Recently, The Digital Reader ran a post titled “Ben Bova thinks graphic Novels are the death of literacy – I can prove he’s wrong.” The thrust of the article is that science fiction author Ben Bova thinks graphic novels demonstrate declining literacy. The Digital Reader’s rebuttal was to cite an article in Inside Higher Ed about professors whose students read comic books and/or graphic novels rather than standard textbooks for the courses with the result that the students understood the course material better.
The problem I see with the rebuttal is that it is not really a rebuttal but instead supports the original thesis: literacy is in decline.
The dictionary definition of literacy is “the quality or state of being literate.” Literate is defined as the “ability to read and write.” Implied in the definition is “with understanding” — I don’t know anyone who would say a person who can read and write but not understand is literate. If we define literacy as the ability to understand the written word, and the more and better you understand the more literate you are, then graphic novels and comics may be foundational (i.e., starting points) but are far from what is meant by literacy.
Think of it this way. Would you want your doctor to prescribe a surgical procedure for you based on a synopsis of your ailment found in a comic book or would you want your doctor to be able to read and understand the medical literature before making a recommendation? Would you want your lawyer to understand the terms of a contract you are being asked to sign only if it can be given to the lawyer to read as a comic book?
Graphic novels (which term I am using to include comic books) have a place in the learning system. Certainly they are useful introductions to reading and excellent companions to literature, but they are at the bottom of the ladder in terms of literacy. Although the graphic novel version of Moby Dick may be more interesting, it is not the same as reading the original text — it is simplified for understanding because it assumes that the reader would struggle to understand the original and because it is designed to “cut to the chase.”
Would I want to know that the president of the United States’ reading and comprehension abilities are defined by graphic novels? Not I. I want to believe that the president can read and understand complex economic documents before deciding what to do in the midst of an economic crisis; I want to believe that the generals can read understand Clausewitz before deciding on battle tactics.
Consider it from a different perspective. Prior generations had to gain minimal level of literacy in order to graduate from school, and they had to do so by reading the original works and the standard textbooks that it appears need to be reduced to graphic novels for today’s students to understand. Is that a sign of stable or increasing literacy or a sign of literacy decline?
Again, this isn’t a bashing of graphic novels. Rather it is a statement that graphic novels can form a foundation from which literacy can grow if — and that is a big if — the graphic novel reader moves from graphic novels to more traditional textbooks in their educational process. I would not want economic policy made by someone whose understanding of Keynesian theory is based on what he or she read in a Classics Illustrated comic book.
We need to separate pleasure reading from educational reading, not that the latter shouldn’t also be pleasurable. Educational reading is for a different purpose — it is to gain knowledge and understanding of a subject matter, preferably in-depth rather than surface knowledge. Graphic novels can provide surface knowledge but the lack of ability to understand the language of in-depth treatises and the need to rely on the surface knowledge in the decision-making process is a sure sign of a lack of literacy.
The ideal is to combine both, but given a one-or-the-other choice, I believe that graphic novels should be shunted aside in the educational process in favor of in-depth learning and improvement of literacy. That people read more because they read graphic novels is not the same as saying they are more literate. That students understood course material better when presented in graphic novel form is not comforting if these same students will be future decision-makers whose decisions will impact me rather than just them.