Chapter 1, continued

Abby's Lament:  Does Literacy Matter?


Re-examining Literacy as a Local Act

     To sort out this task is in large measure the purpose of this book.  What follows is an examination of the ways in which we understand and discuss literacy in the broader political and cultural arenas in this country and in our own professional discourses.  That examination--and my indictment of many of our educational practices that grow out of prevailing beliefs about literacy--rests on the assumption that the popular beliefs about literacy that drive public discussions of education reform as well as the professional efforts for curriculum reform such as have been under way in many states since the early 1980s are based on narrow and sometimes conflicting conceptions of literacy.  In the popular mind--and in the minds of many educators--literacy is a set of "basic" reading and writing skills possessed by individuals; "English" as a school subject is the learning of those skills alongside the cultural knowledge gained from exposure to "great works" of literature (see Hirsch, 1987).  These beliefs about literacy and literacy education, which I will examine in more detail in Chapter 2, are not only outmoded but, in a complex and increasingly technological society, often counter-productive.  To continue to understand literacy primarily as basic skills that reflect individual cognitive abilities simply cannot lead to curricula that will enable students to develop the kind of understanding of literacy and the writing and reading abilities that I refer to above.  What's more, these simplistic beliefs about literacy can be downright destructive.  Because they ignore the complex and ambiguous nature of literacy and its social and political uses, they can result in the very kind of oppression--of economic and political "violence"--that Stuckey so compellingly describes.  And for Abby and her classmates and the millions of students in classrooms throughout the country, such beliefs can lead to a superficial kind of literacy that leaves them without the critical abilities they will need to negotiate their worlds.  Moreover, they will likely leave many students with a sense that literacy really has no central relevance to their personal lives aside perhaps from helping them secure employment.  I am not referring to that old argument about teaching kids to like books; the common pronouncements in curriculum documents about fostering a love of reading and producing "lifelong" readers, while seemingly good ideas, also rest on narrow and limited notions of what reading is and how it can function in the life of a student like Abby.  As David Bartholomae (1990) has shown, such pronouncements also imply a set of values about "good" and "bad" behavior, and "good" and "bad" literature, that are troubling at best.  I hope Abby will feel compelled to read novels and poems--for personal enrichment and enjoyment.  But if that's all her literacy education leaves her with, then we've failed her.  And I believe we routinely fail students in precisely this way.

     But my indictment of literacy instruction is not simply about arguing against particular approaches to teaching writing and reading or about assigning blame for the apparent shortcomings of education in this country.  Rather, I want to argue for a conception of literacy that rests on the notion of participation in the discourses that shape our lives, a notion that implies individual and collective possibility.  Thus, in Chapter 3 I will lay out a conception of literacy, based on poststructuralist analyses of language and discourse, as a local act of self-construction within discourse.  Literacy, I will argue, is at heart an effort to construct a self within ever shifting discourses in order to participate in those discourses; that effort is always "local" in the sense that any construction of a self within discourse, though inherently social, is mediated by a variety of factors unique to a specific act of reading and writing within a specific situation.  My purpose in offering this conception of literacy is to provide a framework for constructing meaningful pedagogies for the teaching of writing and reading that address both the limitations and possibilities of literacy.  To do so, I will draw on the ideas of postmodern theorists like Michel Foucault who have illuminated the ways in which meaning arises through discourse.  Foucault (1972) understands discourses not as "groups of signs (signifying elements referring to contents or representations) but as practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak" (p. 49).  He and other postmodern theorists thus help us see some of the ways in which discourse constitutes our world.  Moreover, postmodern explorations of language and discourse reveal not only the unstable nature of meanings of words and discourses, but also the fragmented and contingent nature of the self.  This insight into the nature of the self and identity is crucial, since popular conceptions of literacy rest so heavily on the idea of individuality and a conception of a unified and identifiable self.  

