To be literate or to be alphabetic is a question that should be posed by any person in any society when the question of reading is discussed seriously toward what end it can serve, what end it should serve, or what end it does or does not serve. Now whether or not reading serves any end other than the one it does in itself serve needs to be addressed if not answered. Reading in itself reading serves no social nor economic nor political end–unless that end is the freedom of the individual, politically and psychologically. Now whether or not it does serve these mutually contingent ends, political and psychological freedom is another question for another essay. How the challenges of what I will herein define as reading will be articulated we will see; the challenges posed by reading do try men’s minds as well as their souls.
Any society that sees itself in conflict over just what the society is or should be or where it is going or where it has been or has come from has something to consider in the matter of how its individual members act, react, and interact with one another, this necessitating that each of them–each of us–has more than a night light on in the mind, that thinking is other than randomly passing images in one montage after another, that thinking is not playing hop-scotch with words. Reading, in the ways that will herein be discussed is not superficially skimming pages, allowing their flatness and virtual two-dimensional existence to impose itself on what exactly reading does, informing what we imagine reading is. The fact that words appear in lines on pages also imposes an unnecessarily linear dimension to how reading is accomplished. This superficial skimming of pages is the dominant result from our broad acceptance, or confusion, of alphabetics for literacy.
Literacy or alphabetics–what is it that we mean when we say someone is literate? To be literate or not to be literate–much of what we call literacy in America falls short of what should be named literacy.
Being alphabetic–what is sometimes referred to by me as having dexterity with the alphabet, able to handle words the way some handle dice, their speech or writing no different than tossing the dice. Alphabetic is not in itself literacy. It cannot be. This was, of course, inferred above–to read or not to read, to be able to or not, a foundation of civil liberty, a corner stone of all advances in civilization–and this is not hyperbole.
As I have said this before in other essays, and as I am saying this again in this one, I am convinced that repetition is not in itself redundancy when handled appropriately–it can be motif. The latter is also something I have said before and will repeat, how repetition becomes motif.
Literacy has to be more than merely being able to spell one’s name correctly, being able to negotiate a supermarket circular, being able to read road signs, address a letter, read the tabloid newspapers to gain the daily dose of state, media or capitalist propaganda–and that is what the media has become today in our Totalitarian Bourgeois Capitalist America. Tabloid presses often written on the third or fourth grade reading level–three in four criminals serving more than three years in prison read somewhere between the second and fourth grade–how is that we see no correlation between our debased standards of reading, of what literacy is or what it could be and crime?
A newspaper like the Nw York Times has traditionally be written on the 8th grade level–this is the level that the United States considers functional literacy and a level that too many graduates leave their high schools with as an accomplishment to applaud in caps and gowns at family parties–the poor deluded bastards.
Literacy must be something bigger than it is at present. It must be deepened, become more penetrating than what is allowed by our current deferment to the standards of universal alphabetics. How many High School graduates can actually read on grade, at least twelfth–and by the time one graduates, one should be reading higher than twelfth grade if one is to read on grade. But is it necessary for an auto mechanic, in order to be a good auto mechanic, to have to read above high school? Probably not. However, the mandates of American democracy and freedom –that which is organically truly democratic and free, and not the result of manipulated images managed by the protocols of American propaganda concerning freedom and democracy–do demand that he achieve higher and higher election in literacy.
What I am herein referring to as our tradition of and for democracy (our sense and sensibility for civil liberty, for democratic living, what we might imagine could be living free, that is, if we were allowed to be free in a way that organically respected individual freedom in a healthy way), is, what we would like to support, allegedly (and allegedly only because a good deal of what we think we should support concerning freedom and democracy amounts to adhering to state disseminated ideas about democracy and freedom, received through our many forms of media, which in turn are never fully supportive of the People as a People being free, but instead are in line with transforming the People into a state serving Public, the latter allowed to masquerade as a people being free, again, through one or another organs of our media, themselves directly receptive to suggestions from power and money, when they themselves are not the power and the money as many publishers or corporate publishing conglomerates are). All the manipulation of images and all the received ideas about democracy are aimed at one overriding result: that power becomes more powerful and monied and that money becomes more monied and powerful.
But a two-tiered society such as the one we are garnering today cannot persist long in masquerading as a free and democratic society, which is why, in part, this culture goes to great lengths to propagate bourgeois values and ideals through its media, making bourgeois capitalist drones out all workers and the poor. Union membership has dramatically declined–the right to work has been transformed by American Bourgeois Capitalist propaganda, thus then dogma, into the right to any job at any salary is better than no job, and that crumbs from the table of the rich and powerful are for what we should be grateful.
