Hirsch’s subsequent work. Soon, the US Federal Government also got wind of the project and the Cultural Literacy or Core Knowledge movement was born.

Said Hirsch in Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, the book that became a bestseller in the United States in 1987: “That children from poor and illiterate homes tend to remain poor and illiterate is an unacceptable failure of our schools, one which has occurred not because our teachers are inept but chiefly because they are compelled to teach a fragmented curriculum based on faulty educational theories. Some say that our schools by themselves are powerless to change the cycle of poverty and illiteracy. I do not agree. They can break the cycle, but only if they themselves break fundamentally with some of the theories and practices that education professors and school administrators have followed over the past fifty years.”

What were these outdated and harmful theories and practices? Basically, they were the educational theories and practices popularized by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and John Dewey (1859-1952). Rousseau, at least as Hirsch interpreted him, “thought that a child’s intellectual and social skills would develop naturally without regard to the specific content of education.” In his famous book Schools of To-morrow (1915), Dewey, following Rousseau, then attacked what he called “the piling up of information.” Said Hirsch: Dewey falsely “assumed that early education need not be tied to specific content.“ Needless to say, neither Rousseau nor Dewey lived in our Information Age, when information is crucial to any decision, whether personal or non-personal, whether cultural or scientific, whether educational or commercial.

The book Cultural Literacy, and its sequels – dictionaries and textbooks belonging to what is now known as The Core Knowledge Series: Resource Books for Grades One through Six – cited numerous studies and experiments to prove what is actually quite a simple insight, namely, that children do not learn by learning skills; they learn by learning facts. Information, in our information age, is what American children need, and Hirsch and his associates eventually identified the information – or core knowledge – that every American, in order to be a good American, should know. These pieces of information they distributed among the different levels of elementary schooling in the United States, and many American schools today use these facts in lieu of what, in the old days, used to be called Minimum Learning Competencies. Today, American education is working because American schoolchildren are memorizing a list of facts named collectively as Cultural Literacy, or what an American should know to be literate about American culture.

Hirsch defines Cultural Literacy succinctly in this way: “Cultural literacy,” he says, “is the network of information that all competent readers possess. It is the background information, stored in their minds, that enable them to take up a newspaper and read it with an adequate level of comprehension, getting the point, grasping the implications, relating what they read to the unstated context which alone gives meaning to what they read.” Core Knowledge, on the other hand, is defined similarly as, in Hirsch’s words, “a body of widely used knowledge taken for granted by competent writers and speakers in the United States. Because this knowledge is taken for granted rather than being explained when it is used, it forms a necessary foundation for the higher-order reading, writing, and thinking skills that children need for academic and vocational success. The universal attainment of such knowledge should be the central aim of curricula in our elementary schools, just as it is currently the aim in all world-class educational systems.” If you are wondering which world-class educational systems Hirsch is referring to here, they are those of Sweden, France, and Japan, systems that he calls “the highest-achieving and most egalitarian elementary school systems in the world.”

As defined by Hirsch, the literacy of American 17-year-olds in a 1985 study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress was less than 25%. You need not be a blind admirer of all things American to suspect that, if the cultural literacy rate in the United States is below 25%, the literacy rate in the Philippines cannot be anywhere near the much higher percentage we love to boast about.

Let us now shift to scientific literacy. Sometime in the eighties, the Public Opinion Laboratory at Northern Illinois University asked American adults questions about elementary scientific concepts. The result of the surveys showed that the scientific literacy rate in the United States was, at that time, not more than 7% Even American college graduates had a scientific literacy rate of only 17%. That is even less, we can see, than the cultural literacy rate.

In 1991, the founder and director of the Public Opinion Laboratory, Jon D. Miller, was named the first director of the International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy (ICASL) by the Chicago Academy of Sciences. The ICASL coordinates efforts at raising scientific literacy levels in various industrialized nations.

