America’s Information Aristocracy
The democratic spirit that guided American thought and media in the print era has all but vanished in the digital.
We live in an information aristocracy. This is true in general, but in particular, effective access to the internet—the main medium of expression in the modern era—is highly correlated with income. Digital literacy, defined by the American Library Association as “the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills,” is the key to wielding the internet as a means of expression and is largely confined to those with higher socio-economic status.
The information elite not only access more information online, but also more information from print resources. This is bad news for our democracy. Democracies stall when information pools in the hands of a few; decisions are made with insufficient vetting and legitimacy is undermined as a result of “the many” lacking the information required to evaluate and help shape those decisions.
The result of an information elite is that our primary means of communication work in one way: from the top down. In other words, Americans of lower socio-economic status tend to be passive consumers of messages shaped and spread by those in higher income brackets. Our information diets have become yet another byproduct of our income; higher income individuals have the financial means to spend time and money consuming as much information as they’d like; on the other end of the spectrum, millions of Americans are left with the memes, articles, and shows that emerge from the behaviors of those with more expansive information diets.
This informational inequality is out of line with the democratic spirit that once defined colonial and revolutionary America. Reviving our democracy and our collective capacity to contribute to important community conversations requires learning the lessons that America’s initial settlers and Founding Fathers applied to their main medium of expression: print.
There was no literary aristocracy in the age of our revolution; individuals such as Thomas Paine, “an unschooled stay-maker from England’s impoverished class,” as described by Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death, could publish their ideas and expect them to be read by the entirety of the public, with the exception of those communities, namely enslaved individuals, forbidden from participating in civil and cultural affairs.
Postman’s book offers three key reasons why print connected society and fostered democratic discourse. First, access to high-quality education was ubiquitous; “schooling of the young was understood by the colonists not only as a moral duty but as an intellectual imperative,” which explains why “from 1650 onward almost all New England towns passed laws requiring the maintenance of a ‘reading and writing’ school.” Literacy training was also available to adults through apprenticeship libraries. Consider that the New York Apprentices’ Library served more than 1,600 apprentices in 1829 alone.
Second, as a result of this education, literacy rates were high: “between 1640 and 1700, the literacy rate for men in Massachusetts and Connecticut was somewhere between eighty-nine per cent and ninety-five per cent, quite probably the highest concentration of literate males to be found anywhere in the world.”
Third, the “devices” of the era, books, were readily available. By way of example, “probate records indicate that sixty per cent of the estates in Middlesex County between the years 1654 and 1699 contained books, all but 8 per cent of them including more than the Bible.”
Cumulatively, this meant that “the art of printing opened the same resources to the minds of all classes,” as summarized by Postman. He concluded that “reading was not regarded as an elitist activity [because] printed matter was spread evenly among all kinds of people.”
Today, varying degrees of access to the internet and digital literacy have resulted in at least two Americas: one in which the digital-haves consume news and opinion largely inaccessible to the other America; and, another America, a society where digital-have-nots—without affordable, unlimited internet—are mostly confined to news and perspectives delivered via social media. Moreover, notably, the information elite, by virtue of their additional time and financial resources, are also better able to access print resources.
If, as Postman quotes Marshall McLuhan as saying, the medium is the message, then Americans are getting wildly different messages. According to a Pew poll, whereas 37 percent of Americans making less than $75,000 per year rely on social media and cable news for their political news, more affluent Americans turn to news websites or apps (46 percent) and print (42 percent). The poor, those making less than $30,000 annually, reported an even more depressed information diet: Only 18 percent reported that they commonly got political news from a news website or app and just 26 percent said the same for print.
This isn’t to say that news websites or apps and print sources are necessarily superior sources of information to social media and cable news, but rather that the former sources tend to influence the latter. Social media and cable news tend to repackage and reshare the content developed by news websites and print sources—the domain of the information elite.
It follows then that America is increasingly a media environment in which the elite create content and the poor consume distilled versions of that content. Our predecessors wouldn’t recognize nor accept such a world; neither should we. To allow for the perpetuation of the status quo is to accept a stilted democratic discourse.
In this environment, only some Americans are capable of holding leaders accountable and substantively contributing to policy conversations at all levels. Lacking the shared vocabulary and knowledge to engage in democratic discourse, many Americans have and will continue to rely on the only participatory means available to them: spewing ad hominem attacks, speculating about conspiracy theories, and launching social media rants.
Access to the internet. Digital literacy. The time and capacity to digest print media. Until these basics are realized, we will continue to reside in a country of producers and consumers, of the many under an information aristocracy, as we will continue to see only the elite participate in our democratic discourse.
But the ability to read at all is a prerequisite to mastering every other skill required to engage in democratic discourse. An even more basic form of literacy—literacy in the traditional sense—should be the only topic of K-12 education right now.
We are failing our moral duty to equip all Americans with the skills required to critically analyze the flood of information filling their Instagram feeds, TV screens, and textbooks. Research from the National Center for Education Statistics shows our failure at every stage of the education system: 34 percent of students are below basic reading level in the fourth grade, 27 percent of eighth grade students are below basic reading level, and students struggling with literacy are more likely to drop out of high school. The same research shows that our failures are acutely impacting specific communities: 52 percent of black fourth-grade children and 45 percent of Hispanic fourth graders score below basic reading levels, compared to 23 percent of white students.
Our entire education system needs to be overhauled. As educators and parents debate the merits of critical race theory (CRT) and how early and how extensively to teach it, all of the oxygen about education reform is being sucked out of the more pressing question: Are our students capable of critically analyzing anything?
Before students are exposed to any “theory” they ought to be prepared to analyze the source of that theory, point out the limitations and omissions associated with the media through which that theory is taught, and weigh the content for errors and exaggerations. Absent teaching those fundamental skills across the board, our education system perpetuates the information aristocracy.
Those concerned with equal access to opportunities and, in particular, those who seek equaloutcomes should prioritize making our students and future leaders more than just consumers of information. Our focus must be on equipping all students with the skills to produce, consume, and analyze information; that is the only way they’ll be capable of substantively participating in our democracy and information ecosystem.
For many young Americans, school is their only hope of becoming literate. Millions of parents lack sufficient literacy to help out their youngsters, and it shows: research by ProLiteracy determined that “children of adults with low literacy skills are 72% more likely to be at a low reading level in school.” Approximately 43 million American adults possess low literacy skills according to the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies; of that troublingly large slice of America, 8.4 million are functionally illiterate.
The parents among these literacy-challenged Americans are surely not the individuals pressing for CRT nor advancing any other curriculum ideas. If equity advocates are sincere in their beliefs, we need to focus more on basic literacy skills rather than complex curriculum questions. A failure on this point would result in the continued domination of pedagogy by a privileged few.
America may prefer to focus on the question of whether and when to teach CRT because it is an easier one to answer than how we’ve allowed millions of Americans to become illiterate. Until we recognize that disparate literacy rates are at the core of income inequality, bias toward the ideas of the affluent, and uneven abilities to shape politics, we will continue to live in an information aristocracy.
Kevin Frazier is the editor of the Oregon Way, a nonpartisan online publication. He currently is pursuing a J.D. at the U.C. Berkeley School of Law and a MPP at the Harvard Kennedy School.