Whenever the subject of literacy comes up in a discussion, the average person is somehow led to make an automatic association with one’s ability to read and write. That certainly is the case here in Barbados where generations have grown up in the last 50 years, constantly hearing a 99 per cent literacy rate being touted as an education success story to be proud of.
While this claim held some validity up to probably a decade or so ago, there is mounting evidence today that suggests it no longer obtains. There are increasing numbers of Barbadians who can neither read nor write, despite passing through the school system. And the number, sad to say, includes a high percentage of persons who have turned to a life of crime.
Tuesday this week was observed around the world as International Literacy Day. The objective of this initiative of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was to emphasize and draw attention to the continuing importance of reading and writing skills. Ironically, the observance also highlighted the limitations of this traditional definition of literacy which may have sufficed up to about 25 years ago but is inadequate today given the complexity of modern society.
For this reason, a broader and more fitting definition of literacy must go beyond the mere ability to read and write to encompass other skills which are equally as important for a person to function effectively in the media and information-driven world of the 21st Century. The definition must include, for example, skills to critically analyze and evaluate various kinds of media-delivered messages which bombard our eyes, ears and brains every minute, every day of the year.
When one considers the many challenges confronting and, in some instances, undermining Barbadian and Caribbean society, the urgent need for the promotion of media literacy, especially among our impressionable youth, becomes obvious. Media literacy is indispensable for deciphering the obvious and not so obvious meanings of messages being beamed in from mostly abroad via 24 hour television and the Internet. These messages are heavily influencing our thinking, moulding our values, and shaping our perceptions of people, places and issues.
When our societies were opened up in the 1980s to greater inflows of foreign television content via satellite broadcasting technology, followed a decade later by the Internet and cell phone, policymakers should have carefully studied the ramifications of these information and communication technologies and made effective provision to counter the negative effects.
It did not happen because Government policymakers somehow do not see a link between media and the flow of information, on one hand, and culture, identity and national development on the other. Development is seen primarily from an economic perspective which overlooks the vital role of culture which is influenced by the media and the flow of information.
The region cannot say it was not warned. In the late 1980s, Harold Hoyte, then president of the Caribbean Publishing and Broadcasting Association (CPBA), had this to say about the likely effect which overexposure to American television would have on the region: “We anticipate that it will threaten the orderly development of our societies since it enforces, in the subconscious, false and unattainable goals. It shatters the natural pattern of social and economic development of our dependent economies and could have a negative influence on the buying patterns of our people . . . .” He called for the adoption of national and regional communication policies as a response.
We are unfortunately witnessing today the fallout from official shortsightedness. It is seen, for example, in the upsurge of gun-related violence plaguing our region. As a result of overexposure via television in particular, but also movies and music, to rough inner city American life where the bad boy lifestyle involving guns, drugs, and the demeaning of black women is glamourized, our young men have come to believe, in the absence of effective interventions, that such behaviour is worthy of emulation.
Had they been simultaneously exposed to media literacy during their formative years, they would have had the skills to discern that what they were seeing and hearing is not what normally occurs in the real world but more the product of someone’s creative imagination. If I were minister of education, the introduction of media literacy across the education system, but especially in our secondary schools, would be a priority issue to empower and safeguard our young people. Growing up in an environment where they are constantly exposed to predominantly foreign messages communicated via word, image and sound, subtly urging them to do this or do that, media literacy skills would save many young people from simply going along like lambs to the slaughter.
Contrary to what some believe, media messages are not innocuous. Every one is constructed to promote an objective which generally is related to achieving some benefit. It is mostly commercial but sometimes political or religious. Media literacy, involving the application of critical thinking which is sorely lacking in Barbados, would help our people to identify the motives behind each message by asking searching questions.
Adults seem baffled why children and young people have a preference for fast food over what is cooked in the home. It is what they were exposed to via television. Whereas food for my generation is what is cooked at home, food for our young people is what is purchased, especially at a fast food joint. Media messages have shaped their definition of food.
Similarly, our young people’s obsession with brand name clothing and other products. Unless they studied marketing or communication, young people would not be aware that brands, on their own, mean absolutely nothing. Meaning is derived through the consumer’s response to images carefully planted in their heads through media messages.
During a visit to an appliance manufacturing plant in Tijuana, Mexico many years ago, I got my first real lesson about brands. At the time of the visit, washing machines were coming off the assembly line. They all looked the same until they reached a particular point where they were separated. Each brand went in a different direction to receive the finishing touches. In the end, the distinguishing feature was the identity which was affixed. In the manufacturing plant, they all looked similar in their original state. Ready to be shipped to market, they were different.
Besides media literacy, our people should also seek empowerment through constitutional literacy to become familiar with their rights and freedoms and also economic and financial literacy to understand how money and the economy work and the decisions they should make to safeguard and advance their interests. Topics, maybe, for a future column!