In 1992, Richard Brennan, a technical consultant to numerous American government agencies, published a book entitled Dictionary of Scientific Literacy. Brennan’s insight was similar to that of Hirsch. Following the Illinois investigations, Brennan realized that American adults, even after school, could not understand the latest developments in science and technology. As James Rutherford of the American Association for the Advancement of Science put it in his Introduction to the book: “Life is complicated, and getting more-so, it seems, by the hour. One aspect of this – perhaps the central one of our times – is that science and technology have left the lab and the factory and are no longer the sole concern of scientists and engineers and their clients. Those fields of thought and action are now part of every one of our lives, no matter what our occupation, no matter where we live. Science, both basic and applied, has much to do with the nature of the work we do, how we travel and communicate, diseases we are prone to and those that no longer threaten us, what we eat, how we wage war, what we do to our surroundings and to other living creatures, and much else. Scientific literacy is the ticket for admission to such a world.”

Brennan defines Scientific Literacy succinctly in this way: “A scientifically literate person,” he says, “understands the vocabulary well enough to follow public debates about issues involving science and technology.” One does not need to be a scientist to be scientifically literate, just as one does not have to be an artist or a historian or a social scientist to be culturally literate.

A more detailed definition of scientific literacy may be found on the website of the Illinois Scientific Literacy Network (http://www.imsa.edu/project/isln). ISLN describes “scientific literacy habits of mind” in this way: “(1) The capacity to formulate questions; to seek, comprehend and use available information; to gather and interpret data; and to draw logical inferences in relation to an area of investigation; (2) The ability to comprehend and communicate the language, concepts, theories, and practices of science, mathematics, and technology in ways that promote mutual understanding, cooperative problem solving, and shared vision; (3) The awareness that science, mathematics, and technology are ongoing processes and growing disciplines that are constantly evolving and being refined through inquiry and open-ended investigation; (4) The awareness that science, mathematics, and technology are interdependent – that the tools and methods of each are interrelated and mutually supportive; (5) The understanding that science, mathematics, and technology have strengths and limitations in both theory and application, particularly as they relate to societal and ethical issues.”

What Brennan did in his dictionary was to select what, to him, were “those technical terms that are necessary for a broad understanding of a major science or those terms that nonspecialist readers will most likely want to know a little more about.” In terms of validity, Brennan’s list is open to a lot of questions, the way the Core Knowledge curriculum – which was the result of numerous surveys and studies – is not. But it is a list that has to be ingrained in the working memory of every American adult, and that is what is important.

Third, multiple literacies. In 1972, at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero, which had been established in 1967 by Nelson Goodman primarily to help disadvantaged schools, Howard Gardner started trying to solve the same problem Hirsch was trying to solve, namely, the problem of poverty in the United States. Gardner’s solution was similar to that of Hirsch. Gardner realized that there was something very wrong with the way American schoolchildren were being taught. In 1983, he published a book entitled Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, in which he set forth the theory upon which he would base his later, more practical work. As described by his colleagues at Harvard, “this book challenged the traditional psychological view of intelligence as a single capacity that drives logical and mathematical thought. Instead, it proposed that all individuals possess seven independent intelligences. These, in combination, enable people to solve problems or fashion products with varying levels of skill.”

Initially, Gardner thought that there were only seven intelligences, namely, “linguistic and logical-mathematical (the styles of thinking measured most often on psychological tests), musical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal (self-knowledge).” Since 1983, some other intelligences have been added to the list, such as naturalist intelligence and existential intelligence. (Since there is now something called “emotional literacy,” we should probably add “emotional intelligence.”) As explained on its website, “Multiple Intelligences (MI) theory, in a nutshell, is a pluralized way of understanding the intellect. Recent advances in cognitive science, developmental psychology and neuroscience suggest that each person's level of intelligence, as it has been traditionally considered, is actually made up of autonomous faculties that can work individually or in concert with other faculties.”

Gardner solved one of the limitations of both Hirsch and Brennan, that is, their exclusive focus on linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences, or what has traditionally been known as IQ. If literacy theory is to take into account all the latest advances in psychology and neuroscience, it must then start to compile information lists that are neither linguistic nor logical-mathematical, but based on the other types of intelligences. These lists, unfortunately, have not yet been compiled, even for American students or adults. Harvard’s Project Zero is known for its almost obsessive, therefore, very slow-paced acquisition of empirical evidence, and it will take a lot of surveys and studies to compile the list of Multiple Literacies.

