Why we should care about critical literacy
The broader implications of the revelations contained in 'The Great Hack'
First published 5 August, 2019
Social media and news outlets were all aflutter last week with the revelations of The Great Hack. Thanks in great part to the perseverance of investigative journalist, Carole Cadwalladr, as well as the willingness of US media giant, Netflix, to give airtime to the topic, there is now suggestive evidence that our data fed cunningly orchestrated political campaigns on both sides of the Atlantic; that we as voters were bombarded with targeted material which sought to influence our electoral decisions, with ramifications for generations to come.
If the claims laid out are indeed true, we should be scandalised that this was allowed to happen, and lay blame at the door of social media firms and unethical private ventures. But this isn’t the whole picture; the buck doesn’t stop at these organisations.
I believe that it stops at our outdated education systems, at systems which favour fact regurgitation over deep analytical skills, numbers and letters over evidence of everyday life skills, in short, short-term strain over long-term gain. Yes, social media outlets have a societal obligation to manage our private data ethically, and political campaigns ought to be fought with integrity and honesty. However, the ‘information warfare’ we now experience on a quotidian level would scarcely have developed, nor become so powerful, if our education systems the world over prepared us and the next generation and the next for real, everyday life; for everyday life, not as it was experienced in the early 1900s, but as is lived in the fast-changing and noisy twenty-first-century environment.
If education systems commonly instilled deep critical literacy skills in every cohort which passed through its doors, then we would not be having this conversation now. Information and the way in which it is manipulated and presented necessarily only becomes an insidious weapon if its authors can bet their bottom dollar that the recipients won’t question it, but instead ingest and digest it as a sweetened pill. If it were the case that people commonly contextualised the information they received online or in their postbox, that it was taken as a given that we, as word consumers, read and think between the lines with a handy lexical toolbox at our side, then efforts to persuade us through (ab)using language would fall on deaf ears and barricaded minds.
One of the top SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) listed by the United Nations is ‘Quality Education for all’. There are admirable efforts to fulfil the pledge to deliver basic primary and secondary education to all children in every corner of the globe by 2030. But I can’t help but feel that we need to do more, much more if we are to truly honour what we should understand by ‘quality’, and we need to do it now.
There is no doubt streams more to come out regarding how advances in technology have facilitated the self-serving efforts of bad actors. I hope that, alongside the understandable outcries, parliamentary enquiries and (surely) criminal procedures, that we can have a calm and reasoned debate about root causes rather than symptoms. Now more than ever we need to take a closer look at what passionate educators are tasked with teaching our children and ask ourselves: does this really prepare and empower them to enter C21st society as we know it?
This is the starting point of my new venture, The Critical Literacy Project. This project has emerged from a multi-educational-hat wearing existence and a keen interest in how new technologies might be harnessed to deliver deep, meaningful education for the next generation. I am excited by the possibilities which lie ahead and hope that you’ll join me.