The Centers Will Not Hold.
The kind of critique or commentary or exposition one needs to engage in a democratic society can only be accomplished effectively when literacy is raised above the levels we have come to accept as good enough, which I know are far from 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 also too far from the mark? Most of our attempts, from whatever side of any pedagogic argument weighed in our society, fall too far short. They often not only fall far short, but only help reinforce that not-nearly-enough can parade to the applause of more-than-good-enough. This failure of ours in the cause of advancing literacy has been unilaterally effective in maintaining a system wide under-education, as well as an enforcing ignorance; it has helped 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 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, of educating, of making some headway in the manner in which we address social problems)–yes, 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. We do not write well in direct correlation with how poorly we think; we have been subsumed wholly by a cult of feeling whereby we confuse one for the other, feeling for thinking.
There are far too many graduates leaving High School right here in New York City alone reading below grade, and that’s at revised standards of achievement, those I saw reflected correlatively in the City University of New York’s revision of its standards of achievement in its remedial writing programs over more than a decade of teaching in CUNY. The per cent of graduates leaving high school reading below grade is somewhere around fifty per cent. The pass rate in CUNY’s remedial writing programs is between 30 and 40 per cent. I had over a seventy per cent pass rate in several CUNY colleges in over ten years of teaching and finally came under fire from the Department Deputy Chairperson at one of CUNY’s Community Colleges (colleges now designed to get students to pay for the completion of a High School education they should have gotten in High School.)
This inattention of ours in the demands of a literacy that can handle the demands of democracy is a kind of looking away, not keeping our eye on the ball. Instead of seeing what we need to see, we shift focus onto a repackaged semi-literacy as good enough. We shift our eyes onto tantalizing news bites from our broadcast media or tabloid print media instead of any of the many choices of higher literary value to meet the demands of democratic civilization. We look to a media that sensationalizes stories not for us to think about, but to emote over; not for us to respond as a people, but to manipulate our fear or channel our mass response. What then do we do when faced with our strife, our disorder, our social fragmentation, if we pay so little attention to how we do not maintain the appropriate levels of literacy to address issues thoughtfully and intelligently? We opt for saying, we do not know what to do, what to say; we cannot know what to do, everything is a mystery; that is, until we look to the mdia to find out how we feel and what we think, usually packaged in one or another slogan.
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 do not seem able to build foundations for our literacy; it serves in our schools superficial programming, or addresses only the thinnest in topicality. We suffer a deluded idea that ours is a visual culture and that literacy of the kind I infer here is not necessary in our new technologically advanced society. But then social media has had a lot to do with declining literacy while maintaining the illusion that someone is reading and writing. While engaging in social media communication we string together forty or more characters by pushing our fingertips to keys on the key pad, and almost as if by accident, we spell words in minimal strings. Alphabetics is what we at best sponsor everywhere; we spell our name correctly and regurgitate the bites we get in bits through the media and we call ourselves literate.
We need to reexamine our pedagogy, particularly the teaching of reading and writing in our lower grades; that is, we have to address how literacy is conceived by our pedagogy, as much as how it has been managed (or mismanaged) by our public schools, elementary, middle, and high. I question how it is handled as well in our universities, after having taught more than a decade in remedial writing programs in the City University of New York. We also should address how pedagogy is more nefariously controlled by state bureaucracies.
State sponsored education is always going to be a mediocre education is a self-evident truth to be held by any People wishing to side-step their government controlled or state managed role as a Public, and serve their interests as a People working in the cause of democracy, one that any state like ours, so controlled and managed by money and power elites, could not respect, except in the ways it manipulates the images of service to country, guiding us to relinquish our role as a People for the more state-serving role of a Public.
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 today is never going to sponsor teaching in a way that ensures the greatest dissemination of literacy and thereby democracy. And 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. If I have to explain this to you, maybe you should stop reading and turn on the television, whether popular entertainment, or liberal or conservative political reporting and commentary–all of a piece, the same. Anyone asking for statistics to support my assertions about states not being interested in serving the People, or being more interested in transforming the People into a Public is either someone with his head in the ground, another one of our citizen ostriches; or, is prepared not to think unless it is in the direction that state or media manipulated statistics point. The State is the greatest mass producer of statistics in America. They are an avalanche waiting to bury us; landslides of numerals come on us from these mountains of stats meant to confuse and never enlighten.
By restricting the former, literacy, the latter, democracy, cannot help but shrink in its radius. The circle is closing in; its center will be crushed before it will no longer hold. If you imagine that most adults today can write, you are mistaken–and I am not talking about the mass of systematically under-educated, but people with suits in positions of corporate authority, others who are vested with the authority to teach, or those who manage the affairs that affect us daily, whether in civil service, or in our hospitals, or in government funded programs meant to achieve one or another kind of public service. And note that it is always public service, not service to people.