The Literacy Myth: What good is literacy? What good are we accomplishing?

Gee presents a strong case for the potentially deleterious effects of literacy and literate practices (e.g. Education policy and school tracking systems). In order to dissect claims underlying “the literacy myth”–that is, that literacy always does good, promoting positive self-growth and training–Gee outlines historical developments in literacy, focusing specifically on the work of Plato and Freire. Throughout his essay, Gee highlights the tendency of literacy to be used as both an emancipator or liberator, as well as a weapon, emphasizing the differential impacts of policies, practices, and ideologies on various socioeconomic classes. Discussion of the benefits of literacy, but perhaps more importantly, it’s potential to harm individuals and groups, indeed strikes a poignant note with regard to our work at SpeakOut.

When speaking of literacy and its potential for human progress, Gee notes that “literacy, it is felt, freed some of humanity from a primitive state, from an earlier stage of human development” (26). In other words, humans are civilized as a result of our literate capacities.

I was surprised, however, by many of the statistics provided in this article, namely the fact that the 1985 NEAP study reported a 95% young adult literacy rate, while also finding that “only about 10 percent of the whites, 3 percent of the Hispanics, and 1 percent of the African Americans could generate an unfamiliar theme from a short poem or orally interpret distinctions between two types of employee benefits” (23). Seeing statistics such as this brings into question the appropriateness of the traditional definition of literacy, as well as reinforces Gee’s concept of the literacy myth. I wonder, what impact does the potentially deficient definition of literacy have on the overall effectiveness of literate practices? Meaning, are literacy programs ineffective (thus supporting the idea that literacy does not always do good) as a result of differential definitions and expectations associated with literacy?

Gee does well to correct existing gaps in defining literacy and what it entails by providing a more comprehensive explanation, which I appreciated. Literacy, he states, is not solely the ability to read or write, but also involves reading comprehension, logical and critical thinking, as well as the ability to differentiate myth from history.

When considering literacy and its relationship to knowledge, Gee resorts to Plato’s polemic on the shortfalls of the written word. For Plato, writing, and literate practices more generally, become problematic when considering the capacity of a text to be defended or “correctly interpreted.” Plato champions a view of knowledge which classifies “true knowledge” as that which “comes about when one person makes a statement and another asks ‘What do you mean?’” (29). As evidenced, Plato emphasized the ability of the written word to be challenged, verified, and re-stated in different words. This process, he believes, creates deeper meaning by allowing response and dialogue. He even goes so far as to make the claim that “only dialogic thought, speaking, and writing were authentic” (29).

Inherent in Plato’s thinking about reading comprehension and interpretation is the idea that there is only one correct way to read a text. Although there is cause for concern with regard to free interpretation, I would urge Plato to consider the consequences of the alternative. That is, of not being able to freely interpret something or, as discussed, only being exposed to writings which are accompanied by prescribed interpretations or fixed meanings, such as with many religious texts. This notion of predetermined meaning and lack of agency on behalf of the reader is by no means liberating. In fact, I would consider this type of literacy to be exemplary of its potential to be used a weapon. What good is literacy, or the ability to write and comprehend something, if your abilities to interpret, analyze, and challenge a writing are, essentially, rendered obsolete? By definition, this notion contradicts the traditional view of literacy–that of the ability to read, write, and understand.

Another issue ingrained in the process of reading comprehension and interpretation is that of privilege, economic and social resources. Throughout the article, Gee references potential complications with literacy or how literacy can be used as a weapon. He discusses the ability to understand a text being tied to socioeconomic status and skill. Indeed, certain individuals may be better-equipped (e.g. training) to interpret a text the way one is meant to be understood. In addition to some texts being restrictive in terms of the audiences that can access or “correctly” interpret them, literacy also often involves attempts to maintain the status quo or “solidify the social hierarchy” (36). Gee alludes to the fact that literacy often perpetuates elite behavior, while also “stressing deference” among the lower-positioned. This discussion was reinforced through explanation of school tracking systems and their tendency to stress differential behaviors and expectations among the high and low tracks.

This issue of divergent expectations and objectives among elites and those in lower positions is especially relevant to our work at SpeakOut. Being that we are working with a disadvantaged, underserved, and highly stigmatized population, I wonder if our efforts, by any means, reinforce the social hierarchy or teach the writer’s to accept their positions of inferiority. Would Plato and Freire consider our work with literacy liberating?

I believe literacy through SpeakOut emphasizes each of the components recognized by Gee: critical thinking, verbal and analytic skills, personal growth and development, as well as discipline, time-management and honesty. What the program accomplishes is extending access to literate practices beyond the general public, that is, to those populations so often neglected from social programs or consideration. SpeakOut offers writers an opportunity to develop and refine their critical thinking skills, reading comprehension, and creativity, through writing. Additionally, the writers are exposed to and incorporated into broader circles of literacy. Through SpeakOut, individuals are given a stake in the larger literate practices of their community and society, more generally. Not only are the writers able to read the work of others, which quite likely they were restricted access to while incarcerated or even beforehand, they are also instilled with the opportunity to share, disseminate and publish their own work for others to enjoy.

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