Why Literacy Is The Only 21st Century Skill We Need

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2018/06/22/why-literacy-is-the-only-21st-century-skill-we-need/

When I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in English at the end of the 2011 academic year, I panicked. If you’ve seen John Mullaney’s new Netflix special Kid Gorgeous, you’ll know why it wasn’t just the springtime sun on my black robe that was making me sweat that afternoon. About twenty minutes into his routine, Mullaney admonishes his audience after they applaud how he spent $120,000 on an English degree, calling it “the worst financial decision” he ever made. What’s worse is that, at the end of it all, he walked across the graduation stage “hung over, in a gown, to accept a certificate for reading books I didn’t read.”

Now, without getting into too much detail, I’ll simply say that I can, at least in part, relate to Mullaney’s experience. You certainly don’t have to read every book you’re assigned to pass your classes. In actuality, the successful English major (and any other student in the humanities) needs three things to graduate:  marginally competent writing skills, an ability to skim canonical works, and a willingness to speak during group discussions. That’s it. And there are some who probably get by with less.

Fortunately, Mullaney finds the humor in all this so that English and other liberal arts majors across the country don’t have to dwell on a more depressing idea expressed in the 1997 film Good Will Hunting. If you haven’t seen the movie, I’ll summarize the scene:  Matt Damon’s savant character mocks higher education during a confrontation at a bar, claiming that a few bucks in library late fees is equivalent to the learning amassed over four years spent as a Harvard history major.

So whether you’re laughing, crying, or doing a bit of both, we’re left with an ugly fact:  American liberal arts education is broken, and no one seems to be in a rush to fix it. You might wonder how or why this topic and other important questions aren’t getting much face time in arenas of educational discourse.

How can English majors graduate without reading their material thoroughly? Why, according to extensive research done by professors like Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, are students not improving their critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing abilities after four years in school? It seems like a rehashing of the educational tale as old as time:  an older generation grows frustrated with its younger students whose behavior and learning styles they don’t understand. And while that might be a tempting train of thought, glancing inside the cover of Arum and Roksa’s 2011 book Academically Adrift stops that superficial argument in its tracks. The two sociology professors dedicated their research to their students. Clearly, the intention is not to deride or lament, but to help.

To address any possibility for a solution, however, we must locate the roots of the problem. Unfortunately, I have particularly keen insight here, because I actually managed to outdo John Mullaney’s financial boondoggle by pursuing a degree even more hilarious:  a Master’s in Education. In the courses required for such a degree, professors with little to no teaching experience outside the university offer their passionate thoughts on how to fix our nation’s educational woes. This is not to say there aren’t hard-working, well-meaning, intelligent men and women in this discipline. There are, and I loved their classes.

But where schools of education lead us astray is in their tendency to adopt glitzy buzzwords under the guise of improving student learning. Take grit, for example, Angela Duckworth’s lucrative reissue of what is actually conscientiousness, one of the “big five” personality traits. Or take “challenge-based learning” as another fad that’s made millions for companies like Apple. To paraphrase the music teacher at the school where I now teach, classes like jazz or concert band embodied the principles of challenge-based learning long before anyone realized how profitable it would become. These buzz phrases are endless, and there will be more. All are fads, and every one of them is, in essence, some variation of the old fashioned “Three R’s.”

Take the “Four Cs,” one of education’s latest innovations in 21st century learning. My professors stressed their importance throughout much of my graduate coursework, and for those unfamiliar with this groundbreaking material, they consist of critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity.


I am an avid proponent of creativity and collaboration in the classroom, and am one of four lead teachers working on a pilot program that stresses those attributes at the ninth-grade level. But what are critical thinking and communication if not the ability to read and write? Where is plain old literacy amid any of this new educational jargon? To be literate simply means:  “(of a person) able to read and write.” While we do have new media on which to do perform these tasks, the fundamental skills are still the same.

And because these skills have remained constant, even as corporations seek to reinvent the wheel every few years, they provide the clearest path to an available solution. So what are they? For writing, knowing the parts of speech is a good place to start, because they are the building blocks of communication. It might seem too rudimentary, especially to parents who send their children to prestigious schools, but we must not confuse the fundamental for the easy. Of course, after the parts of speech, students can move on to more complex phrases and clauses, making mature, syntactic choices in the editing process, instead of ambiguously identifying sentences that “don’t sound good” with no real recourse in their arsenal. Think for a second:  if a kid doesn’t know how nouns, verbs, conjunctions, or prepositions behave in the sentences they write, their linguistic precision diminishes markedly. To an extent, they’re taking shots in the dark. 

But what about the fundamentals of reading? Shouldn’t we assume that anyone admitted to a college or university has at least mastered such basics as phonetics and established a functional vocabulary? Yes, we should, but remember John Mullaney. It wasn’t that he “couldn’t read” the books he was assigned. He simply realized, like so many other liberal arts students, that such a task wasn’t necessary to attain the grades he needed to graduate. And he went to Georgetown. So if kids aren’t reading because they know it’s a superfluous task, they need, at the very least, to be ingesting quality writing from somewhere. Reading, like any skill, can wax or wane depending on how much it’s practiced. According to a 2004 National Endowment for the Arts report on the state of reading in America, students haven’t been reading for some time, and it doesn’t appear as though we’ve improved much since then.

Moreover, the quality of what a student reads directly influences the quality of writing they produce. Take an analogy in music. Do the songs written by any artist congeal in a vacuum, or are they influenced by other musicians who have come before? I won’t even answer that question. Any reasonable person should realize that a student with a steady diet of Snapchat and Instagram captions will produce writing that is inferior to one who at least snacks on the occasional article in The Atlantic or National Review. It’s a method of writing instruction that dates back to Quintilian. How’s that for an educational innovation?

So before we fly into the future, slinging iPads into the hands of students in the name of “learning” while doing none of the necessary research to reveal whether or not that device actually improves their ability to comprehend a paragraph, we must slow down. If the literacy of college students is on the decline, as researchers have documented over the last decade, we need to reassess our trajectory.

Literacy is not sexy, but it is necessary. It won’t make Apple and Google millions, but it will enable our kids to learn from books on computer science or engineering. Practically speaking, since college now costs more than $120,000, it will enable them to do the same with a job description, and follow up with a convincing cover letter. 

Whether the higher-ups realize it or not, it’s the only 21st century skill worth learning.


Michael O’Keefe is a boarding school English teacher and a baseball and football coach. A native New Englander, he has worked in northeast Ohio and the Mid-Atlantic region during the last five years.