on snobbery and digital literacy instruction

By | July 17, 2011

cross-posted from HASTAC.org

I’ve been thinking lately about Roger Ebert and digital media snobbery.

I found out through my colleague John Jones that Ebert, a blogger and film critic, recently attacked the publication of “easy reader” editions of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. His main concern appears to be that these abridged versions of Gatsby omit the poetic language of the full text:

Fitzgerald’s novel is not about a story. It is about how the story is told. Its poetry, its message, its evocation of Gatsby’s lost American dream, is expressed in Fitzgerald’s style–in the precise words he chose to write what some consider the great American novel. Unless you have read them, you have not read the book at all. You have been imprisoned in an educational system that cheats and insults you by inflicting a barbaric dumbing-down process. You are left with the impression of having read a book, and may never feel you need return for a closer look.

Is Ebert correct? Sure, I guess. You know, Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove is my favorite novel not because of the plot, but because of how the plot is conveyed. Same thing with another favorite, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. We pick our favorite books and movies and songs and so on in large part because of a nebulous feature we might call style. Clearly Gatsby is one of Ebert’s favorites, and he wants others to experience the novel like he did and does.

This desire to bequeath to others our magical interaction with a text iis what leads us to force people to watch our favorite TV shows, even though we know they’re just going to get distracted or bored and stop paying attention because they need to check their email or grab some chips from the kitchen or they just got a text from someone they sort of like and they have to figure out how to respond and meanwhile DONNA NOBLE IS ABOUT TO ASK THE DOCTOR THE NAME OF HIS PREVIOUS COMPANION AND HE’S GOING TO SAY IT WITH SUCH TRAGEDY AND PAIN IN HIS VOICE THAT YOU’RE GOING TO KNOW EVERYTHING YOU NEEDED TO KNOW ABOUT HOW HE FEELS ABOUT ROSE TYLER AND jeez never mind let’s just watch Parks and Rec instead.

So I’d be on board if Ebert said he wanted others to experience Gatsby and other canonical novels as he did, and left it at that. But no. Ebert takes it a step farther:

I never read a simplified text of a novel in my life, and to the best of my knowledge neither did any other graduates of St. Mary’s Grade School or Urbana High School — not in school, anyway. The first book I read was Huckleberry Finn, and I got through it just fine, encountering hundreds of words I didn’t know.

It’s not snobbery to say “I did things this way and you can too”; it’s snobbery to say “I did things this way and if you don’t do things my way you are not as smart as I am.” The latter seems to be precisely what Ebert wants us to hear in his argument.

(Snobbery, by the way, is also what has led lots of people to embrace the Core Knowledge approach to education.)

I have a touch of technological snobbery. I browbeat people who use Internet Explorer until they switch to Firefox or Chrome. I make fun of friends who live without smartphones, and–in a particularly low moment for me–I once made fun of a family member when she began an online information search at about.com.

That kind of snobbery is annoying but not necessarily dangerous–until it gets codified as an approach to digital literacy education. It’s easy, I think, to fall into the trap of believing one way of understanding social media technologies is the best way of understanding social media technologies. We say we want kids to develop an understanding of the complexities of digital technologies, but we mean that we want them to embrace digital technologies–to love new media like we love new media.

It’s literacy snobbery when we try to teach kids what to think about technology instead of how to think about technology. In this respect, I worry that educators who stand on very different sides of the digital literacy issue embrace a very similar, problematic attitude: I did things this way and if you don’t do things my way you’re not as smart as I am.