Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Addendum to Literacy as art: What is "functional literacy”?

In the last post, we discussed functional literacy, the practical skill set you need to read, write, and do math for real-life purposes.  By this definitionliteracy is less about facts and more about skills: reading, writing, and working with numbers, especially to perform skills essential for living and working in your community.

Without further adieu, let's look at some specific examples of functional literacy.

Types of Functional Literacy
  • Media Literacy is the ability to access, evaluate, and create messages using different kinds of media, from print to digital. The purpose of media literacy is to transform people from mass consumers to critical citizens who aren’t susceptible to propaganda, advertising, etc.

Dilbert by Scott Adams, 10-28-1998

  • Religious Literacy is the ability to interpret religious scriptures and communicate with different faiths.  Religious literacy is important for combatting fundamentalism (e.g., religious fanaticism) and unwarranted prejudice (e.g., Islamophobia).  Some of my favorite interpreters include Joseph Campbell, Reza Aslan, and Karen Armstrong.
  • Financial Literacy is the ability to manage finances and make decisions about money.  Whether you're a consumer, a business owner, or a voter, understanding financial budgets is an essential life skill.
  • Computer Literacy is the ability to use computers, and it can range from basic competency (i.e., using applications like email and Microsoft Office) to advanced knowledge (e.g., programming, debugging, and computer science).
  • Legal Literacy is the ability to comprehend laws (e.g., being able to follow laws, policies, and legal processes).
  • Scientific Literacy doesn't mean memorizing raw data and facts.  Scientific literacy is understanding how to conduct an experiment and identify evidence that supports or contradicts a hypothesis.  With global warming, artificial intelligence, and nuclear proliferation at stake, scientific literacy is indispensable for 21st century citizens.
  • Health Literacy is the ability to understand healthcare information, particularly for making medical decisions or lifestyle choices about food, nutrition, exercise, sleep, and other factors that affect your physical and mental wellbeing.
  • Civic Literacy (a.k.a. Civics) is awareness of how government works as well as your rights and responsibilities as a citizen and voter.  Personally, I like to think of civic literacy as the linchpin that holds all these other kinds of literacies together.

Constitution of the U.S. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Now to avoid any misunderstandings about functional literacy, keep in mind two key points.

First, functional literacy is primarily about skills, not subject-matter knowledge.

For example, when we talk about religious literacy, we don't mean memorizing encyclopedic facts about particular religions.  We mean the ability to read and interpret religious texts (from which you learn facts).  This means reading the Bible, the Torah, the Bhagavad Gita, or the Dhammapada to understand the spiritual, moral, or historical meaning of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, or Buddhismbeyond the literal words on the page.

Likewise, when we talk about scientific literacy, we don't mean having explicit knowledge about quantum physics.  We mean understanding what a scientific method is and how it helps us verify or falsify beliefs.  The emphasis with functional literacy is on using skills, not remembering facts.

Second, functional literacy entails skills that are essential for a functional society.

This point is historically contingent (i.e., relative to our time and place), but that doesn't make it less true.  For instance, the ancient Greeks got by fine without these examples of functional literacy, but that's because they didn't have to worry about running a banking system (for which we need financial literacy), information systems (for which we need computer literacy), traffic laws (for which we need legal literacy), or a bill of rights (for which we need civic literacy).

If these examples of functional literacy are unique to our time and place in human history, then our civilization may need them more now than ever.

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