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The new functional illiterates


Published in

El Día and El Diario Montañés

Gerardo Castillo Ceballos

School of Education and Psychology of the University of Navarra

It is often said that the Internet is a great source for information and also for knowledge. However, although some people use both terms as if they were synonyms, there is a clear distinction between them. While information presents facts and figures, it is the processing of those facts and figures that leads to knowledge, i.e., to the understanding of a topic.

Those who do not distinguish between information and knowledge will find surprising and incomprehensible the thesis of a book that talks about the dark side of the society of knowledge. It is referred to in three ways: "The society of ignorance" (Antoni Brey), "The society of ignorance" (Daniel Innerarity) and "The society of ignorance" (Gonzalo Mayos). The main message of the book is that man's neuronal limits prevent him from assuming the current hyperbolic growth of information available: "Given the growing disproportion between the collective capacity to generate knowledge and the individual capacity to assume it and integrate it into our vital experience, it seems justified and perhaps inevitable to think of the advent of a 'society of ignorance or unculture'".

The ordinary reader could find himself intoxicated by so much information. Many new issues would require increasingly scarce time, knowledge and capacity for reflection. If this is so, we are faced with a tremendous paradox: a powerful and successful knowledge society built in the most advanced post-industrial societies is leading to the creation of a society of the uneducated: the new functional illiterates generated by the new technologies.
According to Brey, the road to ignorance arises because the negative connotations of ignorance have been disappearing. On the contrary, some ignorance would even act as a social facilitator capable of producing sympathy in the rest of the people. It would be a society of ignorant people fascinated by technology. The society of knowledge -writes the philosopher Gonzalo Mayos- not only overlaps with the society of ignorance, but also creates it or, at least, makes it fully evident. It seems that the current ease of access to knowledge, instead of stimulating people, frightens them.

Most are not prepared for this challenge and prefer to "pass" knowledge and choose the hobby. We have reached a point where the human being avoids the effort required to learn and even justifies it, settling for a low culture. This stems from the fact that nowadays many people are economically and socially successful without the need to study. Thus a new form of illiteracy arises: that of the person who, having all the knowledge within his reach, does not know. It is a guilty illiteracy. 

The illiterates of the past were those who, because they did not have the resources, did not want to or believed they did not need to, were left out of the evolution of the society of their time because they could not inform themselves by reading books, which is where the knowledge was deposited at that time. Today the new illiterates are those who cannot drink from the source of the information that is on the Internet, those who have to ask someone else to find out anything on the network. For Jesús Iglesias, the empire of information technologies has coincided with a new apostate current of culture. Society makes apology for ignorance and an unstoppable tendency of Withdrawal spreads to everything that has the aroma of enlightenment.

The modern illiterate is a vocational ignoramus whose deficit is no longer in not knowing how to read and write, but in the fact that, although he or she has these skills, he or she does not use them. For her part, Lotta Edholm, Swedish minister of Education, considers that the possible effects that digitalization can have on learning have not been sufficiently studied. She adds that the abuse of screens has led to a decline in the level of reading comprehension among Swedish children, with the risk of creating "a generation of functional illiterates". It has therefore decided, as of June 2023, to restrict digitalization in classrooms and to promote comprehensive reading.

This same attitude is being adopted by many current pedagogues. For example, Patricia Zeas Alarcón highlights the urgent need for reflective reading in the digital era because it makes up for some of its shortcomings: development of thought, imagination and creativity; it also enriches vocabulary and oral and written expression. Some research concludes that the return to handwriting is advisable due to the usual text messages on mobile devices. It improves handwriting and the legibility of texts.