The New Illiteracy

The word “brilliant” gets thrown around today like bird seed. Everybody is brilliant.

I hate that.

As a related aside: I also hate that every live performance gets a standing ovation today. I assure you not all of them deserve me pulling my lazy ass out of a chair to clap in a standing position.

Anyone can be brilliant if they get a small enough focus. If you can read, I assure you with about 10,000 hours worth of work you can join the brilliant club.

For me, true brilliance is defined by having range. A person that can hit a home run, apply Platonic Philosopher/King philosophies to their lives and discuss the evolution of rap over the last 3 decades. Now there is someone who is brilliant!

I have a friend like that: Jamie Johns.

He understands marketing better than I do. He likely can read in multiple languages (not that I know. It’s nothing he’s ever mentioned. It’s just something he does.) He is deeply in tune with the most current philosophies, thoughts and cultural trends of the day. Oh, and he’s the leading music director/pianist in his market. He would (and probably will) deny that he’s very good at any of these things. But if you know him you certainly would agree with me. That humble belief of himself just pushes him to study these things even more.

Now, he is brilliant!

I woke up to a quote he sent me this morning on Facebook:

There is a quote attributed to the futurist Alvin Toffler that captures the new reality of the work world: In the future “illiteracy will not be defined by those who cannot read and write, but by those who cannot learn and relearn.” Any form of standing still is deadly.

That’s from this past Sunday’s Thomas Friedman article: New Rules –

It’s a very thought provoking article about what global citizens need to do today in order to secure a good job.

This inspired me to immediately download and start reading: Revolutionary Wealth: How it will be created and how it will change our lives …  by Alvin Toffler and Heidi Toffler.

The Tofflers are a dynamic duo of bleeding edge Futurist thought. They invented the words “prosumer” and “techno“.


“illiteracy will not be defined by those who cannot read and write, but by those who cannot learn and relearn.”

While Friedman references this quote, his solution is much less revolutionary: Our schools need to be better. We need to compete with China and Estonia.

No we don’t!

Estonia is the birthplace of Skype. Because of that they are a very progressive programming culture. They are now teaching programming to first graders.

“Should China and the U.S. start teaching programming to our 7 year olds,” Friedman asks.

Hell no!

Friedman should have read Alvin Toffler’s Wikipedia page and he would have found this:

Alvin Toffler – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Toffler explains, “Society needs people who take care of the elderly and who know how to be compassionate and honest. Society needs people who work in hospitals. Society needs all kinds of skills that are not just cognitive; they’re emotional, they’re affectional. You can’t run the society on data and computers alone.

The full quote of Toffler’s Friedman references is this:

 “The new education must teach the individual how to classify and reclassify information, how to evaluate its veracity, how to change categories when necessary, how to move from the concrete to the abstract and back, how to look at problems from a new direction — how to teach himself. Tomorrow’s illiterate will not be the man who can’t read; he will be the man who has not learned how to learn.”

Those are my emphasis marks.

We don’t need programming classes for our 7 year olds. We need more Huck Finns.

Huck Finn knows how to hunt, think and be creative. I want more people that can do that.

We need creativity classes. We need innovation classes. Quite honestly, I believe we need less classes.

This weekend Rocky told me about unschooling:


Unschooling is a range of educational philosophies and practices centered on allowing children to learn through their natural life experiences, including play, game play, household responsibilities, work experience, and social interaction, rather than through a more traditional school curriculum.

This is something I think Toffler would get behind. As a futurist I can’t imagine him believing that the current class-room style built in the industrial revolution has any meaningful value in a post-industrial society. (Although I’m no Toffler expert. Please feel free to correct me if I’m off here.)

This is always Thomas Friedman’s solution: be more like China.

Friedman, however, points this out:

Van Ton-Quinlivan, the vice chancellor for work force and economic development at the California Community Colleges System, explained to me the four basic skill sets out there today. The first are people who are “ready now.” That’s people with exactly the right skills an employer is looking for at the right time. Employers will give the local labor market and schools the first chance at providing those people, but if they are not available they’ll go the “shortest distance to find them,” she said, and today that could be anywhere in the world.

I completely agree with this.

“Ready now” is the small business owner’s mantra. We need someone who can do the work now for the amount of time we need it.

I definitely look locally first. And I’m willing to pay more for a local person. However, I’m certainly not afraid to hire globally. I regularly use Odesk to find programmers from around the world. I don’t need the cheapest. It just need someone who is “ready now.” Odesk gives me that.

