Questioning the Meaning of Literacy

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Readers of Education Week are well informed of the proliferation of types of literacy. They have found, along with stories on adult literacy, several page 1 articles within the past year on other kinds: computer, scientific, religious, economic, and, finally, cultural literacy. Such proliferation makes one question the very meaning of the word.

Current practice seems to be to append the term to any field of knowledge a speaker feels is vital, suggesting that literacy is being defined as mastery of all intrinsically "necessary'' information. But examining the historical use of the term reveals an alternative definition: mastery of the best current skills of inquiry. Behind these alternative definitions lie conflicting philosophies of education.

In an 1883 issue of The New England Journal of Education, the term "literacy'' was used to describe merely the ability to read and write, a meaning derived from the word's etymological significance as the knowledge of letters. Some people then viewed this narrow knowledge base as all that was inherently necessary for a person to be an efficient machine operator--or to be cultured. Education was a matter of learning facts.

But others considered knowledge of letters in its generic character an efficient means of inquiry. In the 19th century, before the wide development of scientific and technological research, reading was the main avenue for learning things beyond one's personal experience. Once one could read, one could acquire any information from the written human record--the purpose being to question and enlarge upon that which was already known.

One 19th-century educator who treated literacy as mastery of inquiry rather than of information was Horace Mann. He saw reading, along with observation of nature, as a tool for thinking that would enable the literate to escape the bonds of ignorance and convention:

The wealth and prosperity of Massachusetts are not owing to natural position or resources ... Their origin is good thinking, carried out into good action; and intelligent reading in a child will result in good thinking in the man or woman.

But in the selection of books for school libraries ... never ask for the introduction of any book because it favors the distinctive views of ... sect or party.

... Strengthen the intellect of children, by exercise upon the objects and laws of Nature; ... and, as far as public measures, applicable to all, can reach, you have the highest human assurance that, when they grow up, they will adopt your favorite opinions, if they are right, or discover the true reasons for discarding them, if they are wrong.

In the 20th century, the skills used in inquiry have evolved. Learning the human record still depends in large part upon reading, but participating in the advance of human understanding is now recognized to depend on mastery of skills in scientific and technological research and development. Such mastery does not call for filling students with the results of past scientific and technological inquiries. Rather, it requires for modern literacy that students master modern tools of inquiry. They should learn the languages of number as well as of letters; they should master electronic and other instruments of observation, experimentation, and testing.

Some have responded to the new situation by calling for "scientific'' and "economic'' literacy. Using the term to identify information from distinct fields, they argue that youths should be taught the answers that adults have arrived at in such specialized fields--a mistake Wendell Johnson urged us to avoid two generations ago, when he wrote People in Quandaries:

In the main, knowledge has been given the student, but not a method for adding to it or revising it--except the method of authority, of going to the book, of asking the Old Man. The chief aim of education has been to make the child another Old Man, to pour the new wines of possibility into the old bottles of tradition.

The April 1 edition of this newspaper reports just such a mistake in the move for economic literacy. Twenty-seven states require some form of economics instruction, teaching basic concepts that are supposed to make students better decisionmakers and citizens. But the basic concepts taught represent a particular version of economic analysis--that which finds markets "naturally'' organizing and controlling economic activity. Students are told to take wants and scarce resources as basic data, rather than as socially determined patterns of behavior and belief. They are taught that supply and demand are facts of life, not assumption-laden interpretations of a narrow range of phenomena of exchange.

After teaching economics for 20 years, there is nothing I want less than students "literate'' in such thought patterns. The gravest shortcoming of my students is not a lack of economic "information,'' but rigid thinking that makes them unable to observe phenomena directly or to evaluate alternative patterns of analysis. Even many who have not studied economics before coming to college unconsciously accept the validity of supply-and-demand concepts. Such a preconception makes them incapable of understanding, much less evaluating, unconventional analyses such as those of Thorstein Veblen or John Maynard Keynes or Buckminster Fuller.

My students are like those Newtonian physicists who had to die before Einstein's ideas could be widely taught, whose "literacy'' in the conventional wisdom prevented them from mastering or appreciating advances of human understanding. Einstein himself well recognized the problem; he would not have called mastery of information "literacy'':

Concepts that have proved useful for ordinary things easily assume so great an authority over us that we forget their terrestrial origin and accept them as unalterable facts. They then become labeled as "conceptual necessities,'' a priori situations. The road of scientific progress is frequently blocked for long periods by such errors. It is therefore not just an idle game to exercise our ability to analyze familiar concepts, and to demonstrate the conditions on which their justification and usefulness depend. In this way, they are deprived of their excessive authority.

When I read calls for facts-oriented curricula and for competence in placing information in pre-existing schemata, I recognize a "literacy'' that is antithetical to inquiry. Students would not be encouraged to question, but would instead be constantly tested on their acceptance of the concepts and substantive answers now accepted by the experts. Teachers who would thus define literacy as information mastery condemn themselves to making incoherent and interminable lists of "What Literate Americans Know,'' turning schools into knowledge bowls, and giving students answers to questions they have not asked.

If, however, educators wish to follow the historical precedent of treating literacy as mastery of the best extant tools of inquiry, we can turn schools into places of inquiry and engage in genuine discussions with our students. We can demonstrate that no information is intrinsically valuable, but gains significance only as it is relevant to particular inquiries. We will then participate in the continuum of inquiry so well described by John Dewey half a century ago, and produce a whole nation (if we are incapable of thinking of mankind) capable of operating at the frontiers of knowledge.

Vol. 6, Issue 31, Page 28

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