Abby's Lament: Does Literacy Matter?
remains a human invention contained by social contract, and the maintenance of
that contract in education betrays our ideas of humanity as surely as our use
of literacy enforces them.
write anything; you'll only regret it.
as if your life depended upon it.
Abby doesn't believe she matters. She is sixteen years old, a junior in a rural high school in upstate New York, and she doesn't believe that, in the larger scheme of things, she "can make a difference." She doesn't believe, in fact, that anyone her age can make a difference. She's irrelevant. They are all irrelevant. They don't matter in "society."
Abby told me all this during a visit I made to her school, Queensbury
High School, a large public high school located in a small town in the
Adirondack Mountains. I had been
invited by her teacher, Kim Marker, who was then the head of the Queensbury
English Department, to talk to her colleagues and some of her students about the
possibilities for literacy learning with computers, which I had been studying
with both college- and high school-age writers. I had spent the day at Queensbury cheerleading for the great
communications revolution represented by the rapidly evolving use of computer
technologies and the growth of the Internet and World Wide Web.
My pitch was something like this: You're in the midst of the Information
Age, a time characterized by an explosion of information fueled largely by
computer and video media; if you're going to have any control over what happens
in your lives, especially your political lives, you need to be able to
participate in what's happening around you.
That means you'll have to be able to confront this new information
technology, to find a way onto the much-heralded Information Superhighway and
its many by-ways, and to make critical decisions about what information matters
and what to do with it. Otherwise,
those with the knowledge of and access to these emerging communications
technologies will make the decisions for you.
You'll be left behind, on some dead-end off-ramp.
It was, at its heart, a classic American argument for self-determination,
and I pitched it as a kind of New Age exigency, a step toward a futuristic
technological revolution that opened up untold possibilities for those with the
knowledge and skills to participate. And
for many of those teen-aged kids, who sat politely and (for the most part)
attentively through my animated presentations, it seemed to resonate.
At the very least, it was a mildly interesting diversion from the daily
grind of English class (about which much more later).
But Abby wasn't buying it. When
you're irrelevant, you're irrelevant, computers or not, she was saying. The people who make decisions don't listen to kids, she
argued: we have no say in what gets decided.
I countered that she did have a say, that her views could be
expressed in all kinds of ways: through letters to editors and political bodies
such as town councils and school boards, through petitions and rallies, through
student publications. You can
make your voice heard, I asserted, especially through writing. The Internet and World Wide Web offer even more opportunities
to make that voice heard and to gather information that can give impact to your
voice. And when you're old enough
to vote, you'll have a powerful way to register your views.
What difference would that make? she asked in what was more than an
affected adolescent dismissal. I
didn't know this young woman, but it seemed clear to me that she wasn't putting
on a show for her classmates. She
was in earnest. Here was a twist to
the Generation X apathy regarding political affairs that the popular press likes
to describe. This young woman
wasn't uninterested; she was angry about being perceived as unimportant and she
was skeptical about my claims that she mattered.
And she wouldn't give me an inch.
At the time, I was glad for Abby's feisty engagement with my ideas.
After all, this was the kind of discussion I often try hard to foster in
my own classrooms: lively dialogue about important issues intended to engage
students and get them to think hard about those issues.
I suspected that Abby spoke for many of her silent classmates, some of
whom followed our exchange closely. This
was, as I saw it, an opportunity for me to make my case that those kids did
matter, to try to convince them that they could take some control over their
social and political lives through a critical understanding of literacy and the
careful and savvy use of the written word.
It'll soon be your world, I told them, if you want to take charge of it.
And you can do that through literacy.
Abby's complaints fueled my own animated pitch, and I wasn't about to
leave that day without convincing at least one of them that I was right--that
they did matter, and that literacy was the vehicle for their claims to
In essence, I was offering Abby and her classmates my canned and somewhat
oversimplified version of the kind of "emancipatory literacy" that
theorist Paulo Freire, among others, advocates. As Henri Giroux (1987) explains it, Freire's view rests on
the assumption that literacy is "a necessary foundation for cultural action
and freedom, a central aspect of what it means to be a self and socially
constituted agent" (p.7). For Freire, "literacy is fundamental to
aggressively constructing one's voice as part of a wider project of possibility
and empowerment." From the
time I first encountered Freire's (1970/1984) views on literacy in his book Pedagogy
of the Oppressed as a young graduate student in the early 1980s, I had begun
to see my own teaching as based on some version of a Freirean critical literacy
as a means of social change and individual empowerment.
Such terms as social change and individual empowerment are slippery,
especially given the sometimes problematic ways that they are used in the
professional jargon of scholars and educators.
But for me they refer generally to the crucial role that reading and
writing can play in our individual and collective lives within a democractic
political system and a capitalist economy.
Like Freire, I see reading and writing as acts of participation in a
wider project of possibility and empowerment, as a way to construct our roles in
that project, as a vehicle for participation in the discourses that shape our
lives, and as a means of making sense of our lives in the context of others'
lives. Literacy is central to the
ongoing struggle for democracy and self-determination.