     I do not, however, want to foreground the political and social in a way that obscures the complexity of individual acts of writing and reading and the possibilities for individual agency.  So much of our ongoing scholarly discussion about literacy has focused, I think, on the oppressive nature of what we now almost unthinkingly refer to as the "dominant discourse" and the need to protect students, especially those from "non-mainstream" groups, from the effects of this discourse, that it can become difficult to keep sight of individual student writers and readers trying to carve out space for themselves in the discourses they confront daily--in school, in the media, in their neighborhoods, among their peers.  In addition, our collective obsession with "difference," which often refers in superficial and even totalizing ways to class, race, or gender, obscures the many complex distinctions among individual writers and readers within these very broad social categories.  As Maureen Hourigan (1994) has pointed out, the "political categories" of race, class, and gender "must and do combine in almost every instance, but it is difficult to predict, in everyday life and in classroom situations, the self-presentation of gender, race, and class identities" (p. 73).  It is also difficult to predict--and equally difficult to describe without oversimplifying--how these complex "identities" will manifest themselves in individual literate acts.  And so I will draw on the work of theorist Paul Smith (1988) to help explain how our students might be understood as "selves" or "individuals," constructed within broader sets of discourses, with the possibility for agency within those discourses.

     All this discussion is intended to put forth a vision of literacy that helps us understand the specific acts of reading and writing that our students engage in and how we might best help them understand and accomplish those literate acts in ways that enable them to claim agency for themselves.  In Chapter 4 I will describe my experiences with specific students, writing in a variety of situations, to illustrate how such an understanding of literacy as a local act of self-construction within discourse can play out in individual lives.  I take up the same task in Chapter 5 in the context of emerging online media that have begun to shape how we engage in acts of writing and reading in ways that may profoundly alter not only what literacy is but also how it is valued in our increasingly technological society.  In both these chapters, the focus is on understanding how individual texts come to be as students construct themselves through their writing and reading in ways that matter in their lives.

     I have come to believe that such an understanding of literacy is essential to our efforts to create effective literacy pedagogies in schools, where literacy remains, in my view, poorly understood--at least the literacy that is enacted in typical school curricula. Thus, in Chapter 6 I will draw implications of a conception of literacy as "local" for the teaching of writing and reading and discuss ways in which I believe we might make literacy instruction more relevant to our students' lives.  In the past decade I have worked alongside many English teachers at all levels and I have participated in various efforts to reform literacy instruction in states in the northeast, midwest, and far west.  Those experiences have convinced me that in order to foster any kind of meaningful change in literacy instruction, conventional beliefs about literacy must be reconsidered.  In their book, Critical Teaching and the Idea of Literacy, Lil Brannon and Cy Knoblauch (1993) underscore the importance of educators' awareness of their own ideological assumptions regarding literacy, arguing that for an educator to be unaware of their "ideological dispositions"--of their own beliefs about literacy and culture and political power--is tantamount to complicity in the kinds of "violence" that Stuckey describes (p. 24).  In other words, to teach Abby to read and write in certain ways without a critical understanding of how those ways may compromise her own political and economic well-being is to do a kind of "violence" to her.  It is crucial, then, for literacy educators to understand their own ideological assumptions about what they do and the implications of those assumptions for their students.  And this is not just a matter of abstract disagreements about, for example, how to define literacy or what constitutes a "great book."  As Knoblauch and Brannon point out, competing beliefs about literacy "vie for power in political and educational life" (p. 17).  That struggle plays out "in legislative assemblies, school board meetings, newspaper editorials, and classrooms throughout the country."  In short, theoretical assumptions and ideologies shape the decisions that affect how and what we teach in English classrooms and, in turn, how our students come to understand and use literacy in their lives.  It is imperative, therefore, that teachers understand these assumptions and ideologies.

     Part of my purpose, then, in teasing out a particular theoretical perspective on literacy is to challenge the limited and limiting beliefs about literacy that continue to drive much of the conventional English curriculum in American schools and to address what I see as inherent contradictions in how we understand and use literacy.  I have no illusions about my role in such an effort.  As is clear to anyone who has spent any time reading the volumes of scholarship on literacy, theoretical perspectives on literacy and literacy instruction are as numerous as the grammar worksheets that are still a mainstay of teaching in so many English classrooms.  One more theoretical argument from one more educator will not by itself change the ways in which we understand and teach writing and reading.  Moreover, even as I argue for the importance of reconceptualizing literacy, I am mindful of the complex ways in which literacy relates to broader social and political and economic structures that remain largely outside the control or influence of educators.  Education researcher Jean Anyon (1998) argues forcefully in Ghetto Schooling that substantive reform cannot occur in our most troubled schools without broad-based changes in the social and economic character of the neighborhoods in which those schools are located--an argument that intersects with much of Stuckey's critique.  All of which is to say that theories of literacy must be understood as one part of an immensely complex project of possibility and empowerment, to invoke Freire again, and they must be understood as theories with their own limitations and potential problems.


