Monday, February 2, 2015

Literacy in America

I was recently at a coffee shop getting a cup of coffee with a coworker when he excused himself to use the restroom.  A moment later, my phone buzzed and I found that he had texted me a picture from the bathroom.  It was a picture of a small sign with instructions directing the user to pull the handle in an upwards direction to eliminate liquid waste and to push the handle downward in order to eliminate solid waste.  

Initially, I saw this sign as yet another pathetic attempt at greenwashing like a sign asking you to take only one napkin at a Philly Cheesesteak stand on a street corner, but as I reread the complicated instructions, I realized that there, in the coffee shop bathroom was the key to saving our country.

I regularly hear or, ironically, read about how America is in trouble because of all the middle schoolers in Finland and Japan doing fancy math and using sophisticated words just to show off.  And it makes me wonder what is wrong with the youth of today that they don’t just learn to read and write because they are told to like every other kid in the G.D. world.  Well, every other kid that has the luxury of vaccines, water and food, that is.  And sitting there in the coffee shop, I realized that the problem is that we haven’t properly incentivized these skills.  All kids hear about in school is ‘your future blah blah blah’ and ‘livable wage health insurance student loan blah blah blah.’  As adults, these are the things that are important to us and so we love to talk about them.

But the problem is that kids don’t care about these things.  So what we need to do is make the benefits and rewards of reading more concrete.  Gone are the days of reading for reading’s sake because now when you want to be entertained, there are far better ways than sitting down with a heavy book whose pages you literally have to turn only to nod off, lose your place and then have to restart the whole book next day.  We live in an age where anything worth consuming can be done on the internet and with rare exception, takes less than four minutes.  Which is why reading is pleasure is dead and we now need to move on and refocus on reading as function.  

In order to do this, we need the architects, engineers and manufacturers of all of our stuff to get on board.  They already have one foot on this train, and what I mean is this:  when you look in your refrigerator, you will see all kinds of instructions for how to open different kinds of bottles and jars.  Most likely the text reads ‘Twist to Open’, but you probably don’t know this because you probably already know how to open everything in your fridge without instructions.  Certainly you’ve seen other examples of this: ‘Remove Wrapper Before Consuming’ or ‘Do Not Use Underwater.’  And although these little quips make for dull but time filling conversations at work or lame parties, they do little to actually help us out as individuals or as a country because everyone knows not to eat cookies still in the package or blow dry their hair in the pool.  Still though, they are are commonplace, ignorable and most importantly, they are phase one in my plan to spread absolute, unequivocal literacy from the purple mountains majesty to the golden plains of this great country.

It’s the next part of this plan that will really make a difference.  You see, the problem with these little labels is that they are too simple.  They use plain language to explain something that everyone already knows how to do.  Instead, we need to see complicated instructions on products that have been designed to be difficult to use.  The toilet handle in the coffee shop is a start.  In order to really appreciate what the instructions are asking you to do, you need to be able to read and understand directional language (up, down), states of matter (liquid, solid) and logic (if x then y).  The problem with this sign though is that it doesn’t quite go far enough, because even if you couldn’t read, you would be able to make the toilet flush.  Imagine a similar sign on an unfamiliar flushing mechanism.  You would have the choice to carefully read and follow the instructions or face the humiliation of leaving your waste, whether liquid, solid or a little bit of both lazily floating in the bowl for the next person in line to come in and judge both your reading ability and your bodily function.  

Another example is the annoying dinging in my car that rudely reminds me to buckle my seatbelt the instant I sit in my car instead of recognizing and respecting that fact that in my state, we ‘Live Free or Die’ and buckling up is a choice not a requirement.  It took a significant amount of research, all of which included reading detailed instructions, mainly in the form of chaotic blog entries, before I learned how to disable the dinging so that I could buckle my seatbelt at my leisure instead of under imaginary pressure from a judgmental little sensor.  Again, through literacy, my use of this product was improved, however it still would have been possible for me to use my car and tolerate the dinging.

But imagine taking these two examples one step further.  Picture yourself attempting to walk out of a gas station only to come up short because the door didn’t open when you shoved your shoulder against it.  You are left with the choice of either reading the instructions or pathetically pretending to check out the display of windshield washer fluid next to the door while waiting for someone else to come along and read the sign, which has been switched from the almost condescending ‘PUSH’ to ‘When exiting, please depress lever while applying pressure and then look up and into the camera above the door and to the right with an expression of steely resolve as if to suggest today is the day you are going to make a real and meaningful change in your life.’  

By including little inspirational messages in each of these small sets of instructions, we may even see an overall morale boost in the general population.  Think of the difference you could make when you approach a crosswalk only see that the sign says ‘Cease forward progress and flash a smile of encouragement to a nearby stranger.’  You scan the passing cars only to see a man with one hand on the steering wheel while the other hand angrily squeezes and shakes an unopened package of cookies.  And as the car slows to turn a corner, you flash him a wildly enthusiastic grin which falls and turns to pity as you see the man’s unbuckled seatbelt and through his open window, you hear a slow and sad ‘ding...ding...ding.’