The Literacy Complex

Dennis Baron

[originally published in the newsletter of the Center for the Study of Cultural Values and Ethics, 1994]

Literacy has become an increasingly central social and theoretical concern in the United States. Despite significant variations in its definition, the concept of literacy informs our notions of education, technology, and modernism, and the promotion of literacy is now an essential aspect of public policy world wide. Degree of literacy in a population has become as important a socio-cultural indicator as gross national product is an economic one. Literacy has become a national resource, and with literacy levels continually below official targets, it is as common today to warn of literacy crises as it is to fear oil shortages.

                  A sense of a literacy crisis has been with us in the United States since well before the momentous Sputnik launch of 1957, which served as an indicator of the failure of American education and a stimulus for federal spending on the schools. The publication two years earlier of Rudolf Flesch’s Why Johnny Can’t Read (1955) points to a perceived reading crisis that had been building for much of the twentieth century. Various late nineteenth-century pronouncements concerning the inability of college students to write¾for example, that of Adams Sherman Hill, push back the crisis further still. Hill, Harvard’s Boylston Professor of Rhetoric, complained in 1885

that the instructors of English in American colleges have to spend so much of their time and strength in teaching the A B C of the mother-tongue to young men of twenty¾work disagreeable in itself, and often barren of result. Every year Harvard sends out men¾some of them high scholars¾whose manuscripts would disgrace a boy of twelve; and yet the college can hardly be blamed, for she cannot be expected to conduct an infant school for adults. [(1885) 1890: 15]

And Bernard DeVoto (1928) some thirty years later attributed the decline in writing standards to “the increasing vulgarization of American society and the democratization of the colleges that accompanied it.”  Adding to this heightened sense of decay was the tireless and belligerent dirge of usage critics that speakers and writers, even those with claims to professional status, don’t use their language properly at all. Such complaints peaked in the eighteenth century and have continued unabated ever since.

                  Rudolf Flesch blamed reading failures on an educational methodology that had abandoned phonics in favor of visual word recognition. The well-known 1975 Newsweek magazine article “Why Johnny Can’t Write” listed as the causes of the American literacy crisis television, declining social values, economic conditions, lax parental discipline, the decay of the family, structural linguistics, and the publication of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. Leon Botstein (1990) recently suggested that standard English, normally considered vital to educational success, can actually be an impediment to literacy. As if this were not absurd enough, some educators have even blamed not the readers but the books themselves for the crisis, though these educators are divided on whether students’ failure to read is caused by books that are too hard or books that are too easy. As a result, for the past fifteen years or so college textbook publishers have been asking authors to lower the difficulty of their texts to a ninth-grade reading level, while a couple of years ago the Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois issued a report that had been almost fifteen years in the making which concluded that basic reading texts failed to teach reading because they used vocabulary and syntax so simple they failed to capture their readers’ interest (Anderson, et al., 1985).

                  As today’s concerns with the level of student reading and writing illustrate, the ability to manipulate letters remains indispensable to survival in our society. Claims that the print culture of the past several centuries is being displaced by our dependence on television are not supported by our continued and frequently irrational faith in the written representation of speech. We still feel uncomfortable with a new word, particularly a new name, until we see it spelled, and while our word is still our bond, most spoken affirmation must be quickly followed up by a written confirmation. Except for some few aspects of legal or religious ceremony, or gambling, a signature rather than an affirmation remains our strongest guarantee. Students, who still ask if spelling counts, seem particularly unwilling to question let alone outright disbelieve what they find between the covers of their textbooks. And legal and evangelical fundamentalists are ever louder and more insistent that interpretation of the civil and moral code be bound by the letter and not the spirit of the written text.