Literacy and Change

     Nevertheless, the need to understand writing and reading remains as pressing as ever, especially as we near the end of a decade in which there are more children in our schools than ever before.  The never-ending political battles over education reform (evident in the recent "reading wars" over phonetic and whole-language pedagogies) and the explosion of research and scholarship on writing and reading in the past three decades have had little discernible effect on the ways in which those children will learn to write and read, yet the society in which those children live has changed dramatically in those decades.  Thirty-some years after Braddock, et al. (1963) called for more research into composition and forty years after the passage of the National Defense Education Act, which defined reading and writing in terms of national security, we now routinely communicate in something called cyberspace with technologies that must seem to many elderly citizens more fantastic than the gadgets depicted in popular sci-fi films of the 1950s.  Those same technologies now provide instant access to information and events that are themselves a function of those technologies.  For instance, in a bizarre kind of irony that seems to prove French philosopher Jean Baudrillard's (1983) arguments about appearance and reality, modern political conventions, so long a crucial part of the election process in American society, are now shaped by television and print media in astounding technological efforts to use those same media to shape public opinion: television represents television representing "reality."  It all becomes, to use Baudrillard's term, simulacra.  And these events take place in a world that hardly seems to resemble the past so often invoked at those same political conventions: a constructed present constructing a past.  Furthermore, the east-west divide that defined the international political landscape for most of the 20th century no longer exists, and even as old nationalist tensions re-emerge in places like Bosnia, the staggering growth of capitalism is making national borders virtually obsolete.  The paradigm that seemed to give shape to our understanding of the world for the last fifty years--the paradigm within which the modern discipline of "English" evolved--no longer holds.  As Richard Ohmann (1995) writes in his essay, "English After the USSR,"

The world will be very different when our students are middle-aged, but the course of its change will not follow the master narrative of old marxism or the Cold War narrative of democracy victorious in an epic battle against communism.  If we and our students are to be agents rather than dupes in the process, we'll need to invent a new narrative. (p. 237)

Many commentators have offered their versions of what that narrative might be.  But the only agreement seems to lie in the sense that the world is very different now than it was when educators and lawmakers linked literacy to national security and included English as one of the school subjects considered vital for protecting American geopolitical interests in the National Defense Education Act of 1958.

     What does it mean to write and read in such a world, and in a complex, changing, economically defined society such as ours?  What do students need in order to be able to negotiate effectively the kinds of local acts of writing and reading that I described above?  What does literacy mean to Abby as she enters this often frightening world?  How can literacy help her make sense of and negotiate--and change--that world?  More than anything else, those questions motivate this book.  The longer I have taught writing and reading, and the more I have puzzled over how my students--middle and high school kids, college undergraduates, adult men in a prison classroom--write and read, the more I have come to believe that literacy is inescapably local.  To ask how a student came to write an essay or how she or he came to understand a text in a particular way is to begin to uncover the stunningly complex and specific ways in which literacy functions in the lives of our students and in our lives as well.  It is also to begin to reveal the ways in which the larger historical contexts about which Ohmann writes might play out in the specific acts of writing and reading of our students.  Yet this "specificity" of literacy too often seems lost in the discussions about literacy and pedagogy and theory and the "discipline" of English Studies that now dominate professional journals and conferences.  Proponents of "critical pedagogy" have taken up Freire's project of literacy for empowerment in ways that have helped us see that our conventional pedagogies for reading and writing can too often oppress and marginalize rather than liberate and empower.  At the same time--for reasons too complex to examine here--such efforts to construct "enlightened pedagogies," in bell hooks' phrase, can turn into academic fashion and foster new dogmas that can "totalize" students as surely as does the "dominant discourse."  If the power of critical pedagogy and the usefulness of cultural studies are to be realized in the teaching of writing and reading, we cannot lose sight of those individual readers and writers--like Abby--who struggle, in the "local" contexts of specific acts of writing and reading, to enter the so-called "dominant discourse," to confront a world that needs to be changed.

     And so I will ask that question--"How do these texts come to be?"--of some of the variety of texts that I have encountered as a teacher and as a citizen and as a parent, texts that reflect individual efforts to make sense of the world through literacy and that represent acts of engaging in the discourses of that world.  In each case, my hope in examining such texts in this way is to illuminate the local nature of literacy in the context of its inherently social functions.


