This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

May 18, 2006 - Literacy is a Life

Some people think the word "literacy" means the attainment of a specific reading level.

They may have heard that literacy is where an elementary student should be at the end of fourth grade. (Fourth grade does indeed appear to be that crucial year when somebody "gets" print, or needs a little extra assistance at just that moment.)

Or they think it means someone can follow newspaper headlines and get the gist of a story. Or maybe they think literacy is what helps someone decipher the instructions on a prescription.

And of course, those things do involve literacy -- of the most basic kind. But it's like defining "art" as "can sharpen crayons."

These things are the beginning of literacy, not the end. Literacy is not a state, a minimum skill, like learning to zip a zipper or even ride a bicycle.

Instead, literacy is an activity. It means many things.

* to actively engage in the world of print, media, and conversation. Some people read the newspaper. But others also read the reviews: not just for books, but for movies and music, too. They track what's going on in many different formats. They attend concerts and plays. They enjoy arguing about it with their friends.

* to use a variety of information sources skillfully and in a sophisticated manner. Let's take just one example. Lots of folks use Google. Some folks use it well -- and understand that Google doesn't even know about at least 75% of Internet resources. Such people are deft at using both the public Internet, and the many treasures available through subscription sources, like those of the public library.

* to apply that information to one's life for personal growth or understanding. Literacy isn't just about passively absorbing information. It's about picking and choosing things that will add real value to your life.

* to think critically about statements, artistic accomplishments, and society.

This idea of "critical thinking" comes up a lot in the field of education. In my more cynical moments, I wish I thought somebody in our society had a clue what this might mean.

As I have lamented in this space before, just spouting the party line -- ANY party line -- in response to some topic isn't really much of a contribution. Critical thinking means an openness to new information, even if it doesn't fit your preconceptions.

But it doesn't stop there.

Critical thinking is about combining all those things mentioned above to assemble a framework of facts, to probe that information for real insight and knowledge, and to test the conclusions in your own life.

To my mind, the exercise of literacy moves you from being a passive consumer to being an active producer. What's the product? Ideas! Or more print, more music, more theater, more art.

If all the world is a stage, we need more than an audience. We need players. Or to switch metaphors, literacy is a series of experiments and explorations. And the public library is the laboratory.

Literacy is more than a life skill. It's a life.

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