small fate of "illiteracy" looms large

The word “illiteracy” gives me pause.
No, that’s not quite right.

When I hear or read the word “illiteracy” I stop cold.

The word “illiteracy” inflicts in me a sensation of violent nausea wherein my brow remains furrowed for several minutes and I incur the wrath of the involuntary teeth-mashing that starts in the face of acts of egregious inhumanity. It is a wonder that reading words about others’ horrid behaviors can induce this reaction, even more so, in my experience, than other modes of expression. See for instance these recent tweets by Teju Cole, author of Open City and a book review recently published in the New York Times about Andre Aciman’s new book, Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere.  [An aside before you delve into the small fates that Cole composes on Twitter: it is difficult to accept the recent claims by Noam Chomsky about the “shallow” nature of this medium after reading tweets written by a writer whose words, about the worlds he sees and discovers as well as those he brings together to let readers into the worlds of many others – including that of Aciman’s and the citizens of Lagos – with respect, irony, and a haunting beauty that moves his readers to write back, to interact, to engage, and to wonder aloud.]

Nsofor, 57, head of the vigilantes in Nwangele, entered a girl of four.

In Justice Yahaya's courtroom in Kano, Hamza got 24 months for child rape, and Sani got 30 for marijuana possession.

Déjà vu. At Mediterranean Park in Abuja, words failed Sunday Nzeh, so he stuck a pen in Sarah Odere’s eye.

If it’s not one thing, it’s your mother. With petrol and matches, Akinkuotu, of Ondo, orphaned himself.

In 140 characters or less, Cole’s distillations of news from Lagos newspapers deliver a punch (to the gut, to the psyche, to the soul), even more potent, perhaps, than the fuller length accounts of the always human and often inhumane acts he chooses to remix. His are words about actions that may go unheard or overlooked, in part simply by virtue of their geographical distance from our daily lives and partially because of the metaphorical and metaphysical walls we build in our attempts to hyper-focus on our immediate and proximal realities. In giving those realities of distanced others a wider and varied audience, Cole brings their happenings, both familiar and strange, through our phones and laptops into our conscious minds; often these remixes, that serve as poignant social commentary on that which might otherwise be accepted as “normal” behaviors and acceptable social practices, demand our attention precisely because of their abhorrence.

But while such visceral reactions, such as the one described above, may be understandable in light of the small fates about which Cole writes, one might wonder why and how the concept of “illiteracy” evokes the same. For context, I turn to a recently published column in the local news website, Philly.com, written by Inquirer columnist Karen Heller titled, “Illiteracy,the scourge of Philadelphia.” In it she correlates “illiteracy” with poverty – and in so doing, borders on accusations of causation – and proceeds to accomplish what she likely set out to do: disrupt social malaise long enough to evoke discomfiture in readers who may otherwise place themselves at a far remove from the realities she asserts.  Presumably, the logic might go, if we taught more kids to decode print in a timely fashion, socioeconomic disparity would be grossly alleviated, if not eliminated altogether. This is not an indictment of Heller; she is writing in the socially acceptable language of literacy that, despite more than ample evidence to the contrary, remains squarely framed as “reading at an eighth-grade level and possessing basic math and computer skills, abilities that more than half a million residents are missing.”  We – that is, researchers, educators, writers in and of multiple media – still have far to go, it seems, before we are able to effectively disrupt the social imaginary on matters related to literacy and language practices.

The distaste, the sheer disdain I have for the word “illiteracy” lies in assumptions that the word carries about all who are unfortunate enough to be viewed through its veil. Although Heller relies on quotes from Judith Rényi and Lisa Schorr, both of whom have been appointed to educational roles within the administration of the city of Philadelphia, her column underscores the wide reach of the topic of literacy as it becomes ensnared with other social ills such as unemployment and incarceration. Heller writes:
"Uncorrected, a lack of literacy remains a lifelong disability. "A person walking around illiterate at 35 is going to be illiterate 50 years from now," Rényi says. That 50 years translates into low-level or no employment, an ongoing dependence on social services, or worse. Most of Philadelphia's prison population reads below the fourth-grade level, demonstrating few resources for legal employment."
Her column, like the writing of other columnists and journalists who will continue to, as they have in the past, inform the collective mind of the populous, carries weight. Perhaps one column of 500 words may not change anything, but a few hundred words here, an evening news story there, a blog post that captures the attention of a political machine eager for an educational soundbyte – an especially dangerous possibility as we enter the next presidential election cycle – and suddenly we may find ourselves on the precipice of another No Child Left Behind. Teachers' hands and tongues become tied when, as a nation, we are prone to follow and vote for a catchy slogan over what may be jarring prose. Words matter.

Children and adults walk into classrooms prepared to learn and too often they are castigated for what they lack; so all-consuming must be this practice of judgment and evaluation that it is a wonder any learning happens at all in schools and other institutions of purported learning. In seeking to teach, educators are steered away from the education already thriving in the lives of their students. If we change nothing else – that is, if we continue to strive for print proficiency in children and all adults, adhere to common content and communicative standards, while navigating the tricky waters of an increasingly inexplicable testing culture (clearly hell-bent on ensuring its own existence above all else) – but remove “illiteracy” from our vocabularies of categorization, then we will have made a significant change. To view someone as “illiterate” is not merely a neutral or socio-demographic designation. It is an act of dehumanization. 

Words matter. The word “illiteracy” matters. And insofar as “illiteracy” will continue to inflict educational and psychic damage – and keep the proverbial wheels squarely situated in slippery mud – a simple shift toward literacies can provide openings for understanding the literate lives and the meaning-full existences of students, older and newer, toward new starting points that are more likely to yield "outcomes" that the warriors against "illiteracy" claim to desire.

Perhaps this is better expressed as a small fate:

Angel told stories to anyone who listened. His teachers insisted they couldn’t teach him or hear his words unless they were written down.

1 comment:

EC said...

"In seeking to teach, educators are steered away from the education already thriving in the lives of their students"

Please expand and explain. (I wish I saw more education already thriving in my students' lives!) I guess I should read some of the things you cite in other posts, like the book about multimodal literacies in harlem. But when I taught in harlem back in the nineties, I saw a lot of wonderful people with wonderful skills, but I also saw a lot of parents who wanted their children to be more traditionally "literate" and didn't know how to make that happen.