It is a matter of individual empowerment in the way that it can enable
one to negotiate the complexities of life; it is empowerment in a broader sense
in that literate acts are always inherently social within the political,
cultural, and economic contexts within which we lead our individual lives. And literacy represents a kind of joy as well: the joy that
comes with using language to structure your world, to give voice to your ideas,
to create a space for yourself in an endless stream of discourses, to work
toward change, to reflect, to expound--to act.
It was that set of beliefs about literacy, in a watered-down form, that I
was sharing with Abby and her classmates at Queensbury High School.
I was genuinely interested in the ways in which those students are
"socially constituted agents" and literate beings with the potential
for committed political action. I
was interested in helping students gain access to a literacy that opens up
opportunities for them to claim agency for themselves, to participate in the
many discourses that shape their lives--including those in evolving electronic
media. And like Abby that day, I was in earnest.
I am still. But not without
reservations. And it is in large
measure the tension between my continuing belief in the potential power of
literacy on the one hand and the many reservations I have come to hold about
literacy and especially about how we teach it on the other that energizes this
book. Since that visit to
Queensbury High School, I have thought--and spoken--often of Abby and what
literacy might mean to her and students like her.
And like many educators who have devoted their professional lives to the
teaching of literacy, I have begun to wonder uneasily about what I do in working
with those students. I have begun
to wonder, for instance, about the relationship between Abby's view of the
world--and her participation, or lack of it, in that world--and my role as a
teacher of writing and reading, a researcher committed to broadening our
understanding of literacy, an educator who has helped train the English teachers
with whom students like Abby study. How
much of what I do actually empowers students in ways that Freire and other
theorists describe? How much of
what I do actually works against such empowerment?
English Education and the Violence of Literacy
Elspeth Stuckey's (1991) angry book, The Violence of Literacy,
articulates some of my own concerns about literacy education.
In her book, Stuckey argues that the "usual speculations" about
literacy and its importance are wrong "because the assumptions about
economic and social forces on which they are based are faulty" (p. vii).
Literacy, she says, does not inevitably lead to economic success and
social opportunity, as our social mythologies would have us believe; rather, it
is implicated in an "entrenched class structure in which those who have
power have a vested interest in keeping it" (p. vii).
Moreover, literacy is "destructive" in the sense that it helps
perpetuate that unjust class system. She
documents that "destruction" in the form of exclusionary educational
and social practices in which literacy figures centrally, unequal access to
economic and social opportunity for citizens from certain classes, and
institutionalized racism and sexism. And
she attempts to describe "the extraordinary power of the educational
process and of literacy standards not merely to exclude citizens from
participating in the country's economic and political life but to brand them and
their children with indelible prejudice, the prejudice of language" (p.
122). In these ways, she concludes,
"literacy and English instruction can hurt you, more clearly and forcefully
than it [sic] can help you" (p. 123).
It is a sobering analysis--particularly so for those of us who have
worked within the belief that "literacy really made us human" (p.
124). No, Stuckey unequivocally
says, "literacy was never this way, and it was wrong to think it was"
Like Stuckey, I have come to understand some of the ways in which,
"far from engineering freedom, our current approaches to literacy
corroborate other social practices that prevent freedom and limit
opportunity" (p. vii). I don't
believe that Abby's rejection of my optimistic arguments about literacy and
technology were driven by a careful analysis of literacy and its relationship to
class and political power in the way that Stuckey's argument is.
But I do believe that Abby, like so many students in English and language
arts classes in this country, sensed some of the ways in which Stuckey may be
right about literacy. And I believe
Abby and some of her classmates may be onto us.
Her ambivalence about her own literacy learning, which emerged in some of
her statements that afternoon, grows, I'd argue, out of experiences with
literacy that belie the mythology of possibility in a classless democratic
society, a mythology that, as Stuckey points out, continues to drive our views
about literacy and is continually reinforced by traditional curricula, popular
media, and cultural practices. In
other words, Abby's experience in the world contradicts much of what her English
teachers--and other representatives of the educational and political
establishment, including me--tell her about the importance of writing and
reading, about the difference it can make in her life; moreover, as I hope to
show in this book, most of what Abby is asked to do as a writer and reader in
school has little relevance to her social, political, cultural, and economic
life outside school.
I have come to believe that in some unsettling ways Abby is right: she is
largely irrelevant. As a young
citizen about to enter the adult world that has determined so much of her life,
she is in many ways far removed from the political and institutional structures
that shape her life. Her
experiences teach her that she does not figure in any significant way into the
political workings of the society she inhabits, and regardless of what her
teachers say, her encounters with literacy have done little to challenge that.