We can, however, from Gardner’s later work, have an idea of what these multiple literacies should look like. In his Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity Seen through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Gandhi (1993), for instance, Gardner maps out the broad outlines of these multiple literacies. Look at the way he discusses Picasso’s spatial intelligence: [Picasso] “evinced skill in noticing visual details and arrangements, thinking in spatial configurations, remembering virtually every live and painted scene that he had ever witnessed.” Persons with spatial literacy would have, inside their memory, visual images of paintings. Particular paintings, thus, would have to be added to the lists done by Hirsch and Brennan, not to be memorized as words that are read, but as images that are seen.

Similarly, in his discussion of Stravinsky, whose intelligence was almost exclusively musical, Gardner focuses on “the importance of conventions and traditions” (which, of course, Stravinsky pushed to their limits). To the lists of Hirsch and Brennan, then, we must add musical pieces that have to be heard by the schoolchild, in addition to words that have to be read and paintings that have to be seen.

Even Freud’s personal intelligences – both interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligences – are based, says Gardner, on a rich and solid literary background. Gardner realizes that Freud drew from “a panorama of sources, testifying to Freud’s command of the scientific literature, the classical literature, and the political and cultural events of his own and other eras.” Without knowing the words, images, and sounds in our hypothetically expanded cultural literacy list, persons cannot develop their interpersonal or intrapersonal intelligences.

In fact, even bodily intelligence, which would seem to be the least related to cultural literacy, needs the memory. Dancer Martha Graham, says Gardner, “turned out to be a remarkably quick learner of difficult styles and techniques – a prodigy in the bodily-kinesthetic sphere.” In other words, it is not only words that are read, images that are seen, or sounds that are heard that are necessary for multiple literacies, but even body movements that are actually done by the schoolchild.

If we put together all these types of literacies – Cultural Literacy, Scientific Literacy, and Multiple Literacies -- we have what I call Global Literacy.

I define Global Literacy very simply: it is the amount of information that a person needs in order to live in the world. This information is not all verbal (that is merely cultural literacy). It is also visual, aural, and kinaesthetic, in short, it is also multiple.

This sounds like all I’ve done is to put together the insights of three key thinkers of our time and given the sum a name. I daresay that would be no mean achievement in itself, but it is not exactly very significant. What I want to push, on the contrary, is that the sum of these literacies is greater than the sum of its parts. But that is only my theory, and it is a theory that I will have to support through my future book.

But instead of talking on the level of theory, let me give you an idea of how all this works in practice. How is global literacy working in practice in the United States?

Hirsch made a list of facts that should be known by every American schoolchild by the end of sixth grade. Brennan made a list of scientific terms that should be known by every adult American. Harvard will, sooner or later, come out with its own list of facts that should be known by every American, child or adult. The list of Hirsch, as I have already mentioned, has become the basis of curricular reform in the United States.

In contrast, in the Philippines, we have not yet made even an initial list of facts for our own schoolchildren to learn. We are still using what we call Elementary Learning Competencies and Philippine Secondary School Learning Competencies, which are, by and large, still dependent on the long discredited educational theories of Rousseau and Dewey.

Let me give just one little example. Let’s take Grade 1. Since I know you are all very interested in the teaching of English, let’s take the Elementary Learning Competencies for English for Grade 1 as promulgated by DECS in 1997. We can see from the Introduction to the English Competencies that our curriculum developers still swear by the ideas of Rousseau and Dewey. This belief is explicit: “Language learning,” says DECS, “is not only product oriented but process oriented.” That would be all right if, in fact, the competencies focused both on process and on product, but in reality, practically all the competencies listed for all grade levels, and not just for Grade 1, are process oriented. One example is typical. DECS asks our students to “talk about topics of interest from 2 to 3 sentences, e.g., My Pet, My Family.”