                  Given the notion of a literacy crisis that is both pervasive and of long standing, it may come as a surprise to learn that there is strong disagreement over just what literacy is, what it does, and how to measure it. More surprising still, if not indeed shocking, is the challenge mounted in the last decade to the commonly accepted notion that literacy is an undeniable good, a positive force that can change not only individual lives but the course of a society. Educators and the public at large have always confidently assumed that the acquisition of literacy was a prerequisite to social and economic success in modern life. But now that assumption has been called into question as some students of literacy have shown convincingly that the acquisition of reading and writing per se makes little difference in terms of rigidified class structure. Harvey Graff (1979) demonstrates that literacy did not improve the status of workers in nineteenth-century Newfoundland, and Furet and Ozouf (1982: 149) conclude that, in France, literacy, which was “governed by the prior distribution of opportunities,” actually reinforced class lines rather than making them more permeable.

                  Does literacy reinforce the status quo or permit individuals and groups to transcend or alter current social, political, and economic conditions? Probably it can do both, depending on the circumstances. But more important, the conception of literacy as a liberating or empowering practice has been tempered, in the minds of some theorists, with the claim that, insofar as it encourages the replication of social values and structures, literacy may actually be an oppressive force in the lives of readers.

                  Literacy most probably arose in the ancient Mediterranean as a record-keeping tool, a means of tracking inventory and accounts receivable. As such it was not always well received by those illiterates who were excluded from its mysteries. For example, as Michael Clanchy (1979) notes, when writing was introduced into 11th-century England on a large scale, illiterate landowners saw it as a nasty Norman trick for stealing Saxon land (and, at least initially, they were probably right). Even during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century in England, when reading and writing were actively promoted by the literary and religious establishment and the public image of literacy was at an all-time high, David Cressy (1980) finds demand for literacy sluggish, and notes that many influential figures considered it dangerous to teach the general public to read unless the church or the government could control the texts that they read. To this day, despite the continuing rehabilitation of noncanonical authors, we find it necessary to discriminate good reading matter from junk, a process almost certain to discourage new readers from pursuing their interests when they clash with standards set by parents and teachers.

                  Slowly, over the centuries, literacy came to be considered a social refinement, like playing the piano; then a social requisite, what you need to get ahead; and ultimately a technological necessity, what you need in order to survive. Once the goal of universal literacy was articulated, once indeed it seemed within our grasp, we began to assume that no one could participate fully in a modern industrial society without a sufficient degree of literacy, and we now regard low literacy achievement as evidence of socioeconomic discrimination. But in a way thinking about literacy has come full circle, for although literacy is still generally regarded as positive, critics like J. Elspeth Stuckey (1991), in an up-to-date echo of Saxon suspicions of Anglo-Norman land charters, again describe it as a capitalist tool, this time not for record keeping but for oppressing the masses and propping up the status quo.

                  Whether we define literacy narrowly as the acquisition of reading and writing, or broadly as the ability to operate effectively within a given culture or context, literacy must be regarded as a process of moving from outside to inside, from unknowing to knowing, from foreign to familiar. But it is also a process of moving from uncertainty to certainty and back to uncertainty again. As literacy is acquired we become expert, and one aspect of this expertise involves learning to question what we know, charting the limits and failings of that very expertise.

                  This came home to me quite clearly and in an extremely mundane situation, during my first encounter with a Parisian marché. It was early in my Fulbright year in France, some fifteen years ago, and I had gone out determined to secure the fixings for a spinach salad. I had practiced with the money for a couple of weeks, so I wasn’t worried about counting change. Accustomed to purchasing shrink-wrapped groceries with clearly marked prices in the ounce-pound-quart system of American weights and measures, I spent some time calculating prices and watching other customers dealing in French for their fruits and vegetables. I knew about the metric system from my undergraduate science classes, where once I had freely manipulated grams and liters and degrees Celsius. I knew also the mechanical commonplace that a kilogram of lead and a kilogram of feathers would fall at the same rate in a frictionless environment. But I didn’t realize that I didn’t know how to translate these metric weights and measures into marketplace realities. So when I boldly took my turn and called, with the pretense at confidence that only a foreigner can muster, for “a kilo of spinach,” I was shocked to receive a gigantic plastic bag full of green leaves, enough to salad an entire class of students, whereas I was only shopping for my little family of three.

                  I had to think fast while I still had the attention of the clerk. Too embarrassed to admit that I had ordered too much in the way of greens, I quickly down-sized my mushroom request, asking in the market lingo I had heard the other shoppers use, for “un quart de champignons,”  or ‘a quarter of mushrooms.’ How was I to know that while spinach sold by the gram, mushrooms went by the pound? My four ounces of mushrooms, a handful with not very big caps, wouldn’t go far, especially in the context of enough spinach to stuff a large pillow.

                  That night we ate out. The next time around I got the weights right. But I never could recalibrate my sense of hot and cold to fit the centigrade scale, and I spent all that year listening to the météo, or weather report, not knowing the ambient temperature, forced to select my daughter’s school wardrobe by the tried and true, but decidedly lo-tech, method of sticking my head out of the window.

                  The point of this is not that travel is broadening, which it may or may not be, but that literacy is highly contextualized, slowly acquired, often painful or embarrassing, even for someone who considered himself literate to begin with. For literacy, to paraphrase the French, the more things change, the more they are different.

                  But what exactly is literacy? Surely I don’t mean by it an activity as specific as ‘the ability to acquire groceries in French,’ or one as vague as ‘the ability to do anything in general’? Surely literacy has something to do with reading and writing, and with the time-honored concept of the educated person? Yes, certainly, but it only exists in the context of the ability to negotiate cultural matters. The literacy I am describing is really a method of interpretation, a process of induction into specific forms and ways of knowing that are bound by circumstance, that change according to time and place as well as more elusive variables. Literacy as a highly contingent and tentative interpretation process sharply contrasts with the ordinary notion of literacy as a static skill with a clearly defined threshold of instantiation and clearly graded, eminently testable levels of mastery.

                  Two of the most familiar referents of literacy today are certainly reading and writing. But literacy means more than reading and writing, and possibly less as well. We commonly judge literacy in terms of its absence rather than its presence, and here we see that the ability to read and write take on special significance, for it is common today to label people as illiterates who actually do know their alphabet, who can read and even write, though perhaps they cannot do so very well, or at least not well enough to meet standards which tend to be set by others. Originally, illiteracy did mean lack of knowledge, either the specific inability to process written language or, more broadly, the absence of a general education. In the eighteenth century Lord Chesterfield meant by illiteracy an ignorance of Latin and Greek, which in turn probably signified for him a failure to satisfy the general education requirements of his age. Literacy is also what we have come to call a gendered phenomenon: since women did not generally learn Latin and Greek in eighteenth-century England, Chesterfield would have classed them as illiterate. In fact with the decline of the Roman Empire European women were excluded from Latin, speaking only the vulgar Germanic or Romance languages called pejoratively ‘the mother tongue,’ while men of a certain class or stature were expected to learn the more prestigious though dying Latin. And in many societies, women were excluded from script literacy or came to it later and with more obstacles placed in their way than did men.

                  By the late nineteenth century, a time when literacy was making significant advances in Great Britain, someone unable to read is called totally illiterate by the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary, which suggests that it was possible to be able to read and still be considered illiterate, or partially so. This paradoxical situation has come to be known as functional literacy. The term functional illiteracy is now commonly used to indicate that the ability to read and write is present but inadequate. A functional illiterate is variously defined as someone who cannot follow simple written instructions (for example, a recipe) or fill out common forms (applications for employment or a driver’s license). Someone whose literacy is beneath a designated standard; or is insufficient for a given task.

                  Literacy, then, is conceived both as binary¾either you have it or you don’t¾and as a dangerously sliding scale where illiteracy is always just to the left of where the calibrators happen to be at the moment. Literacy, which we judge to be more than skin deep, is also very much in the eye of the beholder. We commonly label as illiterate someone who does not happen to know something that we do. As Geoffrey Nunberg has remarked, “three quarters of the American population would qualify as literate by some standard and illiterate by another” (personal communication). For example, while the U.S. Census Bureau reports a near-universal literacy rate, the National Assessment of Educational Progress places only 75% of young adults above a 9th-grade reading level and Jonathan Kozol (1985) claims that 60 million Americans cannot read and write well enough to function meaningfully in our society. Calling everyone illiterate when just about everyone can read borders on the meaningless or suggests that critics really have something else in mind than ability to read when they level their charges.

                  We can observe in this phenomenon a pattern of literacy inflation, whereby as more and more people acquire literacy, the standards for judging literacy keep getting raised. To give one significant example of upping the ante: despite the continually increasing threshold of literacy which we are told that today’s jobs demand, most workers of tomorrow may be little more than what Andrew Sledd has called “docile data processors,” “dragging computerized Cheerios boxes across computerized check-out counters” (1988: 499; 506). On the other side, of course, are the equally inflated claims that the Cuban or Nicaraguan or Chinese revolutions have produced almost overnight universal literacy for these no-longer-oppressed peoples.

                  As numbers become inflated in the race to maximize or minimize literacy, we have also inflated the meaning of the word literacy until it contains little more than hot air. Literacy has always referred both narrowly to the ability to encode and decode written language, and broadly to the state of being either widely educated or skilled in literary technique. We also commonly specify literacy by extension as knowledge of a particular area or subject. Though we may fear literacy to be on the decline, literacies are ever on the rise as we discover newer things to be ignorant about. Thus over the years it has been customary to go beyond the traditional literacies, the first two of the three Rs, now often referred to as conventional literacy, and speak in addition of mathematical literacy, or numeracy, computer literacy, psychological literacy, musical literacy, historical literacy, economic literacy, natural science literacy, quantitative literacy, geographical literacy, oracy, ‘fluency in speaking,’ and even food literacy, visual literacy, rock and roll literacy, tee-shirt and bumper-sticker literacy, or television literacy, a term found as early as 1962, though some might consider this last a contradiction in terms.

                  Following the laws of lexical thermodynamics, for every literacy there seems to be an equal and opposite illiteracy. So, on the down side we find, besides innumeracy, energy illiterates, software illiterates, astronomical illiteracy (a very large amount?), gesture illiteracy, physical illiteracy (posture and movement), and for those who find ’doin’ what comes naturally’ an obscure academic pursuit, there is even sexual illiteracy.

                  Academic literacy, another recent term, refers to the savvy beyond mere reading and writing which students need in order to get through school successfully. And the umbrella term cultural literacy, the mastery of a shared body of knowledge, has attracted educators and social critics in the United States seeking a clearly defined, common curriculum in order to rejuvenate a culture, or at least an educational system, that they perceive as both fragmented and failing. Yet critics charge that cultural literacy is little more than a trivia contest and reject its reliance on a narrow, traditional body of elite Western knowledge, referred to in slighting terms as the books of dead white men, and may have been superseded by the newer, more politically correct, multicultural literacy.

                  Fascinated as we are with metadiscourse, those of us who are postmodern, which should make us ahead of our times, may soon be saying that students of literacy in all its facets are acquiring literacy literacy, and we will label those who do poorly in our literacy seminars as literacy illiterate.

                  While the attenuation of the meaning of literacy ironically attests to the increasing importance of literacy as a notion, it doesn’t help us much when we try to answer the question, “What is literacy?”  Some current views deem literacy a simple, easily-documented basic skill which, once acquired, can be transferred to a variety of contexts, tasks, and even languages. Hence, for example, the as yet unproven assumption of proponents of bilingual education that if you teach someone to read in their native language they will be able to transfer that ability to any language they subsequently acquire is supported by anecdotal examples: I learned to read in English, and when I learned French I had no trouble reading French (or was it just that my ability to read French was never tested outside of the classroom?). Paradoxically, literacy is also commonly described as a complex, variable process, something you can’t take with you when you go but have to relearn and readapt for each new task. Its mastery is contingent rather than categorical: we can be literate in some things, at some times, and illiterate in others. Research in writing and reading confirms that expertise is an important factor in literacy. Both readers and writers perform significantly better when they are dealing with familiar subject matter. When faced with subjects outside their specialization, they perform no better than beginners in the field.

                  Simply mastering the schoolbook literacies is no guarantee of expertise, no assurance that we will be able to pass as literate when negotiating texts outside of the classroom. My nine year old daughter and her friends get perfect scores on their school time-telling worksheets, but confronted with a real clock­­­-a digital one, not even the analogue kind-they have no idea how to read the numbers, no idea what they mean. Similarly, failure to excel at the traditional school literacies in no way precludes success at non-school tasks requiring those same literacies.

                  At the other end of the spectrum, those who consider themselves literate in the broadest of senses feel compelled to hire experts to mediate such difficult and unfamiliar texts as the tax code, the law, and the internal combustion engine. Poor readers, who happen coincidentally not to be members of the middle class, cannot afford to hire such mediators, and consequently tend to fare worse when dealing with such texts. Part of literacy, then, may be the ability to recognize one’s limitations, and the ability to seek out and hire experts.

                  Even basic reading/writing definitions of literacy are conflicted: can reading exist without comprehension? This question becomes even more complex when we consider instances of “reading” sacred languages, like Hebrew, Arabic, Sanskrit or Latin, where pronouncing the sacred texts is considered effective even if understanding is absent. If comprehension is required for literacy, then how much comprehension is needed to certify reading ability, and how can it effectively be measured? When we attempt to determine literacy rates in earlier times, we often rely on what we call signature literacy, the ability to sign one’s name, for our statistics. But to what extent can signing one’s name be reliable evidence of the ability to write? And how reliably does signature literacy imply the ability to read?

                  The function of literacy is similarly contested. One school of thought influential in both anthropological and literary theory contrasts writing with speaking. Often referred to as the “Great Divide” theory, it argues that literacy, because it is a later development than orality, is better, that reading and writing are superior developmentally and cognitively as well as technologically to speech. Moreover, claims have been made that the invention of writing-in particular, the invention of the alphabet-is somehow a precondition for the existence of democratic societies; and that writing has even made possible the mind-set that produced today’s complex technology (Logan 1986). While such notions may be difficult to prove, Jack Goody (1986) and Walter Ong (1977) have suggested ways in which the shift from oral to print-based forms of communication alters human consciousness and the literacy produced thereby. Brian Stock (1983) takes a middle ground, examining the influence of a minority literate culture on the larger mass of illiterates in the Middle Ages. But the Great Divide position is vigorously disputed by the anthropologists Brian Street (1984) and Ruth Finnegan (1988), who challenge the notion that orality and literacy are polar opposites, arguing that oral communication can have the permanence and objectivity often said to be the major advantages of writing, and that societies normally defined as literate depend heavily on orality as well. Writing need not be permanent: it may be as evanescent as the fabled library at Alexandria or the electric current in a computer. Oral transmission, in turn, may be more reliable than written: it may sometimes be easier to determine the trustworthiness of a live speaker than a printed document. Furthermore, writing may be as subjective and biased as propaganda and advertising. Studying the Brahmanical tradition of textual interpretation in India, Jonathan Parry (1985) concludes that the existence of text in a society is no guarantor of objectivity or modern outlook. At least some of the Hindu sacred texts may have no fixed form, being reinvented or revised by local gurus. Furthermore, it is common for Brahmanic authorities to tailor their interpretations of text to support local tradition or the individual preference of paying customers.

                  And Florian Coulmas (1991) disputes the connection often made between alphabetic writing systems, literacy, and progress. Coulmas points to India, where the existence of an ancient alphabetic script did not foster either widespread literacy or economic success, and to Taiwan, Korea, and Japan, countries with complex writing systems where literacy levels now approach those of Europe and who now give economic aid to economically unsound East European nations with well-established traditions of mass alphabetic literacy.

                  Many psychologists have conceded the oral/literate distinctions are more complex than they initially imagined, though they seem reluctant to give up the notion that reading and writing are very special activities. It is attractive to see literacy as a watershed in human development; it is simply difficult to prove what difference it has made. Some investigators have begun to argue that literacy may have certain definite effects on language processing and other aspects of cognition as well. For example, Paul Saenger (1991) challenges the common linguistic assumption that speakers of a language have intuitive knowledge of what constitutes words or sentences in their language, and that native speakers can divide sentences into subjects and predicates. He asserts instead that such knowledge comes only as a result of the increased emphasis on linguistic structure that accompanies learning to read and write.

                  Cranking the discussion up to the next level, converts to the computer argue that electronic communication is introducing a new sort of cognition into the literacy debate. According to them, the computer will take the possibilities of symbolic interaction an order of magnitude higher than that of script or the printed book. If we think the invention of writing and print made a difference to human cognition, forcing it into a linear, logical, historical and objective awareness, well, they say, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. The practitioners of hypermedia in particular promise an entirely new, nonlinear, associative way of reading texts-or perhaps I should say interacting with them-that will improve learning and literature. Writing, after all, is not a linear process, although written texts give the illusion that it is. Texts are often composed hesitantly, in chunks, recursively, all out of order, and then are edited and spliced into a final form that gives the impression they were done in a single session, from start to finish. We assume, perhaps incorrectly, that reading is a linear process because texts in their final form are linear. In fact, though I myself am a linear reader in that I go through most books from start to finish, I know many readers who sample and sift a text rather than reading it front to back, something readers of reference works do customarily as they skip back and forth from index to text till they find what they’re looking for. If this is indeed a more natural way to read, or more natural for those who do it that way, then associatively constructed texts may be more efficient than conventional ones. And someday the electronic book may be as popular with our students as video games are now.

                  Of course it took many centuries for writing, and then print, to have any impact at all on our modern consciousness, whatever that is, and even admitting that time may flow faster in what our undergraduates love to call “this fast-paced modern world of today” than it did during that dark age that stretched from prehistory to the Renaissance, it will be some time before we can assess the impact of computer literacy.

Literacy is a protean term, changing with the times and charged with political meaning. Regardless of its function, literacy is commonly viewed in educational circles as empowerment through reading and writing, two “skills” prerequisite for economic success.  But although Harvey Graff has successfully challenged the commonplace notion that literacy entails socioeconomic rewards, American educational and social policy remains primarily concerned with eliminating illiteracy in children and adults. In some ways, the literacy crisis is a direct result, rather than the cause, of such policy, as we label illiterate an ever-increasing number of people for an ever-increasing variety of reasons.

                  Is there a literacy crisis? That depends on how you measure literacy as well as what you use it for. Schools are generally faulted for low student achievement in literacy, and in more extreme cases, for allowing illiterates to graduate. But a growing number of critics are insisting that the literacy crisis is a media event; that declining test scores are not surprising when more and more of the American population comes under the test umbrella.

                  On a more basic level, experts disagree over how much literacy we may expect from a given population: the psychologist George Miller (1988) is confident that “anyone intelligent enough to master spoken language should be intelligent enough to master written language.”  On the other hand, his colleague Don Norman (personal communication, 1990) wonders whether reading and writing are “at the limit of human abilities, which is why so large a percentage fail.”  And complicating matters still further, despite its intensely positive public image, public response to literacy remains problematic: though literacy continues to be valued as “a good thing,” and we remain convinced that literacy should be readily available through the institution of free, public education, many people either avoid it or do not or cannot go out of their way to pursue it. Despite the hype associated with adult literacy programs, and the zeal with which their instructors approach the problem, their track record is abysmal: attendance is sporadic, the drop-out rate is high. Too many social and personal problems get in the way; too many people who might take advantage of such programs find them inaccessible. For every glowing, emotionallycharged success story there are myriad failures. Whether or not Andrew Sledd is correct in assuming that literacy is not as necessary as we have come to consider it, that it functions as a gatekeeper rather than a liberator, the consumer demand for reading/writing literacy among adults and children is sometimes simply not there.

                  One final question. Can it be that literacy is always compromised when it is placed in a school setting? As an educator, I should prefer to think this is not the case, that those who fail to read and write within our educational system do so not because the system is inherently flawed, but because of social and economic and psychological factors which mark literacy as undesirable or make it unobtainable, and which in some cases the schools are powerless to counter. But I am convinced that so long as we fail to agree on what literacy is, what use it serves, and how we can measure it, we cannot simply blame our schools or our television programs or our dictionaries for failing to instill it.


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