The texts that she confronts daily--those "sanctioned" classroom texts
like Shakespeare and Edith Wharton alongside the more prevalent cultural
"texts" available to her on MTV and network news broadcasts with their
hi-tech "town meetings"--do little to encourage a sense of
participation in the political life of a society that seems so familiar to her
yet out of her reach. Indeed, the
texts she encounters outside the classroom encourage a different sort of
participation--that of consumer--in ways that reduce political awareness to
simple desires like having more "disposable income" or owning a
particular kind of car or pair of athletic shoes, material goods that are
presented as the measures and rewards of "success" in an economic
system that defines Abby as a consumer. Worse,
so many of those "texts" deny the existence of a political life in
ways that reinforce Abby's sense of disconnection and encourage her lack of
participation. Think of the
not-so-subtle images that accompany the consumerist mantras like "Life is
good" (from a popular ad for beer in the mid-1990s) that we are
continuously exposed to in television and print (and now Internet) advertising
for all kinds of products. Think of
the daunting numbers of these images and slogans and the numbing regularity with
which "consumers" like Abby are exposed to them.
Think, too, of the messages about what matters contained in those images.
Pop singer Bruce Springsteen's cynical indictment of cable television,
"57 Channels and Nothing's On," recalls the famous TV-as-wasteland
metaphor from the 1950s. But
something is "on" those 57 channels: an endless stream of
slightly different versions of the same text, the same continuous advertisement
for a consumer culture in which agency is defined as the ability to choose which
products to buy. How does one
"read" such texts, which suggest that the only real power a student
like Abby has is her "purchasing power?"
The "sanctioned" texts like Shakespeare and Wharton that she
encounters in her English classes--and the passive ways in which she is likely
asked to engage those texts--do little to help her learn to negotiate those
popular consumerist images and slogans and to consider what they might mean in
her political and economic life. Given
what she typically encounters in her "official" literacy learning in
school and what she encounters outside that institutional setting, it's no
surprise that she feels i rrelevant.
But I don't believe it needs to be that way.
While Stuckey may be right about the relationship between literacy and
the maintenance of an unfair and often oppressive political and economic system,
literacy does constitute power. It
is not the "personal empowerment" implied in much of the professional
jargon that educators and theorists use, nor the simplistic literacy of
"economic empowerment" that political leaders invoke as they announce
"new" initiatives to "fight the literacy crisis"; rather,
literacy represents a kind of power to participate in extraordinarily complex
ways in the social, cultural, and political discourses that shape people's
lives. That power resides not
solely in the capacity to understand political discourse in what is supposed to
be a democratic society or the so-called basic skills required for adequate
employment in a capitalist system, but in a myriad of more mundane ways that
often have a far more direct and profound impact on our lives:
the ability to
understand a lease or notice from a public agency;
to negotiate a car
to make sense of a
curriculum document from your child's school;
to submit a petition
to a town council or school board;
to respond to a
request to sign a petition;
to understand the
risks inherent in a mortgage document;
to engage a
philosophical argument about welfare reform published in a local newspaper;
to register for a
course at a local college;
information from a government agency about local water quality;
to decipher a report
from the therapist who has examined an aging parent;
to decide on an
to lodge a complaint
about working conditions at a place of employment;
to understand the
minimum wage law announcement posted on a bulletin board at a workplace;
to find a site on the
World Wide Web with trustworthy information on a local toxic dump clean-up;
to place the
editorial of a local newspaper columnist in critical perspective;
to be skeptical about
the subtle messages contained in an advertisement for athletic shoes;
to delight in the
subtle language of a popular song;
to compose a letter
describing a divorce proceeding to a distant family member.
local acts of literacy do not at first glance seem to carry the political weight
that theorists like Giroux and Freire suggest literacy represents; indeed, they
seem almost petty in light of the theoretical arguments and political debates
about literacy and school curricula that occupy elected officials and academics.
But these acts of literacy amount to the very kind of political and
economic participation about which Freire writes; they are local manifestations
of the broader ideological struggles inherent in literate acts.
And they represent the many complex, sometimes overlapping, often
conflicting discourses within which people function every day, within which they
negotiate the constraints and challenges of contemporary life, within which they
make the many small decisions that can determine how much control they exercise
over their lives. In this sense, an
understanding of literacy in the context of those many discourses, and the
ability to participate through literacy in those discourses, represents power.
Moreover, as Eli Goldblatt (1994) has so poignantly noted, written
language serves a "realizing function" (p. 28) by making
"real" the institutions that shape our lives: "At the same time
that writing confers an institutional validity to both our public and private
lives, writing done by individuals effectively creates and maintains the reality
of social institutions" (p. 29). In
other words, individual writers and readers shape our collective reality through
written discourse. To participate
in those discourses is thus to shape our lives and the cultural and
institutional ground on which we live those lives.
For me, then, the task of the literacy educator is not simply to teach
students how to write and read or to help them "see" meaning in a
literary text deemed "great" or even to encourage them to engage in
cultural critique, but to enable them to understand how literacy functions as a
means of participation in those ever-shifting discourses that shape our lives
and to find ways to give students like Abby some measure of access to that
power--even as we, like Stuckey, continue to acknowledge and examine and
elucidate the ways in which literacy is violent.
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