Christine Henseler, “Screen Literacy for the Next Generation: How the Arts and Humanities Matter”

Note: This post originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

If your child is anything like mine, he or she is probably spending a lot of time in front of the computer, playing Minecraft, watching YouTube videos, dancing before the XBox or Wii console, posting to Instagram and using more social media every day. S/he might dislike “books” and “reading,” while reading and writing online all the time. And if your child is anything like mine, you might also find yourself saying things like: “Okay, just one more hour of screen time.”

All of us, together, are navigating new and changing digital waters, balancing screen time and street time (or the contemporary version thereof), identifying the boundaries of personal and public communication, ethical online practices, and correct social behavior. All of us, together, should be raising our voices in support of the knowledge and tools our kids need to engage with this constantly changing digital frontier in active, critical, and creative ways. Whether they spend a lot or a little bit of time before their big and little screens, the next generation needs to become ever more “screen literate” (and, yes, we do too).

But we can’t have it both ways. We can’t fret that our children are lacking good writing and reading skills and cut programs in the arts and humanities. We can’t reproach their passive consumption of movies and video games and not demand more early and continued education in literature, classics or theatre. We can’t call them “global citizens” and not expect each child to know at least one if not more foreign languages and cultures by the time they are 10 years old.

In my college classroom I often ask students about their technology habits and, to my surprise, I repeatedly find that this “tech generation” is not as active as we have come to believe. Eighty-five percent to 90 percent of the students in each of my classes admit that they only use cell phones and computers to communicate using texts and posts, Facebook and Instagram (I hear email is out of style). Very rarely do students raise their hands to indicate that they have built their own website, maintained a blog, created a remix, or produced their own audio recording. Even less frequent are students who know a bit about the history of the technologies they use, the ethical boundaries of privacy agreements or the ramifications of Big Brother watching.

The gap between today’s daily use of computer technologies and our kids general lack of digital literacy, has made me acutely aware of the need for educational models and training in which STEM fields — that’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — and the Arts and Humanities, do not just coexist, but are intricately intertwined within one another from the moment our children step into school or touch that iPad screen.

Whether our kids use the Web to promote themselves, to sell an idea, start a new business, voice a concern, educate a population, entertain themselves, or simply browse for new information, their future success will no doubt depend on their capacity to recognize and grasp the dynamics of the various digital spaces they consume, and perhaps produce.

This means that our kids must become aware not only of what happens on the screen, but also of what happens behind and in front of the screen. In other words, from an early age, they must learn basic computer programming skills, which will teach them how to build structures, apply math and literacy skills and solve problems. These skills will teach them to feel empowered to alter and participate in that which they and others interact with and see.

Their education must not stop there. Our kids must take classes in Art History, Visual Art and Visualization to understand the impact of an image, what it includes and what it leaves out, how it manipulates impressions and how its cultural and historical significance impacts different publics around the world. They must learn one or more foreign languages because neither the Web nor the world is white, Anglo American or English speaking. Cultural and political understanding of an “other” is essential, whether this “other” is your neighbor here on U.S. soil or a person typing before a screen in a different country. Ask any business leader or entrepreneur and they will tell you that historical and cultural understanding of another person is essential for success.

Our kids read and write more today than at any point in human history. They might not read novels and write letters and books, but they do “read” texts, blogs, headlines, they listen to stories on YouTube or navigate stories in video games, and they “write” tweets, posts, and emails every single day. What our kids write about and how they write depends today, like it did yesterday, on their ability to communicate well and think intelligently. They need to be able to organize their ideas, communicate them effectively, and edit their grammar, whether they are working on a traditional research paper in a Word document, a concise symphony of ideas on a blog, the selling of an idea on Kickstarter, or the quick impression of a tweet or a post on Facebook. The need for solid communication skills has not changed over time or space.

So whether you are just starting to look at elementary schools or you are already deciding on a technical school or college, whether you want to be an engineer or a teacher, a health practitioner or a social worker, look for an educational program that includes sound research and writing skill acquisition and demands that you or your children and mentees take courses in the arts and humanities. Most importantly make sure they take classes in languages and literatures. Why?

Because there is a direct connection between the next generation’s ability to analyze great fiction and their active engagement with a film or a video game. When I ask my daughter why she likes or dislikes a movie, I do not want her response to be the shrug of her shoulders and a dull “I don’t know.” I want to hear the wheels in her brain turning and begin to engage with the message of the story, my hope is that she will think about how the story was told, how the characters were constructed, and how the music manipulated her emotions. Because if she can analyze a novel, she will become a smarter consumer of news, of social networking sites, of songs and videos all found on a screen near you.

We can choose to nurture a generation of passive consumers of digital media, or we can make sure they receive the training and knowledge to become smart and active users who will change the world because their worlds were changed as much by science, technology, and engineering as by the arts and humanities.

Christine Henseler is Associate Professor of Spanish at Union College. She works on topics pertaining to Generation X, twenty-first century Spanish literature, media and cultural studies, and the humanities.

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