Books@Work and 21st Century Literacies: Hall of Philosophy, Chautauqua Institution

Books@Work and 21st Century Literacies: Hall of Philosophy, Chautauqua Institution

Note: Chautauqua Institution’s 2015 Season began with a lecture series that explored 21st-century literacies, extending the concept to include historical, imaginative, scientific, civic and financial literacies. Marvin Riley of Fairbanks Morse Engine, Emily VanDette of SUNY Fredonia and Ken Haight of Chautauqua Institution joined our Executive Director Ann Kowal Smith to speak to an engaged audience about their personal experiences with Books@Work–as an employer, a professor and a participant.  Ann summarizes and reflects on the panel, below, focusing on the connection between Books@Work and the literacies we all need to thrive in this century.

Over its 141 year history, Chautauqua’s stages have been graced by famous authors, artists, theologians, philosophers, and luminaries from around the world, including several sitting American Presidents, from Ulysses S. Grant to Bill Clinton. Created as a Sunday School Assembly, the program quickly broadened and, in 1878, the founders created the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, America’s oldest continuous book club, to “provide those who could not afford the time or money to attend college the opportunity of acquiring the skills and essential knowledge of a College education.”

When we began a Books@Work program with the Chautauqua staff in January, we were excited to partner with an organization whose mission is so aligned with our own. The opportunity to speak about Books@Work in the context of Chautauqua’s 21st Century Literacy theme provided a moment of reflection and a chance to revisit our observations about the relationship–and the future–of literature and literacy.

In the vernacular, literacy refers to the ability to read and write. Many envision an on/off switch–either one reads or one does not. But literacy actually falls along a fairly sophisticated multi-level spectrum–with processing simple words at the lower ranges, to absorbing, processing and deploying sophisticated and complex information at the top ranges. Lest we believe that literacy is only relevant to a small portion of the population, the most recent international OECD study of adult learners provides sobering statistics: only 1% of the American population falls in the highest level of literacy.

In this digital climate–and in Chautauqua during the season’s inaugural week–the word “literacy” has come to describe a wide array of skills we need to successfully navigate the world. But I propose that reading remains at the core of all of these “new” literacies, with a slight redefinition what we mean by reading. The switch: to take reading from a solitary pursuit to a social interaction.

Once upon a time, we might have called a literate person “well read.” Although we read good books, Books@Work is not about encouraging people to be “well read.”  Instead, we hope that Books@Work encourages and enables people to read well–to be better readers of books, of themselves and their experiences, of each other’s perspectives and of the human condition.  By reading our surroundings and by finding the space and language to talk about what we see, we cannot help but grow in every aspect of our lives–at work and beyond.

In their remarks, Marvin, Emily and Ken underscored the power of literature to facilitate this broader, more social and interactive definition of “reading.” Marvin commented on Fairbanks-Morse’s commitment to be a place where employees “bring their full selves to work.”  “Something about sitting down and reflecting on a piece of literature,” he added, “provides a safe, non-threatening piece of material to talk about and gives us a platform to be vulnerable, to disagree and to challenge our mental models.” Emily recalled philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s commitment to imaginative empathy as a critical civic skill, remarking that empathizing “on a very basic level across lines of difference can be accomplished through literature and through dialogue about literature.” And finally, Ken, a self-proclaimed lifelong reader, found Books@Work powerful because he got to know his co-workers “on a much more personal basis, and I found out that there are so many people who are so interesting and so intelligent–unless you talk about something others than their computers, you don’t get to know that!”

We often see ourselves in books, and sharing the story helps us share a bit more of ourselves.

Society makes the dangerous mistake of putting people in boxes based on where they live, what they do, how they worship and how much education they have.  But we all have the ability to tap into our personal stories and experiences to share ideas and to make confident and meaningful contributions to our surroundings–at home, at work and in the community.  At Books@Work, our goal is to use literature to unleash this ability, level the playing field and create a true social network–a HUMAN network–in which to learn, grow and thrive.

Image: Hall of Philosophy, Chautauqua Institution, 1980, via Chautauqua Institution.

Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith is the Founder and Executive Director of Books@Work.