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Social construction of literacy


Recent years have witnessed a rejection of what is now perceived to be an elitist and colonialist kind of literacy. The 'primitive' vs. 'civilized' dichotomy implied by the theory of the Great Divide between oral cultures (with little or no use of writing) and literate cultures (with a fuller utilization of writing and print), taken for granted until twenty years ago, is now put in question. Individual literacy has given way to the notion of multiple literacies as a plural set of social practices within social contexts of use. Thus, besides the traditional belletristic literacy, scholars now recognize other sorts of literacies linked to various genres (for example, literary literacy, press literacy, instructional manuals literacy, scientific literacy) that all have to do with the mastery of, or fluent control over, social uses of print language. In this regard, to be literate means not only to be able to encode and decode the written word, or to do exquisite text analyses; it is the capacity to understand and manipulate the social and cultural meanings of print language in thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Literacy, because it is not acquired naturally like orality, and is usually learned in schools, has long been confused with schooling. The cognitive skills claimed to devolve naturally from the ability to read and write have been shown to be due not to the written language per se, but to a distinct kind of schooling that prizes certain uses of language over others, whether it be spoken or written. The general educational value given to the ability to 'talk like a book' - i.e. to narrate events in clearly organized, analytical fashion, to construct an argument according to the logic of thesis-antithesis-synthesis, or problem-evidence-solution, to respond to 'what' and 'why' questions on texts, to convey information clearly and succinctly - stems from a belief that a context-reduced, topic-centered literacy is useful for all in all walks of life. Not everyone shares this belief, however; some argue that in occupations like the service or the marketing industries, or in the writing of novels or poems, other types of literacies are required, that schools traditionally do not impart. Furthermore, children from different social backgrounds bring to school different types of literacies, not all of which are validated by school literacy practices. For example, in the United States, children from African-American families might display a highly context-embedded, analogic, associative way of telling or writing stories that the school doesn't recognize as acceptable literate practice, whereas middle-class Anglos might have from home a more context-reduced, analytic, hierarchical narrative style that they find reinforced in the way schools teach texts.

If the acquisition of literacy is more than a matter of learning a new technology, but is indissociably linked to the values, social practices, and ways of knowing promoted in educational institutions, it may become the source of cultural conflict when the values of the school do not match those of the home. Such is the case in Alaska and Northern Canada, for example, where the Athabaskans' ways of learning and knowing are radically different from those of mainstream Anglo-Canadian and Anglo-American society. Even if they learn to read and write in English, Athabaskan children resist adopting Anglo-Saxon schooling practices that expect them, for example, to state their opinion about a text, take a point of view and defend it, display their abilities in front of others in the class, and speculate about future events- all verbal behaviors that are considered inappropriate in their own culture.

The two perspectives on literacy - literacy as mastery of the written medium, literacy as social practice - correspond to two different ways of viewing a stretch of written language: as text or as discourse. Each one has a different relation to the cultural context in which it is produced and received.


Text and discourse


The notion of text views a stretch of written language as the product of an identifiable authorial intention, and its relation to its context of culture as fixed and stable. Text meaning is seen as identical with the semantic signs it is composed of: text explication is used to retrieve the author's intended meaning, text deconstruction explores the associations evoked by the text. In both cases, however, neither what happens in the mind of the readers nor the social context of reception and production are taken into consideration. Such processes are the characteristics of discourse. A text cannot be given fuller meaning if it is not viewed also as discourse. To illustrate this, let us return to the Emily Dickinson poem of Chapter 1.

Essential Oils - are wrung –

The Attar from the Rose

Be not expressed by Suns - alone –

It is the gift of Screws -

The General Rose - decay –

But this - in Lady's Drawer

Make Summer - When the Lady lie

In Ceaseless Rosemary -


Like all others texts, this poem encodes cultural meaning through various cohesive devices that ensure logical and rhetorical continuity across sentences (see Chapter 2). For example, the deictic 'this' (The General Rose - decay - / But this - in Lady's Drawer) links 'the General Rose' and 'the Lady's Drawer', thus establishing a crucial cohesion between the two parts of the poem. But if we look more closely, 'this', followed by the silent dash and anchored in the perspective of the poet, seems to address the reader directly, by pointing to something outside the poem. Indeed, 'this' seems to refer to the poem itself, offered by the poet to the reader. The literate voice of the poem is here replaced by the orate engagement of the poem with the reader as a person. We can now view the deictic 'this' as either a demonstrative referring back to a prior element in the text (i.e. the antecedents 'Attar' or 'gift of Screws'), or as a new element pointing to the ongoing discourse between text and reader. In the first case, it is a cohesive device. In the second, it is a crucial factor of coherence.

As we saw in Chapter 2, cohesion brings cultural meaning into play within the text itself; coherence is established by the discourse it elicits between printed words and their readers. As in spoken exchanges (see Chapter 4), coherence is constructed by the reader who puts the signs on the page in relation with a variety of factors that can be found in the cultural context.

Coherence plays a particularly important role with poetic texts that are meant to engage the reader's emotions and sensibility, but it can also be found in other written texts. Take, for example, the label found on aspirin bottles:

warning: Keep this and all medication out of the reach of children. As with any drug, if you are pregnant or nursing a baby, seek the advice of a health professional before using this product. In the case of accidental overdosage, contact a physician or poison control center immediately.

This text is coherent, i.e. it makes sense for a reader who knows from prior personal or vicarious experience that drugs are bad both for children and for pregnant women, who understands the difference between a health professional and a physician, and who understands why you would go to the former if you are pregnant and to the latter if you had taken too much aspirin. In addition to prior experience, the reader makes sense of this text by associating it with other texts entitled 'warning', such as appear near electrical wires, places off limits and dangerous substances. However, prior experience and prior texts are not sufficient to render this text coherent. Why is it entitled 'warning' where the danger is not explicitly stated? Why should one go and seek help only in case of an 'accidental' overdose? Why does the text say 'overdosage' instead of 'overdose'? In order to make the text coherent, we have to draw on the two other contextual factors mentioned above; the text's purpose, and its conditions of production.

The pharmaceutical company that issued this warning wants to avoid lawsuits, but it also wants to avoid spreading panic among aspirin users, who might thereby refrain from buying the product. Thus it does not want to highlight the word 'dangerous' on its bottle, nor does it want to use the word 'overdose' because of its too close associations with the drug traffic scene. It wants to create the image of a reader as an intelligent mainstream person who could not possibly take an overdose of aspirin, unless by accident. The commercial and legal interests, i.e. the corporate culture, of the company have to be drawn into the interpretation of this text, in order to make it into a coherent discourse.

One of the greatest sources of difficulty for foreign readers is less the internal cohesion of the text than the cultural coherence of the discourse. For example, a sentence like 'Although he was over 10 years old, he still lived at home' written for an American readership, draws on the readers' cultural knowledge concerning young men's independence from their families, but might not be self-evident for readers from a culture where young men continue to live at home well into their twenties. Conversely, a sentence like Ich habe Spaghetti gekocht, weil Kartoffeln heutzutage so teuer sind (I made spaghetti for dinner, because potatoes are so expensive nowadays), written for a German reader, draws on the cultural fact that many Germans always have potatoes with their meals; it may sound odd to an American reader with other culinary habits. The ability of the reader to interpret such logical connections shows how much coherence is dependent on the context of the literacy event itself.


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