Those ideals inherited from the tradition of American civil liberty again do demand that that auto mechanic above, to be a rationally and intelligently functioning and participating member of what we purport is a free and democratic America–must read at a level higher than he has been allowed to achieve in our public schools., that literacy must not be debased and confused for what we do perpetuate in our schools, and that is an intellectually and socially enfeebling alphabetics instead of literacy. But then with teachers not having to gain a Master’s Degree in the disciplines they teach–that is, a high school math teacher can get his or her master’s in teaching, with a concentration not in math but in math pedagogy; with a teacher allowed to have a C average, which includes a c-, overall in all subjects; with teachers allowed to get a B- in their major–how do we expect pedagogy not to fail at achieving what it seems we can no longer imagine our students should have, although it does remain what they do need.
What has been sponsored in our public education over the last thirty to thirty-five years–and do not hold me hostage to the hypotheses of time counted; time on the clock or calendar and time in the mind are aspects of time imagined passing–has only managed to systematically under educate. Power has taken to heart Madison’s proclamation that education is the foundation of civil liberty; it has transformed education in direct proportion to how it must present the veil of freedom over the mask of democracy, a masquerade or a charade? Liberty is only a facade, a Hollywood studio set. It is no irony that education in my estimation has declined since the days of Regan–is it the fault of Regan and the Republicans? I would like to side-step the ping pong the parties play–although I do wind up rooting for one side or the other in any match I watch, even cricket matches I stumble on when switching channels on cable–I do root for Hilary Clinton over any Republican Candidate because any one of the Republicans would be tantamount to one of Satan’s following of angels ascending to the Oval Office. This is not hyperbole.
Obama, it must be said, in the seventies, would have been a moderate republican, with no change in his attitudes, his opinions, his thoughts, his rhetoric. This is what I find so scary about our politics and who manages our pedagogy–our pedagogy increasingly taking its cues from, while responding to the protocols of, bureaucrats in Washington, and here in New York City, from Albany and City Hall.
The fact that someone can spell his name, as I have mentioned above, cannot be the way we judge a person as literate or not literate. We have virtually come to this if we have not yet actually arrived there. It can be a measure of just how alphabetic he is, which is also the assessment of how well someone fills out bureaucratic forms or reads the tabloid press, never meant to do anything but inform in the crassest way possible–this informing, if you examine the words you use closely, is just that: to inform by the tabloid press is putting people unable to think In Form.
Never the twain shall introduce one another to each other–alphabetics and literacy, how shall they meet? They have met in the manipulated images of one another confused and confusing many for a long time. They must be kept apart, though, in our appraisal, something that a healthy sense of and dexterity with or for categories could help. What I can do with the alphabet is always set against what a monkey cannot do with the alphabet, unless we give a group of them typewriters and infinite time, then, presumably, the monkeys will by accident type out the script of Hamlet. I am still puzzled as to what kind of critique this is, having heard back in grad school this argument on the periphery of critiques of Shakespeare as the center of what had come under attack for being too overtly political and politicized in favor of ruling elites, the traditional Canon of literary achievement. I understand the necessity for Canon revision, or broader inclusion, but never have understood the iconoclastic response, or worse, the same response the mob in Alexandria had with torches at the Library of Alexandria. Not so very different, I had understood; I still understand.
The study of literature is sometimes called the study of Letters, but spelling one’s name correctly is not what I had in mind when I would say someone is literate. Yes, you have to be alphabetic in this culture to become literate, but to be literate or to be literary or to read and write literature (the order is happenstance)–these are other than reading tabloid newspapers, other than filling out correctly a deposit slip at the bank. But then we do all know this, do we not?
I am safe in assuming that my to-do list is not what I would call literature, although the aesthetics of this to-do list could be employed in the service of the literary. No? Of course it could. I am not saying that what we understand to be literary forms could only have been fixed by writing. There are a number of what have come to know as literary forms, forms of literature, that were fixed, that lost their plasticity, if they ever had any, in antiquity, in a time before writing, or at the dawn of it when societies like Ancient Greece were residually oral and moving toward literacy, what Plato actually champions in Book Ten of The Republic. Rather than understand Plato’s stand against poetry as one against poetry as we think we understand it, read it as an opposition to a former Orality that opposed the early advances in Literacy, most dramatically in psychology, thus mentality [the former of an individual, the latter of a society].
A great deal of re-reading is necessary for any kind of advancement in stages of higher and higher literacy; and yes, this analysis does run along a vertical axis as does literacy and greater achievements in literacy run along a vertical axis. Also, we must understand that engaging in writing is a complement of reading in literacy. No one actually reads at a level considerably higher than the one at which he writes or could write if he engaged in the practice. The same is true and reciprocally so for reading on writing.
We are though mistaken about orality, what it is, where it is, how it functions, when it functioned, and how it stands in contrast to literacy, and how ours is not an oral culture no matter how many songs you listen to or how many Youtube videos you watch to learn something rather than read. We can only become illiterate not non-literate. The possibility of becoming a non-literate culture is virtually impossible. And this is the horror–the only result from not reading, from a decline in literacy is illiteracy, something always illicit, illegitimate in the matters of civilization, something born into the world half made-up, something of a grotesque nature more offensive to the manners of literate civil society than can be imagined, that is seen, by the dying of the light inside a person suffering this decline.