Literacy in the 21st Century

By Zeeshan Qureshi (Inspired by Empire of Illusion by Chris Hedges)


I will never let my schooling interfere with my education.”- Mark Twain

We are often told we live in the Information Age, and it’s true. Very true. First it was the internet, a whole wealth of information was available at the touch of a few keys on a keyboard.  Then came the smartphone.  With one device, accessing this unmeasurable amount information went from our computers to our pockets.  People in the previous century would kill-yes kill- to have our resources. Yet, as much as we look at our phones and use our computers, do we really know more than those before us?  Are we as literate?

We first have to define literacy.  The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines literacy as “the ability to read and write” or “knowledge that relates to a specified subject.”  But let’s delve deeper.  If I went to the streets of New York and I asked someone if that homeless man on the corner is more literate than Thomas Edison, the answer would be, unequivocally, no.  It seems obvious enough.  Edison paved the way for modern electricity, while the other has probably never been to college.  However, Edison also electrocuted an elephant to make the point that his DC system of electricity was better than Tesla’s AC system. Is that an act of someone who is literate?

The problem lies in the idea that literacy can be measured empirically.  We’ve reduced it down to the simple system that whoever has had the most schooling is the one who is the most accomplished.  What we continue to neglect is the fact that there are many other forms of intelligence that are just as, if not more, valuable than literacy as we have defined it.  Physical literacy, emotional literacy, religious literacy, and social literacy, amongst others, are all just as, if not more, important than our precious university degrees.  What good is that piece of paper when it’s tainted by the sabotage of fellow students?  What good is it if our ethics are sacrificed in the process?   I’ve seen many first generation Americans blame this mentality on the culture of their countries back home, and while this does play a factor, it is merely a symptom of a greater crisis. 

We, in general, have become increasingly obsessed with becoming extraordinary rather than achieving excellence.  Our need to conform to others’ standards is stopping us from forming ours.   In his Eid Banquet speech, Chaplain Kaiser addressed this problem when he talked about the Tafsir (interpretation) of one surah.  He said that competition with others is a stage of the life of an average individual, but eventually they move on. Nowadays, the majority of people don’t seem to be growing out it.  We’ve become dependent on our peers’ perception of us, rather than our own perception of ourselves.  In the time when Umar Ibn Al-Khattaab was the Caliph, a man came up to Umar and said that a poet insulted him.  When Umar asked what he said, the man said that the poet claimed that he lived his life solely for achievement.  That was an insult! An insult! But now, in universities across America and Europe, a culture has been made such that people don’t have any purpose to study other than to avoid failure as defined by social norms.  The threat of societal failure has crippled us to the point where we don’t find fulfillment in our achievements unless we think we’re better than those around us. We can’t achieve true literacy when it’s defined by someone else.

Although this problem is inherently personal, the effects are far-reaching.  Since we are increasingly focused on the tangible, we increasingly neglect the intangible.  Few people nowadays notice how much screen time they’re getting every day and even fewer notice its effects.  As people scroll down their Facebook feeds, they are constantly exposed to numerous images and videos per minute. We are satisfactorily entertained in the span of a few minutes, and all at the touch of a smartphone.  As a result of such constant stimulation, we grow to expect that such entertainment constantly and, as a result, our attention spans decrease.  On the other hand, with a decline  in reading books and the simplification of their texts , there is a more sinister consequence of this phenomenon.  As our use of social media increases, our lives slowly start revolving around our cyber identity.  We reminiscence about the past when Facebook tells us we have a “memory” to look back on, a memory that we deemed worthy of sharing on social media.  We even start to measure how long a friendship has lasted based on how long we’ve been “Facebook friends”.  Slowly, but surely, we are neglecting personal reflection, one on one communication, and even the value of boredom.  These uniquely human, intricate, and beautiful qualities are being lost, all because of a complex arrangement of a few resistors and capacitors.

Of course, when there is a handicap, there are those who try to take advantage of it.  The radio is a prime example. After we listen to the nonsensical, basic songs about sex and drugs that play on the stations, corporations get full use of our distraction.  While I was driving one day, I noticed one Papa John’s commercial that stood out.  After listening to a song filled with incomprehensible mumbles, I was greeted with an enthusiastic voice saying “Football. What do you think of when you hear the word “football”? Well, you should be thinking of Papa Johns’ football special! Get a medium one topping pizza for just $6.99 every Sunday Night at your local Papa Johns. Order this Sunday and also get a free drink of your choice!  Now let’s try this again. Football. What do you think of when you hear the word football? Papa Johns. **” It took me a few minutes to realize that this was a poor attempt at brainwashing.  But although it was a poor attempt, the ad would not have aired if it wasn’t going to work. After listening to the advert, every time an idle listener would hear the word football, they would think, however briefly, about Papa Johns.  But although this was shameless, the fact that we are taken advantage of so shamelessly is telling of how far we have fallen to submit to our base desires.  

Don’t fall for this façade.  As the Qur’an says, “Iqra”. Read.  Become educated.  Continuously develop your knowledge, and as you do so, don’t develop arrogance.  Teach others; not for the sake of impressing them, but for the sake of achieving a greater level of satisfaction. Don’t let this age of information continue to be an age of ignorance.

**The ad is not quoted exactly.  But the only parts that may be inaccurate are the details of the deal.  The repetition of the word football is accurate.


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