And here is something I’ve never done on Odesk: reviewed the applicants formal education. I have no way of judging any of that sort of thing. I base my hiring decisions on reviews: what other people’s experiences have been with this person.

I could care less where they went to school. I just need someone “ready now.”

Let me ask you this: Have you ever hired or applied for jobs on Odesk?? Most Americans I know have never heard of Odesk much less used it.

That is where Americans are falling down.

Americans can program. But they can’t work globally. Especially small business owners and freelancers.

“Tomorrow’s illiterate will not be the man who can’t read; he will be the man who has not learned how to learn.”

Learning a programming language in first grade is going to be meaningless by the time that kid gets out of school. The language of the day will have changed several times over.

Learning how to exploit your American strengths in a global culture. Now that has long-term value.

As an employer I look less and less at where a person went to college or if they went to college at all.

The only thing I want colleges to teach these students is how to think for themselves.

I see no evidence of that skill coming out of college. The fevered pursuit of a good grade is the only thing these students have been taught to desire. In college today (and when I went to college) you only had to prove you read the material to get an A. Being able to process the material isn’t something that is desired. In fact, I’m seeing the same thing in some doctoral programs.

As a small business owner I have lost faith in the traditional education system. No one is taught Adwords, Adsense, Analytics, AdCenter, EdgeRank, Panda/Penguin algorithmic updates, remarketing. If you are a marketing or advertising professor, how many of those words have you heard before much less be able to teach?

But that doesn’t bother me nearly as much as these students not being able to figure out how to navigate the endlessly changing digital advertising world. The professors haven’t learned this stuff so why would there be any inspiration for the students to learn this stuff.

The advertising/marketing departments of colleges are virtually useless to me. Today’s college students are illiterate. They can’t learn on their own. They’ve never been taught that.

I challenge any four year college in America to send me one student that is “ready now” in digital advertising. Bring me one student that could sit down fresh out of college and run a highly optimized Google AdWords campaign and I’ll take it all back.

But I can go to Odesk and find a global population of “ready now” workers that have proven track records.

Brilliance today is a Jamie Johns. It’s a person with range. It’s a person who knows how to learn on their own. It’s Toffler:

“Tomorrow’s illiterate will not be the man who can’t read; he will be the man who has not learned how to learn.”

Someone who knows how to learn can teach himself how to read. He doesn’t need it spoon-fed to him in an ever increasingly standardized tested environment.

I need someone who can walk into my office and figure how to optimize an app on the Android Market so it will come up in the listings for a set of pre-researched Android Market key phrases. I need someone who has learned how to learn.

I want Toffler’s students. Not Friedman’s.

Friedman’s students are today’s students: Illiterate.

– from Megabus heading to IMTS in Chicago.


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1 Comment

  1. HA! I am just now, at 41, learning how to take responsibility for becoming the new literate. I think there is one thing essential to being able to learn and relearn, being able to be “ready now” and that is having an honest conversation with one’s fears and how they relate to security. In the past, we had a sense of security in our jobs, in our retirement, in our place in the world…maybe even in our government and our borders. All of that is gone now. Learning to live with this lack of security (which we probably never had, but at least now we know it), was the first step for me towards being able to fully engage. It’s a rude slap across the face, and it’s an eye-opener, but it’s the new reality.

    It doesn’t have to be that daunting. We have so many more tools for that education. Example: If I want to hang a door, I no longer have to get an outdated book from the library, or purchase a kit, or hire someone to help me who has done it before….there’s gonna be a free video floating around in cyberspace that’s gonna have that information for me, and I’ll be able to quickly evaluate if that information is the best information I can get (reviews, etc.).

    As much as I am flattered by your comments about me in this article, I have to acknowledge my short comings in taking on the challenge of reinvention. For starters, I work in a profession that is about as crusty as you can get. Any innovation is seen as revolutionary, and we are slow to make changes. No wonder that the worlds of opera and music theater are shrinking. And I am always acutely aware of where I have been leaning to long on old ideas and old knowledge. But I don’t always fix that. Sometimes it’s easier, and I can get away with, doing the old thing. Another important piece of the puzzle. You have to be able to forgive yourself for your shortcomings. Anything short of that leads to despair and less willingness/ability to change.

    Sage, your posts always challenge and inspire me. I send you a small quote that gets me thinking, and you write a probing, thoughtful blog about it with loads of research. Who’s the brilliant one, chief? 🙂

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