Essay

Literacy Falling Apart

 

The kind of critique or commentary one needs to engage in a democratic society can only be achieved when literacy is raised above the levels we have come to accept as good enough, which I know from experience confronting remedial writing pedagogy in CUNY, are far from hitting the mark. We are talking missing the target, not just missing the bull’s eye.

Let us say that we know how we read and write is not good enough, not nearly high enough or deep enough–but honestly, how many of us suspect our pedagogy in the matters of literacy are too far from the mark? Most of our attempts, from what side of any pedagogic argument weighed in our society, fall far short, and often not only fall far short, but only help reinforce that not-nearly-enough can parade to applause as more-than-good-enough.

This failure of ours in the cause and advancement of literacy has been unilaterally effective in maintaining a system wide under-education as well as an enforced ignorance and a tolerance for social and political corruption we no longer are able to see as corruption. Let us not pretend–and we do pretend more than we remain deluded–that we need to soften this critique, need to lessen the pressure of the bite. Nothing comes from nothing is a truth we cannot deny; and trying to lessen the force of this critique would be a nothing begetting no reform.

As a result of the kind of attention we pay to literacy and the literary–a learned inattention, as we also learn to use hearing instead of listening whenever we are in forums where speaking to one another is intended to produce some additive effect in our processes of learning or of educating or of making some headway in the manner in which we address social problems–and as a result of these misunderstood practices in the performance of our democracy, we are left with a debilitating ineffectiveness in addressing the monied and power elite in their push to become more powerful and more monied.

This inattention of ours is a kind of looking away instead of seeing what we need to see, a kind of dropping the baby instead of standing under the child we need to hold, to love, to nourish–what then do we do when faced with our strife, our disorder, our social fragmentation? We opt for the ultimate choice of, we do not know, we cannot know, everything is a mystery. Our literacy needs greater care than we seem able or willing to muster; the understanding that is necessary is as much post to lintel as any architecture can tell you is by necessity imposed.

We need to examine and reexamine our pedagogy, particularly the teaching of reading and writing, that is, as it has been managed (or mismanaged) by our schools, elementary, middle, and high, as well as in our universities; and more nefariously, by state bureaucracies. State sponsored education is always going to be a mediocre education. States are not interested in advancing the People as much as they are more concerned for controlling them, keeping what they imagine is order–and of course, theirs is the only sense of order they think is necessary to uphold.

The state is never going to sponsor teaching in a way that ensures the greater dissemination of literacy and thereby democracy. Yes, I hold this truth to be self-evident: literacy and democracy are mutually effective and reciprocal contingencies. Of course, you do understand that one of the cornerstones of democracy is literacy, as literacy is also one of the cornerstones of civilization. But–states are concerned for order, and the kind of order states want have nothing to do with our freedom or broadening democracy.

No politician or bureaucrat could say today what Al Smith had said one hundred years ago: the only cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy. Today, politicians and monied elite and power elite and corporate CEOs on Wall Street and among the Oil Gangsters, along with Media moguls all agree that the only thing democracy should serve is more democracy for an ever increasingly wealthy power elite, or an ever increasingly powerful monied elite. For the rest of us–we have been so systematically undereducated and kept semi-literate that we do not even understand how the loss of liberty and democracy is happening.By restricting literacy, democracy cannot help but shrink in its radius. The circle is closing in; its center will be crushed before it will no longer hold.

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