Literacy and Individual Possibility in a Capitalist Economy

     At the end of my visit to Queensbury High School, Kim Marker, who was Abby's English teacher at the time, told me a little about Abby's life: a brief and all-too-familiar tale of strife at home, disaffection, conflict.  Abby, Sue said, was struggling with a lot more than writing papers for her English class.  Her older brother had had a variety of troubles that led to his dropping out of school, and Abby seemed headed in the same direction.  Moreover, Abby was preparing to enter a local economy that seemed excluded from the much-heralded American economic "recovery" of the 1990s.  Her prospects for participating in that recovery seemed limited.  What, I wondered, did Abby's English papers mean to her in such a situation--in the midst of her personal struggles and her sense of herself as an adolescent in a society run by adults?  What did writing in general mean to her?  How did her struggles to negotiate the complexities of her life affect how and what she read and wrote--or even whether she read and wrote?  Such questions highlight for me another insight that often seems lost in public and professional discussions about what students like Abby need in terms of literacy skills: that in profound ways Abby is different from her peers whom she nevertheless so obviously resembles.  I have been referring to Abby as if she represents a specific generation of students facing a bewilderingly complex and changing world, and to a great extent she does.  As an adolescent at a particular moment in time and in a particular place, Abby confronts the same discourses that somehow shape the lives of all students: cultural, social, economic, political discourses.  But Abby also confronts those discourses--and reads and writes herself into them--differently from her peers.  That is, she confronts those discourses from a specific position--as a young woman from a specific family situation in a specific time and place--and with a specific personal background that sets her apart from her peers even as it identifies her as like them.  To acknowledge this uniqueness in the position from which Abby encounters the world is not simply to embrace a superficial notion of individualism and self-determination; rather, it is to glimpse the complex ways in which Abby's writing and reading relate to her identity and the experiences that have somehow shaped that identity.  To account for how the complexity of that identity might figure into Abby's literacy is in large part of the central challenge of this book.  I am interested in exploring the intersections of Abby's "self" and the discourses she confronts--both in and outside school.  In other words, how can we understand Abby's "self" as she writes and reads her way into these discourses?

     To try to answer such a question inevitably leads, I think, to some of the sobering insights that Stuckey shares in her discussions of the "violence" of literacy.  It can lead as well to an understanding of Abby's insistence that she is "irrelevant"--a sense of her powerlessness and her belief that writing won't change it.  A young woman in an undergraduate tutoring class I taught at the State University of New York at Albany, who was a proficient writer and successful student and who very much believed in the "power" of writing, asserted during a class discussion about "remedial" students that what really counted in our culture was not writing ability but money.  "Successful people can hire writers if they need them," she said.  Her comment was a kind of straightforward acknowledgement of what Stuckey and many other critics have argued: that we cannot divorce our understanding of literacy and its teaching from an understanding of the economic and social structures within which we live and write and read in American society.  Freire (1988) has addressed this connection directly: "Merely teaching men to read and write does not work miracles; if there are not enough jobs for men to be able to work, teaching more men to read and write will not create them" (p. 401).  And as social critic Andrew Feenberg (1991) reminds us, the role of work is central to the lives of citizens in this capitalist society and thus must be at the center of any efforts to change inequitable social, political, and economic circumstances: "[I]n an industrial society, where so many social and political choices are made by management, democratization of work is indispensible to a more participatory life" (p. 17). Perhaps more sobering still is the fact that, while it can be argued that teaching people to read and write is a crucial part of the effort to create a more equitable economic system, we have ample evidence that literacy does not guarantee either economic or political power.  In his impressive historical work, The Legacies of Literacy, Harvey Graff (1987) traces the development of literacy, identifying trends among various segments of the U.S. population from the 17th Century through the present.  Graff concludes from his analysis that "the contribution of literacy to economic welfare is a major issue" (p. 346).  He cites example after example of specific ethnic and regional groups as they made gains in literacy and school and shows that literacy itself did not guarantee economic or political power.  For black Americans in particular, Graff writes, "the contradiction between the promise of literacy and its reality was stark" (p. 363). 

