Share Plot

& in common

Archive for July 2013

Some Notes on the Loneliness of “Literacy”

leave a comment »

Keller-Cohen, Deborah. 1993. “Rethinking Literacy: Comparing Colonial and Contemporary America.” Anthropology & Education Quarterly 24 (4) (December 1): 288–307. doi:10.2307/3195932.

Keller-Cohen wants to have her cake and eat it too. She observes that the concept of “literacy” is over applied, that the word has become merely metaphorical (if not cliche); but then, she would use the power of this metaphor to advocate for the role of reading, writing and speech (I believe this was once called “rhetoric”) in culture and education. Keller-Cohen ends with four things to think about, but I’m not entirely certain what she would have us do. Her “directions for refiguring literacy” include:

1) “Clarifying our conception of what people need to know and what role literacy plays in it.”

As I have said, here, she really wants to have her cake and eat it too. She does not like “sexual literacy” … but she does want us to think “in more heterogeneous ways about what people need to know.”

2) “Placing more emphasis on literacy as a collaborative practice.”

I think this is the most interesting and problematic part of the story that Keller-Cohen tells about literacy in America. On the one hand, posters from the American Library Association do not mark the birth of reading and writing as a solitary activity. For those of us who can read and write, the act will often be solitary … I think this has always been the case — St. Jerome had some rabbits, a squirrel, a bird, a lizard and a lion to keep him company — and often will be. I will share what I am writing (now) online, but I write this in a room, by myself.

Giovanni Bellini, St. Jerome Reading in the Countryside

On the other hand, this article from the early 90s includes one footnote about “electronic mail” — the “pressure” it brings upon one’s notions about the difference between written and spoken language. And, thus, one may read such an article with some nostalgia — which is fitting, given that it is a very nostalgic article — for the mere decades past in which the practice of reading mainly involved a paper medium. I don’t think this detracts from the argument of the article, but one might wonder what the author thinks about the social space the internet now provides for readers and writers. One seldom hears good news about the internet and its role in fostering “literacy” — rather, it’s typically that the youth are going to hell on a cell phone and tweeting all the way.

3) “Examining the relationship between the speaking and writing skills of students.”

Sure. Why not? I call this “rhetoric” and, when thinking about my kids, “language skills.” In graduate school I started reading my papers “aloud” prior to submitting them — the practice typically resulted in a few hours of revision. Does anyone teach dictation? Were I to dictate this post, how would the prose differ? Many of the great prose and verse stylists dictated much of their work: Milton, Wordsworth, Yeats.

4) “Broadening the sites for literacy acquisition.”

I note, here, every summer my daughter begs me to sign her up for the library’s reading program. So, it’s not just the schools that have been working to promote “literacy.” But, it’s a noble sentiment nonetheless and I think that Keller-Cohen is right — we do need more reading in America. (Would it be possible to have too much?) Even so, if we’re to extend literacy beyond the school setting — where else could we get as much bang for our buck? Truancy laws, more or less, make the school years one of the truly shared experiences of our culture. If one wanted to intervene on the behalf of “literacy” is there any better place?

Written by Jere

July 5, 2013 at 4:17 pm

Posted in Libraries, Reading

Tagged with , , ,