Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Class, Upward Mobility, and the History of Literacy

Recently, I've been thinking about the issue of upward mobility, especially how education plays a factor in that process. Theoretically, a college education will help ensure that an individual winds up within or above middle class, but the ability to complete that education or make use of that degree is becoming more challenging, especially for those who do not have the advantage of wealth.

In thinking about these issues, I stumbled onto "Literacy, Technology, and Monopoly Capital" by Richard Ohmann in my Cross-Talk in Comp Theory book. The first part of the essay describes the development of the terms "literacy" and "illiteracy" as we use it today. One idea becomes very clear. The term is tied directly to class. Ohmann explains "[literacy education] was a top-down discourse from the start, and its participants almost invariably took the underlying question to be: how can we keep the lower orders docile?" (701). Indeed, the main purpose seemed to be for white men to keep immigrants from taking the country into moral ruin and crime. Ohmann continues on: "Once the lower orders came to be seen as masses and classes, the term 'literacy' offered a handy way to conceptualize an attribute of theirs, which might be manipulated in one direction or the other for the stability of the social order and the prosperity and security of the people who counted" (701). In other words, the people at the top developed education to continue reaping the benefits at the top. I have to admit that reading this brief history of the development of mass education made me feel pretty grimy, but I also have to admit that this 19th century view of education sounds very much like the 21st century view.

Ohmann's history delves into the economic reasons for literacy discourse, as well. He notes that the "dangerous classes" were created by industrialism and the fierce competition. Attempting to avoid falling profits, businessmen continuously cut the wages of workers, which "led to all but open class warfare" (702). This also led to the development of "monopoly capitalism," the type of capitalism that is characterized by large impersonal corporations with multiple tiers of management. All of this was occurring at the end of the 19th century, about the same time literacy discourse, as we know it today, was developing. In Marxist terms, "docile bodies" were needed to work.

Ohmann extends his conversation on literacy to include mass culture and computer literacy. Though published in 1985, his predictions about computer literacy are hauntingly spot-on:
Graduates of MIT will get the challenging jobs; community college grads will be technicians; those who do no more than acquire basic skills and computer literacy in high school will probably find their way to electronic workstations at McDonald's. I see every reason to expect that the computer revolution, like other revolutions from the top down, will indeed expand the minds and the freedom of an elite, meanwhile facilitating the degradation of labor and the stratification of the workforce that have been hallmarks of monopoly capitalism from its onset. (709)

 Is this not our reality today?

In opposition to this top-down regulated literacy construct, Ohmann offers the Cuban campaign to improve the literacy of illiterate peasants. Instead of teachers, brigadistas, tutor/mentors as young as 10-19 years old, volunteered to help their fellow countrymen. The peasants wanted to learn because they saw being literate as a step towards revolution. The system worked well because the people felt they had a purpose, and it was important to their own well-being.

So what can we learn from Ohmann's piece, even though it was written nearly 30 years ago? Literacy crises are made up to suit capitalist needs (What's that? You have bad teachers. Don't worry, we'll make fool-proof scripted curriculums for $1 million dollars a pop. What's that? You don't know how to tell if kids are smart or not. We've got a great billion-dollar testing package for you to try out). It creates problems that need products and services, and it creates consumers who are committed to buying products to help them succeed. At the same time, literacy has become tied into the reality of the world we live in. In order to help individuals succeed, we cannot treat literacy as morality. We can't assume those who struggle with reading, writing, or computer skills are "bad" or "poor" students (just look at the terms we used to describe them). Furthermore, we need to show people how to use literacy for their own purposes, not just to pass exams or get a job, whether that's filling out a form for financial aid or writing a text to a friend.

Ohmann ends with these lines, and I would like to, as well: "It's worth trying to reconstitute literacy as a process of liberation-- but also to remember that work for literacy is not in itself intrinsically liberating. The only way to have a democracy is to make one" (713).

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