On Being Literate

How does reading level translate into competence and right action? Civilizations have always risen and fallen by and with literacy. Functional literacy, as we have in too many of our High School graduates, is only alphabetisme as the French say. Alphabetisme is not literacy, at least not in the French way of distinguishing between what could be called literate and what would need to be distinguished as merely alphabetic. Is it an accident that we allow so many High School students to graduate while reading below grade level? We continue to puzzle over this all the while the rich get richer and the power elite more powerful.

Alphabetization is a bureaucrat’s ruse. Functional literacy is mostly about conformity, where it is not a means of insuring that the welfare roles are full, filled in a way that justifies the welfare bureaucracy being as large as they are. Education rarely comes up as the first and the last in any discussion about reducing welfare. This, too, is about control. What we have in our schools, what is sponsored by public school pedagogy is factory-made reading. This kind of literacy, as we insist on calling what should be named alphabetics, reduces reading performance to the piece-meal of the assembly line. It has nothing to do with literacy as literacy as I understand the kind of literacy that is the soul of democracy; this perfunctory way of filling our applications correctly and spelling one’s name correctly has nothing to do with freedom. In fact, The kind of reading we sponsor in our schools has everything to do with the opposite of freedom. Minimum-wage serfdom–and it is a kind of serfdom–is the result of this reduced literacy. Slavery is too strong and inappropriate for what we have in a country where the two largest employers are McDonald’s and Walmart.

Is it totalitarian control that we experience from state supported pedagogy though its criteria of certification, and state set levels of achievement. Oppression? Of course, millions of citizens reading at less than high school is oppressive. It was for more than perfunctory reasons that it was forbidden to teach a slave to read. The brand of literacy we sponsor in this culture has everything to do with pre-packaged ideas about freedom, about democracy, nothing in the way of thinking when we mean something that takes place in language and not randomly passing images in the mind.

The only understanding that happens with the kind of literacy that gets sponsored by our pedagogy is found in merely recognizing, or simply being able to repeat slogans, even allowing one’s self to be moved by them. Politics is all about slogans, as it has been for how many countless centuries–no? Political campaigns are all about the trite, the cliche, the insipid, the surface of text, nothing but what can be reduced to one or another soundbite: slogans, slogans, slogans. Our acumen in literacy, with literacy, for literacy, is the same for how advertisements are expected to be understood. All of us can read ads, can’t we? But can we write? Can we defend an argument? Can we defend literacy and thus democracy? If we cannot, how can we hope to defend freedom? That’s the in effect of our loss of freedom, if not the design set by the power and the monied elite who depend on an uninformed and unenlightened population.

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