     We may not need Graff's extensive study to conclude that there is no direct cause-and-effect relationship between literacy and economic or political power in American society.  Abby seems to understand that from her own experience.  Any teacher interested in helping students gain access to the kinds of power of literacy that I described earlier must acknowledge the limitations of that power and understand how literacy functions within our culture, often in ways that marginalize and disempower.  At the same time, an examination of what writing and reading can mean in Abby's life can also lead to a sense of possibility, a means of confronting the economic realities that Graff documents and that Stuckey describes.  And here is where I part with Stuckey, who leaves us almost with a sense of despair at the end of her book.  Referring to the impasse at which her argument about the oppressive nature of literacy instruction has left her, she writes,

We promote greater literacy, or we promote greater humanity.  The first choice is easy.  The second choice is not.  Perhaps one of the consequences of humanity is literacy.  Perhaps one of the consequences of literacy is its failure to end the violence of an unfair society.  Perhaps the consequences of both are to return the responsibility for violence to its rightful owners.  That is who we are. (p. 124)

Stuckey asserts depressingly that "literacy is a blind alley" (p. 125), though she does conclude with a sense of the possibility of change as "incremental, local, one person at a time" (p. 126).  Such change, she suggests, can lead to reforming the system that she sees as perpetuating the violence she describes; such change is, she writes, a necessity.  But while I share Stuckey's outrage and remain sympathetic to her sense of the need for local as well as systemic change, I want to resist her sense of despair and her suggestion that teachers who simply teach within the system inevitably do violence.  I also want to resist her separation between literacy and humanity, a problematic dichotomy that Freire attacks in his efforts to articulate a more critical literacy and a more empowering pedagogy.  Freire (1970/1984; 1987) has argued compellingly that to be fully literate--critically literate--is to take control of your world and how it is constructed through language; it is, in a sense, to destroy the false dichotomy between the world and "the word."  For Freire, the world is not static but is constantly in the process of being made through "the word."  Thus, to be critically literate is to control your world; to be critically literate is to become fully human.  His pedagogy targets the very kind of oppressed people for whom Stuckey is concerned and is intended to help them in their "incessant struggle to regain their humanity" (1970/1984; p. 33). It may be impossible to avoid the dilemma Stuckey defines in her book, but Freire helps us see that it is also misleading to suggest that individual teachers of literacy working within the system cannot help individual student writers and readers claim agency for themselves through literacy and thus gain a measure of the power needed to effect the kind of change Stuckey calls for.  Ultimately, literacy matters precisely because it is inextricably bound up in what it means to be "fully human."

     Adrienne Rich's statement that "we must write as if our lives depended upon it," quoted at the head of this chapter, grows out of her experiences as a feminist and political activist and as a writer whose work resists the kinds of oppression that concern Stuckey.  Rich made that statement in 1992 at an awards dinner at Purdue University honoring the work of student writers at that university.  I remember the uneasiness that her remarks caused some of the students' parents, who had come to celebrate the recognition their daughters and sons were receiving as "authors."  Writing to resist oppression, to claim political agency, which is what she emphasized in her talk, did not seem to be the writing that was supposed to be celebrated that evening.  Yet I thought about the many students who were not honored that night as "authors," students for whom writing was every bit as vital since it is part of their interaction with the world.  Students like Abby.  For Rich, it isn't enough to write for yourself; writing is about how that self interacts with--and improves--the world.  I'm interested in understanding what such a stance might mean for Abby and other students who don't see the possibilities for agency that Rich finds in writing.   Rich won't let Abby off the hook by allowing her to deny her own responsibility for taking action in her life--and perhaps working to change that which limits or excludes or even oppresses her.  Part of what struck me so deeply about Abby was that she really wasn't apathetic at all, and despite her protestations to the contrary, she didn't want to give up.  She desperately wants to be "relevant."  But she cannot see how literacy can make her relevant.

     This book, then, is finally about my sense of how literacy can help Abby become "relevant" in the ways she so desperately wants--and needs.  It is about a vision of literacy that sees Abby as at once social and individual, at the center of discourse and yet created by discourse.  It is about the ways in which literacy reflects contradictions and complexities in how we understand the world through language--and in how we understand ourselves and construct roles for ourselves through language in that world.  It is about the ambiguity of literacy.  And it is about how we, as literacy educators, might use such an understanding to create classrooms in which students can acquire a literacy that enables them to claim agency and to write as if their lives did indeed depend upon it.

     In the following chapters, I will introduce some of the other students I've met whose struggles and encounters with literacy represent, for me, both the limitations as well as the possibilities of literacy.  Many of those students believe fervently in the "power" of writing; others, like Abby, are less certain.  But at some level all of them engage in local acts of writing and reading that reveal the daunting complexity of literacy and represent the means for entering the discourses that inevitably shape their lives.  My hope is that their stories and my attempts to make sense of their acts of writing and reading will deepen our understanding of what's involved in helping students overcome the limitations of literacy and gain access to the possibilities that I believe literacy represents.


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