Scholar Targets Popular Culture as Literacy’s Toughest Foe

By Robert Rothman — September 28, 1989 4 min read

Columbus, Ohio--America’s most serious literacy problem may not be the minority of youths unable to read and write, but the generally low level of students’ “public literacy,” a leading educator told participants at a conference on the subject here.

Theodore R. Sizer, chairman of Brown University’s education department and the author of Horace’s Compromise, defined public literacy as the shared knowledge--from television, textbooks, and popular culture--that enables young people to communicate with each other.

And he said its current level of sophistication is so low that it may impede, rather than facilitate, full participation in society for some.

“We are not talking, when we talk about literacy, about a vacuum,” Mr. Sizer said.

He said that today’s “public literacy,” driven by commercial interests that include an increasingly centralized test and textbook industry, has reduced complex ideas to “small snippets” and visual images.

Educators must begin working with a wide range of groups, he said, to boost the quality of textbooks, television programs, and other cultural influences on students.

Mr. Sizer spoke at a conference sponsored by the Modern Language Association, which brought together more than 600 teachers, college and university faculty members, adult-literacy instructors, and corrections officials to discuss what literacy is and how it can best be transferred.

Officials described the Sept. 16-18 conference as an attempt by the scholarly group to “reach out beyond the ivory tower” and address fundamental problems in society.

Mr. Sizer applauded that effort, but said educators must go beyond what they have traditionally considered their domain. They must also turn their attention, he said, to the familiar, shared influences that determine “public literacy.”

“Intramural debates about deconstruction, critical theory, and the canon fill the [academic] air,” he said, “while tens of millions of Americans watch [the television program] ‘Cheers.”’

‘Literacy Is Political’

According to Helene Moglen, professor of English at the University of California at Santa Cruz, the mla’s efforts to reach beyond its traditional constituency began in 1983, when the association created a commission on writing and literature to smooth the “troubled rela8tions” between those fields.

That panel quickly concluded that discussions on common interests must also include precollegiate and adult-education teachers, said Ms. Moglen, the panel’s chairman.

“Teachers of reading and writing, from 1st grade to graduate school and beyond, could all be described as literacy workers,” she said.

Andrea A.W. Lunsford, professor of English at Ohio State University, said the commission also concluded that the literacy issue needs to be examined more critically.

“Literacy is one of those words that does not carry a negative connotation,” she noted.

But, in fact, Ms. Moglen said, “there are many kinds of literacy.”

“We should refrain from jumping on the literacy bandwagon,” she said, “without questioning the motives of those doing the driving.”

“We can pretend literacy is neutral, but it is not neutral,” she added. “It is political.”

Thoughtful Disputation

Other conference participants argued that traditional definitions are inadequate, if the goal of literacy efforts is to ensure fuller participation in society.

Acquiring the ability to read and write is not enough to ensure equal opportunity for blacks, noted Thomas Holt, professor of history at the University of Chicago.

“I believe knowledge is intrinsically empowering,” he said, but “education as a system does not stand off in pristine isolation from the main currents of society.”

Similarly, Mr. Sizer noted that a listing of common facts and knowledge all literate persons should share--such as that proposed by E.D. Hirsch Jr. in Cultural Literacy--"is necessary, but not the beginning of sufficiency.”

Rather, he suggested, “a rich definition” of literacy would include a range of controversial viewpoints and minority voices.

“No assistant secretary of education should ever pick it out and hammer it into a test,” he added.

Literacy instruction, Mr. Sizer said, should promote “habits ofthoughtfulness” that encourage students to question what they learn.

“For my money,” he said, “a literate person is one who can dispute in a thoughtful way.”

‘Set One’s House in Order’

Achieving such a goal, he and others argued, will require that educators reform their own practices and enlist the support of a broad spectrum of potential allies.

James Sledd, professor emeritus of English at the University of Texas at Austin, urged conference participants to encourage universities to stop “brutalizing” graduate students and part-time instructors, who usually bear the brunt of composition teaching duties.

“We should begin at home with a sustained attempt to break the system of exploitation in our own departments,” he said. “One should set one’s own house in order before sermonizing others.”

In addition, Mr. Sizer suggested, educators should lobby for tax incentives to encourage the distribution of high-quality publications, and press the television industry to increase the supply of high-quality programming.

Shirley Brice Heath, professor of anthropology and education at Stanford University, predicted that business leaders would be receptive to such efforts.

“Literacy is more than acquiring the mechanics of reading and writing,” she said, “it is saying what something means, hypothesizing outcomes, and comparing and evaluating. These are the skills that future employers want.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 27, 1989 edition of Education Week as Scholar Targets Popular Culture as Literacy’s Toughest Foe