Sunday, March 07, 2010

Response to Graff - The Literacy Myth

Harvey J. Graff, The Literacy Myth: Cultural Integration and Social Structure in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Academic Press, 1979. 

To begin with, in the modern era, literacy is considered a basic human right. According to UNESCO: 
  • “Literacy is a human right, a tool of personal empowerment and a means for social and human development. Educational opportunities depend on literacy. Literacy is at the heart of basic education for all, and essential for eradicating poverty, reducing child mortality, curbing population growth, achieving gender equality and ensuring sustainable development, peace and democracy. There are good reasons why literacy is at the core of Education for All (EFA).” (From
 If one believes this rhetoric, then the savior of the word is being able to read. However, I agree with Jean Anyon (2005) in her book Radical Possibilities that all the education in the world will not help with providing accessible, well-paying jobs to ethnic minorities in the US. Being schooled and literate does not guarantee a job, a good home, stable relationships or respect – however, I will agree that it can open doors that are otherwise closed.
However, Graff states that some statistics show that people who are literate are less content with material possessions as people who are illiterate. In addition, literacy is tied to modern values such as openness to experiences, independence, self-efficacy, ambition, planning and world awareness. I think it is more the tie of schooling and literacy. In school, students are socialized to be competitive and want to do better. Although a C is average, few parents are satisfied with average, and so students are constantly pushed to do better. I would also have to admit that being highly schooled and literate, I am more discontent than in my youth. I know that there is always more to learn and not enough time to learn it all, and that I will never be an expert. I might be romanticizing, but I do remember a time when I was young, working on the farm, that the day began with chores and ended with chores, but there was a sense of accomplishment and finality of each day. Now as an academic, the words continue to flow, after the computer is turned off or the book is shut, and my mind never seems to rest. Is this an influence of literacy?

Literacy in North America has a strong link to morality. This is not new information for me, as a reading teacher, I've seen many examples of the early readers such as the Horn Book. Throughout the development of educational materials, the theme of morality or character education has permeated. Even in choosing high school texts, we are supposed to find something that teaches the students a theme or lesson, not just for read for entertainment. 
A new piece of information for me was the literacy rates of the immigrate population. As immigrants to North America, they had slightly higher literacy rates than the general population of their home countries. Plus, the farther the migration path, the higher the rate of literacy, so for the Irish moving to Great Britain, the rate is lower, yet to North America, a bit higher. Now that I think about it, being literate would make the move a little easier, but if literacy is also tied to openness to experiences, independence, self-efficacy, ambition, planning and world awareness, then the rate of literacy for migrants would be higher. Migrants, in general, tended to me more adaptive, integrated, and resourceful.

The myth of meritocracy is also not a new idea, but Graff explicitly shows that race and ethnicity had a much stronger role in getting ahead in society than literacy. Yet, at the same time, wealth and position was not dependent on literacy, as skilled workers could be illiterate and still attain middle class citizenship. Many illiterates lived and/or worked with literates, which would allow the person to get textual information, as reading aloud was a common practice. Many of the poorest people in the three cities were literate, yet poor become of ethnicity, gender or age. 
Mass schooling arose in response to urbanization with the intent to: teach habits and values, social discipline, work skills, cultural norms, national identity and finally, literacy. The purpose of schooling was more about acculturation than about reading/writing. It fulfilled the needs of a capitalistic ideals such as timeliness, discipline, and direction following. To get people on board, policymakers had to convince people that education was the path to personal mobility and societal well-being. The policymakers promised a change in the social order – doing away with social ascription and instituting meritocracy. This reasoning is still clearly ringing in the halls of American government.
Coming from a working class family, I was one of the first to graduate from university – which I always believed was built on the hard work of my grandparents, parents and me. I believed that through my own hard work and determination, I was a success. However, this isn't totally true, as much of my success has to do with knowing the right people and being in the right place at the right time – in others words, luck. Throughout my education, I was introduced to people who “elevated” my working-class mentality, opened doors through recommendations, and gave me the economic resources to succeed. I am one of the “border-crossers” who moved from working class to middle class, which, without reflection, seems to support the ideology of meritocracy. But take one of the influential people out of my life, and like a missing rung in the ladder of social mobility, I may not have made it. Yet, for each border-crosser like me, there are many more who don't have the opportunity.

In addition, Graff cites the working class organizations that were disappointed with the middle class attitudes and values the schools were teaching. In their view, reading was a social and home practice and needn't be emphasized in schools, but rather, practical working skills were needed. For as much as the policymakers professed education for social mobility, the fact remained that industrialization did not demand more skilled labor and in actuality decreased the urban literacy rates. Schools were for “training in being trained” (p. 230).  

Finn (2009) in his book, Literacy with an attitude: Educating working-class children in their own self-interest highlights a Jean Anyon study of fifth grade classrooms in five New Jersey schools, which run the gambit of executive elite to working class poor. Although in many cases the curricular material was similar, if not identical, the pedagogy was completely different. Working class children were highly controlled and taught through teacher-centered, direct methods. She concluded that, “these children were developing a relationship to the economy, authority, and work that is appropriate preparation to wage labor” (p. 12). There wasn't clear problems with the teaching of the working class students, such as untrained teachers, lack of materials or racist attitudes. The rooms were well-ordered and students were completing work. However, the dispositions the students were cultivating were domesticating (ie – breaking a horse). The goal was not to educate, but to domesticate, which was why direct methods work well with working-class students.

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