Posts Tagged ‘literacy’

As I write, a local newspaper is gearing up for its annual literacy promotion. The cause is hard to fault, especially if you’re a hyper-literate like me. I can’t help wondering, though, exactly what the organizers mean by “literacy,” except a vague, feel-good cause that everybody supports.

After all, there is something self-serving a newspaper promoting literacy. Is the newspaper really interested in the common good, or simply in ensuring a new generation of readers? In these days when obituaries are being written for beloved old newspapers in particular and the medium in general, I have to wonder.

The trouble is, no one ever seems to identify exactly what they mean by literacy. Even at a minimal level of being able to read street signs, ballots, and government documents, a definition of literacy runs into trouble. After all, exactly what abilities does minimal literacy include? The ability to use a colon or semi-colon properly? An ampersand? A hyphen or forward slash? The knowledge of when to use a list, and what a numbered list signals as opposed to a bullet list? When to use and how to pronounce the accents in words borrowed from other languages? By these standards, very few people would ever be counted as literate, even though all of these questions are relatively elementary.

Similarly, what level of comprehension is implied by the term? Does a person, for instance, need to be able to identify a literary effect? To be able to consciously use those effects themselves?

For that matter, is an awareness of language and how it develops required before someone is literate? If so, then thousands of grammar Nazis who condemn any departure from an artificial standard English would be horrified to learn that they were not literate themselves.

Also, sooner or later, a definition of literacy involves a familiarity with the cultural influences that shape a language. True literacy in English, for example, requires a knowledge of Shakespeare and Christianity (or at least the King James Bible), as well as several dozen other authors and cultural influences.

And what about idioms? Should a person who can write and read a language but not understand an idiom or a pun be considered literate?

Discarding any of these requirements is difficult, but that is only half the problem. The other half is what degree of knowledge or skill a literate person is supposed to have in each of these requirements. How can you measure a concept that, the more you consider it, the more complex it becomes?

No wonder that many educators stick to simpler goals, like standardized spelling. At least with spelling, there is usually a definite right or wrong answer, so long as you stick with official English. But including anything that makes reading or writing seem worth developing means entering a more complex world where right and wrong is qualified and weighted, where – horror of horrors – a student might even be able to question a teacher, provided they know how to construct an argument.

In the end, the concept of literacy seems to come down to what you are pointing to when you use the term. But I would be a lot more comfortable if the promoters of literacy did point to anything. For all I know, their concept of literacy – or, at least, what they are willing to settle for – is far different from my definitions.

I can’t help suspecting that authority figures are automatically hypocritical whenever they talk about literacy. Obviously, a technological society needs higher general standards of literacy than other cultures in order to function, but I always have the nagging suspicion that, when promoting literacy, the Powers That Be would vastly prefer that it not be promoted too far – certainly not to the extent that the average person can deconstruct official pronouncements and maybe question them. In the end, I suspect that the level of literacy they are prepared to settle for is far less than the level I would prefer, and that literacy can be a far more radical concept that everyone assumes.

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