The Critical Need for Critical Literacy

Recently, I listened to a This American Life podcast called “The Revolution Starts at Noon”. The podcast was partly about a specific and yet widespread group of people who played an active role in the recent election of Trump. Their role was that of “troll” and they really, truly participated in the “vibrant participatory democracy” that Kelner & Share mention in the abstract to their article, though their version of vibrant would be very different from my own. How did they do this? They claim that they “memed” Trump into the White House and that they “directed the culture”. These are the people who harnessed the power of the Twittersphere and turned challenging, contentious and important discussion points into easily digestible, bite-sized “facts” that were shared and reshared until they became accepted – by far too many people – as truth. This, unfortunately, is one aspect of  “media culture” as a “form of pedagogy” (Kelner & Share, 2007, pg. 4).

Has there ever been a more critical need for critical literacy? In light of the current and disturbing state of American politics, the answer would seem to be that we are indeed in dire need of refocusing our education system on how to critically understand (and behave ethically in) this new digitally connected world that is both full of opportunities and dangers. In light of the “consolidation of the ownership of the mass media … to a few multinational oligopolies” (Kelner & Share, 2007, pg. 15) and even this week’s attacks on the fourth estate that had the “president” calling news organization the “enemy of the people” and choosing specific outlets to attend his ‘gaggle’, I would say, bring in the teachers! Teach students to question the powers that be, the sources of information, the hidden economics behind what they’re being told and sold (and yet I have questions and concerns about whose truth is taught and who determines the ethics). Still, Jenson & Droumeva (2016) talk about algorithmic logic and computational thinking as core literacy skills and Rushkoff (2012) claims that students need to understand how algorithmic culture works in order to undermine its power. Could this literacy be incorporated into the critical media literacy discussed by Luke et al. and Kelner & Share? Certainly, it would be enormously helpful for students to understand the ways in which algorithms work to shape the media they encounter as a starting point for critically examining its content.


I have always been particularly concerned about teaching students to question what they are told (no matter what the source) and why it is being taught, and – having been raised to do this very thing – it strikes me as odd that it isn’t just a natural part of reading and interpreting the world. However, this recent election undermined any (obviously naive) faith I had in the intelligence and critical abilities of the general public. Those trolls did their work and they did it far too well.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *