Hamilton 1


Buffy Hamilton

ELAN 8005

Response Paper: Literacy in American Lives

June 24, 2005



 “The tendency to ass...
Hamilton 2


at a particular historical moment in a socially specific environment, cannot fail to brush

up against thousa...
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layers of sponsoring influences---in families, workplaces, schools, memory----carry

forms of literacy that h...
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special difficulty for Americans of all ages is the reality that, “As new and powerful

forms of literacy eme...
Hamilton 5


generations of Americans from the early part of the last century to overcome a modest or

limited reservoir o...
Hamilton 6


of literacy, it is no wonder that the threats and rewards have little positive impact in

cultivating lifelon...
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closings, one wonders the impact on the role of the public library as a literacy sponsor

and to what degree ...
Hamilton 8




                                      References


Bakhtin, M. (1981). Discourse in the novel. In The Dialo...
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Response Paper To Literacy In American Lives June 2005 Buffy Hamilton

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Response Paper To Literacy In American Lives June 2005 Buffy Hamilton

  1. 1. Hamilton 1 Buffy Hamilton ELAN 8005 Response Paper: Literacy in American Lives June 24, 2005 “The tendency to assimilate others’ discourse takes on an even deeper and more basic significance in an individual’s ideological becoming, in the most fundamental sense. Another’s discourse performs no longer here as information, directions, rules, models, and so forth--- but strives rather to determine the very bases of our ideological interrelations with the world, the very basis of our behavior…” M. Bakhtin, p. 342, The Dialogic Imagination “For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and reinvention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.” Paulo Freire, p. 72, Pedagogy of the Oppressed Both Bakhtin and Freire take a sociolinguistic view of literacy---language and thought are heavily shaped by a person’s culture. Not only does the immediate culture influence a person’s literacy development, but also culture, language, and thought are dialogic in nature because they transact with a person’s existence and literacy development. Bakhtin views this culminating cultural history as an organic presence in the development of thought and language, asserting, “The living utterance, having taken a meaning and shape
  2. 2. Hamilton 2 at a particular historical moment in a socially specific environment, cannot fail to brush up against thousands of living dialogic threads, woven by socio-ideological consciousness around the given object of an utterance; it cannot fail to become an active participant in social dialogue” (276). Literacy is more than just merely learning how to read and write; the “living dialogic threads” and the “socio-ideological consciousness” in that learner’s life shape access to literacy and the means for acquisition. Like Bakhtin, Freire views knowledge, language, and thought as organic entities that are actively constructed through inquiry and transactions with one’s environment. This critical and sociolinguistic stance on literacy is reflected in the work of Deborah Brandt. In Literacy in American Lives, an ethnography of the literacy histories of eighty Americans, Deborah Brandt critically examines literacy learning, literacy development, and literacy opportunities through the critical lens of sponsors of literacy: “…any agents, local or distant, concrete or abstracts, who enable, support, teach, and model, as well as recruit, regulate, suppress, or withhold literacy---and gain advantage by it in some way…sponsors are delivery systems for the economies of literacy, the means by which these forces present themselves to—and through---individual learners. They also represent the causes into which people’s literacy usually gets required” (19). Brandt views literacy a “valuable---and volatile property” (2) that can potentially help individuals gain “…power or pleasure, [accrue] information, civil rights, education, spirituality, status, [and] money”(7). These literacy sponsors are analogous to Bakhtin’s concept of “thousands of living dialogic threads” because an examination of a person’s literacy sponsors, “… exposes the deeply textured history that lies within the literacy practices of institutions and within any individuals’ literacy experiences. Accumulated
  3. 3. Hamilton 3 layers of sponsoring influences---in families, workplaces, schools, memory----carry forms of literacy that have been shaped out of ideological and economic struggles of the past” (56). All literacy sponsors, past, present, and future, shape a person’s literacy learning, literacy development, and literacy opportunities. Through her analysis of the literacy sponsors and literacy experiences of the subjects of her research study, Brandt concludes that economic and political interests, not the democratic ideals and principles set forth by America’s founding father, heavily influence American literacy experiences and learning inside and outside of the public school system. Whereas literacy was once rooted in religious and democratic ideals, the aim shifted to “…nation building, social conformity, and civil responsibility” (28). Furthermore, Brandt warns that, “The more that private interests take over the educational development of our young citizens, the less of a democracy we will have. The more that the school organizes literacy teaching and learning to serve the needs of the economic system, the more it betrays its democratic possibilities” (205). Brandt’s idea and analysis take on special relevance as America’s public schools grapple with the mandates of federal No Child Left Behind legislation as well as declining numbers of young adults and adults who identify themselves as lifelong readers. Her work goes to the heart of two essential questions: what is the purpose of public education and how do we cultivate lifelong readers? In addition, Brandt’s research addresses a major challenge facing English educators today: cultivating lifelong readers while equipping young students to acquire and develop literacy that will equip them to have full and equal aspect to all facets of American society. This challenge is particularly difficult in this information age that is constantly morphing under the influence of technology. Of
  4. 4. Hamilton 4 special difficulty for Americans of all ages is the reality that, “As new and powerful forms of literacy emerge, they diminish the reach and possibilities of receding ones”(42). How do communities adapt to these changes, and what literacy sponsors are available to help all Americans cultivate literacies that are organic enough to be personally gratifying yet meet the demands of our ever-changing economy? Most importantly, is it possible for literate communities to meet the demands of political and economic interests while providing literacy access and learning experiences that value reading and writing “…as forms of civil rights”(206)? My three overarching questions for this independent study include: What different kinds of literate communities exist, and how are they sponsors of literacy? How do these literate communities and literacy sponsors shape lifelong reading? How do they affect cultural perceptions about reading? How do books and reading define culture? How does culture define books and reading? In Brandt’s study, the primary literate communities for her participants were the local church, the school, the family, and the workplace. Geography, literary heritage and cumulative history, and a person’s historical juxtaposition in time influenced the degree that each of these sponsors played within an individual’s life. For some individuals, public and prison libraries played a major role in their literacy access, development, and experiences. Interestingly, public school libraries were absent from mention in the research study as a literacy sponsor. For most of the research participants, school and family were the major literacy sponsors. While most individuals recalled literacy experiences in the home with a positive attitude, particularly those related to reading, school experiences generally took on negative or neutral connotations unless the individual happened to be in a “gifted” or “accelerated” group. While it was possible for
  5. 5. Hamilton 5 generations of Americans from the early part of the last century to overcome a modest or limited reservoir of literacy, succeeding generations of research participants found it increasingly impossible to capitalize on the literacies that fell outside the dominant class or privileged discourse. Because today’s dynamic concept of literacy now demands that individuals know how to cultivate hybrid and multiple literacies, the issue of equitable access to literacy learning, literacy development, and literacy opportunities takes on paramount significance because literacy is now such a valuable “commodity” and vital for a person to full exercise their civil rights in American society. I believe that it is difficult for older as well as contemporary generations of America to comprehend the volatile nature of literacy in today’s society; consequently, it is difficult for the major sponsors (families and public schools) to adapt the ways and means of providing access and strategies to literacy experiences that will help upcoming generations of Americans to evolve with our ever-changing concepts and skills of modern literacy. One idea that stood out for me was the issue of literacy learning based upon intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Brandt calls for public schools in particular to take on literacy education as a means and tool for promoting equity and democracy, a mode of intrinsic motivation. If we look at the current literacy sponsors that inform literacy education in most American public schools, the sponsors are extrinsic motivators: the power of test scores, a rewards based system like Accelerated Reader, and access to post-secondary education and a more affluent lifestyle. Yet in spite of these powerful extrinsically based literacy sponsors, research from the last fifty years does not show dramatic gains in literacy achievement or lifelong literacy and reading. If literacy education is driven by extrinsically motivated interests, interests that neglect the intrinsic pleasures and benefits
  6. 6. Hamilton 6 of literacy, it is no wonder that the threats and rewards have little positive impact in cultivating lifelong learners and readers. Public schools across the country grasp at every straw and seem to flounder as they strive to “leave no child behind” and use literacy as the equalizer for learners from all segments of society, yet the gaps seem remain or in some cases, increase, as public school administrators direct their teachers to use programs and materials that are produced by literacy sponsors who are feasting on the excess of fear created by No Child Left Behind. Another idea that stood out for me was the relative absence of the library as a relevant literacy sponsor in the lives of the participants interviewed by Brandt. While the American Library Association prides itself on literacy advocacy and as a “…cornerstone of democracy in our communities” (Kranich), very few of the participants identified public libraries as a major literacy sponsor in their lives; no participants mentioned the public school library as a literacy sponsor. The gap between classes, which Brandt asserts is maintained and exacerbated by the status of literacy in our culture (169), was reflected in library use by participants. While public libraries did “…signal cultural value” (151) and a means of self-education (152) to some of the participants, public libraries were primarily accessed by those in urban areas who had easy, safe, and free access to the library (151). The lack of access to libraries in rural areas reflects the historical trend of literacy being least accessible and spreading the slowest to, “…. remote rural areas and newer, poorer industrial areas---a geographic and political legacy that, even today, in the United States, helped to exacerbate inequalities by race, regions, and occupation”(Brandt, p. 88). I could not help but wonder if this finding would hold true if the study were to be replicated? In this age of massive library budget cuts and
  7. 7. Hamilton 7 closings, one wonders the impact on the role of the public library as a literacy sponsor and to what degree these closings and budget cuts may impact access to literacy and the mission of libraries to provide equal access to learning (Kranich). In conclusion, this reading has left with me with more questions than answers. The idea of literacy as a commodity that perpetuates existing inequalities in American society is deeply troubling to me, particularly when I consider Brandt’s theories in light of my own life and my life as both a librarian and English educator. I look forward to now exploring the history of reading and the history of literacy sponsorship in both ancient and modern times. In addition, I am eager to see how the questions that have emerged from this reading will inform my future readings and experiences in this independent study.
  8. 8. Hamilton 8 References Bakhtin, M. (1981). Discourse in the novel. In The Dialogic Imagination: Four essays by M.M. Bakhtin (pp. 259-422). Austin, TX: University of Texas Press. Brandt, D. (2001). Literacy in American Lives. New York: Cambridge University Press. Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum. Kranich, N. (n.d.). Libraries: The cornerstone of democracy. Retrieved June 24, 2005, from American Library Association Web site: http://www.ala.org/ala/ourassociation/governanceb/pastpresidents/nancykranich/c ornerstonedemocracy.htm

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