Plato Revisited: Learning Through Listening in the Digital World

Long ago, Plato raised a concern in his Phaedrus that is familiar in our era: new technology will undermine traditional literacy. Plato (quoting Socrates) expressed the fear that the emerging technology of writing would destroy the rich oral literacy that was central to his culture. Writing would reduce the need for memory and attentive listening. It would give learners the appearance of wisdom by aiding rapid recall of information and facts without requiring internalization of such wisdom. This sort of “superficial” learner would inevitably be less literate. It turned out Plato was right only in part; although writing did change the meaning of literacy it enabled incredible advancements in knowledge.

In our era, new technologies are again challenging traditional literacy. Many fear that these new technologies will weaken the literacies—reading and writing—that have been central to our culture. We now live in a media-saturated age where these traditional forms of literacy are being blended, redefined and replaced by dynamically evolving media and communication technologies that seem to emerge daily. Whereas reading and writing used to take priority, these new communication technologies increasingly dominate our culture, especially for young learners who grew up using personal digital technologies.

In this paper, we argue that the proliferation of new technologies will not diminish literacy but rather expand it. In particular, we shall argue that new technologies—from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) to iPods, sound blogs and text-to-speech—have revived the importance of listening and “re-balanced” literacy such that printed text remains an important facet of literacy but is not itself synonymous with literacy. The new literacy, in which listening and oral literacy regain an important role, will be a literacy that even Plato would have admired.

In the sections that follow, we will address how new technologies are affecting our perspectives on listening and literacy by examining how new technologies are:

  • changing our view of what listening is,
  • changing our view of the relationship between listening and literacy, and
  • changing our view of what a literacy program should be.

We will conclude with recommendations for enhancing the role and practice of listening in today’s classrooms.

Next Section – How New Technologies are Changing our View of What Listening is