Thursday, October 1, 2009

You either have it, or you don't: What is Literacy?

When asked what it means to be literate, most might respond that it means to have a solid understanding of the processes of reading and writing. And, at this absolute statement, the description stops; the party questioned might be shocked or insulted to endure further probing into the question for other definitions, because they have been conditioned that one either has or has not got literacy. It is a thing. It is a tangible and tactile tool which is tied into the patterned, individual and social consciousnesses of the intellectual hierarchy. It is something that helps the possessor overcome situations that the illiterate person would not understand. But it is not just that, it is so much more. Literacy bears no weight on intelligence. Literacy only stands to serve as a medium to reach a desired goal; and, in this sense it is a tool. But, literacy takes incalculable forms, so that in this it cannot be independently defined as only being related to a particular facet.

For instance, when given the analogy of the computer, one might say that there is a possibility for literacy with knowing a computer. However, computers require neither conventional reading skills nor the mastery of writing. So where does the archetypal definition of literacy fit into this analogy? It doesn’t, except for the delineation that literacy is a tool. It is the consequence of having an understanding of how a computer works. So, it can be said that literacy and illiteracy act as binaries: either having or not having. The question is: Having what?

Education, experience, understanding are byproducts of applied literacy. Take, for example, the “uneducated” man who has not completed the fifth grade. He cannot spell “octopus” if his life depends on it, yet excels in his field of pinball mechanics because he has acquired an understanding of the way these machines work. He, through his growth and understanding, goes on to apply his literacy in the mechanical/electrical fields to contribute many inventions to the world¾the first joystick video game, etc. This man is my grandfather. He is a hick, born and raised. By the classical definition he is illiterate.

This definition is one that most people still grow up to know, because the world of academia imposes this view upon them. It does so, because it requires its citizens to function in a manner according to the structure of the game. This structural-functionalist approach to literacy can, however, change¾as it recently has. Computers are quickly becoming a staple of the modern definition of literacy, because the new demands of the game are to include computer-literate citizens. This may benefit some, though it may harm others. A generation of literate people has, in the blink of an eye, become illiterate because the game suddenly changed. Though, they might still deem themselves literate, the collective judges otherwise.

Academia needs to emphasize the importance of a literacy definition based around the myriad of applications the literate person can perform. For example, the English teacher teaching his students brings to literacy the supposition that reading and writing are important for an understanding of books, which convey ideas that help one become more literate in any desirable direction. Concomitantly, the science teacher teaches his students the causes and effects of nature; at the same time his focus should revolve around the idea that to become scientifically literate, one will also be literate in reasoning and problem solving, etc.

In my classroom, as a rising English teacher, I plan to stray from the canonized sources. I want to open up a child’s mind to the fact that literacy comes not just from reading novels, poems, essays. There is a great deal of literacy to be found in the graphic novel, the film, oral tradition. Anyone that denies that literacy can be found in a picture need only look to the saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Those words just need to be uncovered, inferred. To do that, one must be taught to be literate in these facets. I plan to include these into my lessons, because these (like reading and writing) are sub-themes which are a part of the mega-theme teachers really try to impart: how to be better thinkers and communicators. It is for the betterment of humanity that we teach. It is for the betterment of the individual that he or she becomes literate. The more ways I can impact a life, I believe, the better teacher I will be. So why would I not? Because it goes against the system that teaches us to read and write. Because the game is not structured that way.

Then what do we do as teachers when we are not allowed to take liberties and teach like we want? Become bankers? No. We need to incorporate our understanding of literacy into the game so that we subvert the structure without revolting against it. I could give examples, but they would be too many to number; because, remember, literacy appears in innumerable ways. However, I will say this: I will try at every given opportunity to impart that literacy is not the end; it is only the medium or process of achieving a desired goal.

Literacy is indefinable, because it is all encompassing. It is perceived, not attained. It is not tactile and neutral. It is active and dynamic, and a part of becoming more aware of something that is worth becoming more aware about. Defining and practicing a modern definition of literacy can help to change the structure which so dysfunctionally controls current social and individual ideologies. It can change the game, and make it worth playing. So it’s not whether you have it or you don’t, it’s how you play the game.

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