by Andy Zucker, member of Media Literacy Now’s Board of Directors

In his book Reflections, Idries Shah—the prolific author, polymath, and chief exponent of Sufism in the west—wrote in 1968 about what was then called “information overload”:

Idries Shah | Image by Mike Gooderson via WIkiMedia Commons

To drown in treacle [molasses] is just as unpleasant as to drown in mud. People today are in danger of drowning in information. But because they have been taught that information is useful they are more willing to drown than they need be. If they could handle information they would not have to drown at all.

Three years later David Kindersley, a master calligrapher, drew many of Shah’s sayings as amusing illustrations. I had his version of Shah’s reflection about information overload framed, and it hung in my office and then my study for many years. In my experience too, few people have the capacity to sift through the abundance of information in order to find vital kernels. Shah’s words serve as a reminder to look for what is most important.

I was reminded about Shah’s saying when I recently read through the rotating list of components of media literacy on this website (“What is media literacy?”). The fourth item on the list is Information Literacy, and it reads, courtesy of the American Library Association: 

Rather than drowning in the abundance of information that floods their lives, information literate people know how to find, evaluate, and use information effectively to solve a particular problem or make a decision.” 

Few people have the capacity to sift through the abundance of information in order to find vital kernels.

As an example, my wife taught history for 30 years and one of the secrets of her success—she was widely recognized as an outstanding teacher—was to help students separate key ideas from the mass of facts in history books. She used to tell students they should not bother to learn a new fact if they could not connect it to three other important facts. Because her students did extremely well on Advanced Placement tests she was invited to make presentations for the College Board, and she included this important idea. However, too many AP history teachers never get beyond the concept of stuffing students with as many facts as possible. Teachers in other disciplines face the same problem: helping students identify what is most important to learn, and why.

The definition of media literacy on our website is ambitious. That seems appropriate, even if it means few people will ever achieve “complete” media literacy. Contending with information overload is certainly one important piece of media literacy.

Share This Story!