NEW ORLEANS (November 6, 2020) – The recent tweets surrounding a recent Wall Street Journal article quoting DU President Walter Kimbrough shed light on a common phenomenon among Americans and social media users –aliteracy.
Aliteracy, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “the quality or state of being able to read but uninterested in doing so.” This term, first used around 1981, is different than the concept of illiteracy, defined as a person’s inability to read.
The Oct. 25 article, “Historically Black Colleges Become Focus of Biden, Trump Outreach” featured a picture of Dillard faculty in regalia at the outset of the story, another one of Kimbrough in his office and one of HBCU leaders in the Oval Office with Trump during a 2017 visit.
The article focused on President Donald Trump’s campaign claims of being the “least racist person” at the debate and offering examples such as higher federal funding for HBCUs in an attempt at garnering black support for his re-election.
The story by Joshua Jamerson said some leaders of HBCUs said they were backing former President Joe Biden, and at least one was campaigning for him and other Democrats.
Jamerson wrote, “These university officials said their gains under the Trump administration don’t outweigh what they describe as a pattern of offensive comments on race, a dynamic that they say is a window into the president’s relationship with Black Americans more broadly.”
Kimbrough was quoted as conceding that the Trump administration forgave the $160 million federal loan from Hurricane Katrina, and “that was something that the Obama administration could have and should’ve done.”
Even so, the DU president was adamant that he would not support Trump.
Kimbrough was quoted as saying of Trump, “He’s a racist. Full stop. To me, it’s not even a question even more.”
Why, then, did the social media dust start to fly?
A tweet by @vvvvic_ said, “Trump said he saved HBCU’s and here go Walter Kimbrough in the Washington Post validating it lmaoooo im just —” sparked a twitter conversation among Dillard students and alumni. It was apparent some had not read the entire article – if at all (which was in the Wall Street Journal, not the Washington Post) so the context of the conversation was missed.
To be fair, this is not a jab at @vvvvic_. Nor is it a claim to understand the connotation of the word “validation” in this tweet. In fact, coming to a conclusion on one’s own is a vital tool for critical thinking and sparking conversation.
Rather, this is a suggestion to let the information you see on social media spark your curiosity and your desire to do your own digging. It is a reminder to transcend beyond a few social media posts that may legitimize your confirmation bias and to further search for information in its wholeness before coming to conclusions.
This isn’t the first time this semester we’ve seen people absorb part of a message without apparently understanding the context. Something similar happened when Kimbrough and Xavier University President C. Reynold Verret announced in September that they had volunteered for the Pfizer Phase 3 COVID-19 vaccine trial being run by Oschner Medical System. When they suggested that others – students, faculty, staff and alumni – volunteer, the floodgates opened.
Social media messages lambasted the leaders as willing “lab rats.” Some parents somehow got the message that their DU students were going to be required to be vaccinated. And local media reported it. The Communications Office ended up sending a campus email emphasizing that volunteering is “an individual and voluntary choice.”
Kimbrough’s disclosing of factual information in the WSJ article was perhaps suited for the wrong article, or the wrong journalist, but it still was factual. One might also argue that Jamerson’s article “validated” Trump’s claim through the placement and use of Kimbrough’s quote.
Whether or not a person believes that this quote is validating Trump’s claim to have saved HBCU’s, it is important to note that reading articles in their entirety is paramount to comprehension and contextualization.
An entire conference was held in 1984 on the aliteracy phenomenon. Researcher Nina Kositsky wrote that conference participants had expressed their concerns about “the decline of language skills in successive generations of high school students, the simplification of college textbooks, a diminished newspaper readership, the omnipresence of television and ponder effects of these trends on our culture and society.”
A 1991 Fortune magazine article discussed reading as a necessary tool for forming connections through contextualizing and comprehending and, consequently, excelling.
It quoted Monsanto CEO Richard Mahoney, a devoted reader, who called reading skills essential for success: “People who read more seem to have that marvelous ability to see linkages between unrelated events. That's the most important quality an executive can have.”
Our message is this: Please read carefully to know the facts and understand the context of a discussion before you go off “half-cocked,” as the old folk would say. Seek information on your own before you jump on the bandwagon of public opinion.
Being complacent in aliteracy is a choice. The beauty of America is that we’re free to speak our minds, but we want to make sure we are in full command of the facts and the context in which the facts were provided.
Amid this unprecedented time of crises, it is imperative that we read informative texts out of our own intrinsic agency and that we read these informative texts in their entirety. So, if you made it to the end of this commentary, thank you for doing your part in ending the aliteracy phenomenon.
(Managing Editor Taiyler Mitchell wrote this editorial on behalf of the Courtbouillon staff.)