In contrast, and I hate to use Hirsch again, but we have no choice because there are no local examples handy, the Grade 1 curriculum of Hirsch makes the student memorize the verse “Thirty Days Hath September.” There is only one way to know which months have 30 and which months have 31 days, and that is to memorize the pattern. This is not process; this is result. This is a topic that should be of interest, of much more significance in terms of the child’s future than a pet or even a family. And this is just one example out of dozens of key curricular decisions.

In fact, one problem is that we were all brought up in a system of education founded on Rousseau and Dewey. That is why, instinctively, we do not like it when people like Hirsch, Brennan, and Gardner challenge the way we were brought up. We unconsciously think that we should teach the way we were taught. Well, the world today is drastically, qualitatively different from the world in which we grew up. It is now virtually a virtual world, with everyone wired and connected to everyone else. We cannot raise our children to be exactly as we are – globally illiterate, unable to put together what we think and how we feel, unable to cite facts about our history, unable to describe the latest scientific breakthroughs, unable to use our multiple intelligences. Put simply, we are, most of us adults anyway, globally illiterate. But we have a chance to change the world through our children. We must make our children globally literate. We must give them a chance. We must give ourselves a chance.

Theory has given us a clue as to where we should be going. Cultural Literacy, if you will recall, correctly theorized that each nation needs a different set of information in order to become and to remain a nation. We can thus define Filipino Global Literacy as the amount of information that a Filipino needs in order to live in a Philippines that is situated in a global village, or, in other words, we can say that Philippine Global Literacy is nothing else but literacy for a global Philippines.

I know that there are persons here today that can institute policies and programs to inculcate global literacy in our students. I challenge all of us to drop our ELCs and PSSLCs and our instinctive defense of skills-building and our kneejerk reaction against memorization. I challenge us to examine ourselves to see if we are educating students who will move into the Information Age that is the 21st century or who will remain in the process-oriented age that is the 20th century. I challenge us to turn our backs on Rousseau and Dewey.

The 21st century will be a century of global literacy. Actually, I am not talking about the future here, nor perhaps even about the present. Paradoxically, I am actually asking us to return to the past, the distant past.

Global literacy is not anything new. In fact, it is very old. It was first articulated, as far as I know, by the legendary Emperor Chang of China in 2500 B.C. Emperor Chang formulated the tautology or self-referring definition shih yen chih. This is a tautology, because the character for shih is the combination of the characters for yen and chih.

In English, shih yen chih roughly translates into poetry expresses intent. I say roughly, because Emperor Chang was not talking of what we now know as poetry, which is basically musical language, but of all linguistic utterances. He was also not talking of what we now call intent, or something more or less limited to certain faculties we have, but of our total personality. At that time, there was no artificial distinction made between mind and heart, thought and emotion, intellect and will. Later, Confucius would take shih yen chih and make it even more concise with his concept of jen, which as you know encompasses not only a person’s total being but even a whole community’s total being.

Chih does not separate mind and heart or idea and feeling. Just as in the Confucian jen, a person’s intent is whole or global; what one thinks is how one feels, and vice versa. It is not what Western poets eventually called the “dissociation of sensibility,” the division of labor, so to speak, or, in technical terms, a binarization of left brain & right brain, male & female, body & soul, human & nature. Chih or jen or global literacy is a totality, a Oneness, what Plato called The One, what philosophers call Being, what Christians call God. To be globally literate is to be true to oneself, for as poets so well put it, only one true to oneself can be true to others.

I started by saying that I came to sell you an idea, but it is not just an idea I have talked about, but an approach to education, perhaps an approach to life. Let us be one with each other. Let us be one with the rest of the world. Let us be global and literate. Let us be globally literate.

1 comment:

Eric said...

I will be sharing items of Philippine culture from your "Global Literacy" article in one speaking activity I will have for the forthcoming Book Week celebration on the theme: Ang Palabasa Dalubhasa Sa Kultura. Thnks a lot for this!

Roderick B. Ramos
President, PNU-LISSA, Inc
College Librarian, philippine Normal University