Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Literacy, Power, History

I have been thinking on a subject for a time now. I recently realized at the Alternative Education Resource Organization's annual conference that I was not alone in my curiousity. We were discussing the problem of access to low SES communities, many times non-white folks, in most forms of alternative education.

The schools at the conference expressed a genuine desire to offer their services to a diverse group of kiddos, yet were having trouble working through the logistics, generally financially, involved in doing so.

Someone, at some point in the discussion, brought up the idea that there may be varied expectations amongst different communities in regards to the importance and necessity of public education. Specifically, this person added that one very integral tenet of the Civil Rights Movement was this idea of educational accessability, and that to suggest that parents send their children to 'free, democratic, open' schools may be seen as a slap in the face of the Movement and its leaders. Indeed, there are those that might see the loosening of standards for inner city kids and children in positions of poverty as being an attempt to further the subjugation of their futures; an attempt to mirror the oppression that existed in the near past with a program shrouded in progressivism.

Personally, I don't think this is the intention with the majority of alternative schools, based on my interactions, although I can see from whence comes the speculation.

There is another facet of this conversation that strikes me as quite intriguing. Having a specialization in literacy development, and being an avid reader myself, I have a very personal tie with the following discussion as it relates to access. The debate is about literacy, but specifically the debate over the importance of teaching skills, and attainement of skills for the aforementioned population. In general, there is a view of skills which is related the above issue.

Many folks see the historical implications of literacy attainement in the stories of countless slaves and freedmen. Folks such as Frederick Douglass have been cited as those for whom literacy has provided empowerment, hope, and a real-life means of expressing the true horrors of slavery. This definition of literacy has not been totally lost, and education movements around the world have tapped into the idea as a means of structuring empowering literacy development.

Given this historical implication, there are many folks out there who shudder at the idea of focusing on anything other than pure skills, specifically literacy decoding and encoding, in the early grades. The sentiment is that one would be rendered powerless without a means mobility.

However, there exists in this logic a flaw which, although not large in size, is greatly massive in effect. There is a concept referred to as a 'language of power.' This is the type of literacy with which Frederick Douglass was involved, and is the literacy with which goverment leaders and academics use. It is a language that gives these folks access to vast amounts of social capital with which to improve their statuses. This is the literacy needed for empowerment.

Unfortunately, the literacy taught in most traditional public schools is not a literacy of power. Rather, it is a skills-based literacy, devoid of curiousity, devoid of love of reading, devoid of critical thinking and critical analysis. Children are not asked to question what they read, nor are they asked to consider their place in the world, as well as their place in the evolution of the human being and of the planet.

I see that there is a disconnect here that must be discussed. The idea of literacy as empowering not necessarily true, rather situationally. The idea of power relationships must be explored, explicitly and critically, in everything that students encounter as they perfect reading and writing. Without a program that allows students to think critically, understanding will fall outside of a literacy of power, thereby subjugating the oppressed under the thumb of the oppressor, which is the status quo.

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