Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Perceptions of Literacy and the "Literacy Crisis"

I've long thought there's a literacy crisis - or at least a writing crisis.  After reading Gee, though, I'm not sure if what I'm seeing is a "crisis," or if instead my own perceptions of writing are simply coloring the ways in which I see people "succeeding" according to my own personal expectations.

In reading the chapters by Gee, I'm struck by how often literacy is simply portrayed based on "convenience" rather than according to actual attempts to understand how it's used and what that means for those using it.  The example of Plato using his own critiques of literacy in order to politically undermine rhetoricians is one I've been familiar with, but the more recent national studies which have ignored the obvious effects of social status and race are very troubling when it comes to understanding how approaches to literacy are (not) being taken up by policy makers.

Part of the problem which Gee has pointed out is the fact that people don't look at literacy from the "functional" perspective of how people use it - instead, like Plato, they tend to look at it as a way of conveying the "right" ideologies, where "rightness" is always in the eye of those who have the political power to produce privileged texts.  Within our own society, we easily see how writers like Stephenie Meyer and Stephen King are downgraded in comparison to authors like Joyce and Fitzgerald (I mean, compared to those authors who need no first name...) - worse, though, are the implications wherein writing itself is seen as a secondary and unrelated process in the ways that students learn math, science, and all those other "important" fields.

I think that a major part of the problem stems from the modernist bias we still see in general society.  Although postmodernism and relativism might devalue interpretation by permitting all interpretations, our modernist approaches to knowledge lead people to value content and literal interpretion over the acceptance that all knowledge is contextual.  Hence, most people in power ignore how African Americans (or any other minority group) take up texts, and instead only look for whether those interpretations match the "right" ways of interpreting texts.

Unfortunately, I don't see a good way to address this bias in society.  I mean, we could conduct some kind of "shaming" ritual where we take politicians aside and find out how they have their own children educated, but I don't know that this would really change anything in terms of how people understand literacy.  If Gee's assertions are correct regarding how limited people are in terms of "reading to learn," then it's unlikely that "the masses" would be unable to fully perceive the implications of ethnographic approaches to literacy - namely, that texts are contextual, and that we cannot teach text production if we are limited our students to universally "basic" skills.
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