What Do I think Literacy Is, and Why Is It Important to Teach It?

By Jason Phillips
Readin', Writin', and Relations.

3Rs: Readin’, Writin’, and Relations.

For the past two Wednesdays, DVMS has hosted Parent Education events covering the progression of language education from Casa all the way through to the end of Upper Elementary.

When I was first hired at DVMS, I was brought in as a literacy specialist to work with the Upper Elementary kids  —  with both those who were struggling a bit, and to enrich and extend all the students’ understanding of the history and purpose of language and communication.

The following is a short essay that makes up part of the introduction of the literacy education guide I created in that role. It consists of discussion of four quotations that underpin my understanding of and approach to literacy. I discovered each of them during graduate studies work in literature and cultural studies, two fields that are increasingly seen as working hand-in-hand. Literacy and culture have a definite, active relationship; culture emerges from narrative and is, in fact, narrative itself.

As a way to explain this point in more detail, let’s discuss each of the quotations. They each have significant meaning, and the specific order in which they are presented here serves as an outline of my understanding of the function and importance of literacy.

The first is from Karl Marx:

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways;

the point, however, is to change it.”

Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach,” 1845.

Quotes from Marx are always troublesome, but here I am more concerned with his philosophical relations to materialism than his political relations to communism. Marx made a much greater contribution to Western thought and culture than he is often given credit for. His “Theses on Feuerbach” were written in 1845, twenty years before the publication of his most famous work, Capital (1867), and were discovered and published by Friedrich Engels many years later. Feuerbach is Ludwig Feuerbach, a 19th century German philosopher who was at the forefront of the development of materialism, as opposed to idealism. Briefly, materialism calls on philosophy to be concerned with humanity, and human culture and activity, rather than idealized abstractions.

In his Theses, Marx critiques the early materialism of Feuerbach on the grounds that it deconstructs idealism but does not then continue to critique the human culture that allowed idealism to flourish in the first place. The quote in the epigraph is the eleventh and final thesis of the short work — the conclusion that the new philosophy of materialism must seek, therefore, to change the world (ie. human culture).

Also of note in the Theses is the sixth thesis, in which Marx identifies what he sees as the “human essence.” If philosophy is to focus on material humanity, what is humanity? Marx declares, “But the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.” Humanity is not an assortment of idealized individuals; it is a set of relationships between human beings, and the activity of knowing, negotiating, and maintaining those relationships is culture.

If, then, we are to be progressive, we must identify “contradictions” (as Marx terms them) in our culture that lead to negative (damaging, hurtful, exploitative) relationships and seek to change them for the better. Marx’s eleventh thesis continues to resonate with me as a reminder to always work for such change. It is my personal motto for why I chose to pursue education as my life’s work. The world can be a better place, the world needs to be a better place, and it is my opinion that education is the key to enacting change for the better.

Which brings me to the second quotation, from David Suzuki:

 “I believe the overarching crisis resides in the modern, urban human mind, in the values and beliefs that are driving much of our destructiveness.”

David Suzuki, “What Can I do?”  2003.

Suzuki is both an academic and an activist, and as such he is also concerned with change — the progressive development of a better world and of a better human culture in that world. The quotation is from a short essay called “What Can I do?” from a book of collected writings of Suzuki’s called The David Suzuki Reader: A Lifetime of Ideas from a Leading Activist and Thinker.

Suzuki opens the essay with the statement, “People often ask me, ‘What is the most urgent environmental issue confronting us? Is it climate change, species extinction, toxic pollution, or deforestation?’ ” The quotation is Suzuki’s conclusive answer. It is significantly relative to education because the mind is what education deals with (in part, and sort of, depending on your perspective). It is in the mind that we construct the knowledge that informs our “values and beliefs.” It is also in the mind that we understand what we think “values and beliefs” are and why they are important.

If “values and beliefs” are to change in the mind, we are going to need educated minds. That is, minds that are able to think, know, and understand not only what our “values and beliefs” are, but where they came from, what the implications of them are — both good and bad, why and how they must change, and how to go about making such changes.

This last point, making changes to “values and beliefs” in the mind, is where education comes in. Education is one of what French theorist Louis Althusser calls ideological state apparatuses (ISAs). Althusser continues our progression here because he worked to revise and develop Marxist theory by emphasizing the role that culture plays in developing our senses of identity. ISAs such as schools help to reproduce ideology (that is, “values and beliefs”). The layout and resources of a classroom and the way lessons are taught are apparatuses that teach us about who we are and how we are supposed to relate to each other and the world around us as much as the lessons themselves.

In discussing Althusser, Susie O’Brien and Imre Szeman, both professors at McMaster University during my time there, and the authors of Popular Culture: A Users Guide, say that school environments as apparatuses “combine to construct a set of relationships between different people.” Remember what Marx defined as “human essence” in his “Theses on Feuerbach” – it is an “ensemble of the social relations.” Schools and education, and educators, are active participants in the development, knowledge, and reproduction of this human essence, this web of relationships that is known and negotiated through the filter of Suzuki’s “values and beliefs” that reside in the mind. The combination of values and beliefs (ideologies) and sets of relationships is what makes up culture and identity. Through the process of education we learn to identify ourselves and our places in the world and cultures around us.

A small ensemble of social relations.

A small ensemble of social relations.

So what does this have to do with literacy? As O’Brien and Szeman point out, “Althusser locates the roots of this process of identification in the early stages of socialization, in particular the acquisition of language.” Language is all-important to humans. Language is how we express what we think, know, experience, and feel to others, and to ourselves. All of our knowledge is constructed with language. We figure things out by explaining them to ourselves using language, including our thoughts about who we think we are, how the world and culture we live in works, and what our relationship to that world and culture is. Our “values and beliefs” are constructed using language, and if our “values and beliefs” are to change, we must change them using language.

This is where the next quote, from renowned Canadian novelist Thomas King’s Massey Lecture, comes in:

“Perhaps we shouldn’t be displeased with the ‘environmental ethics’ we have or the ‘business ethics’ or the ‘political ethics’ or any of the myriad of other codes of conduct suggested by our actions. After all, we’ve created them. We’ve created the stories that allow them to exist and flourish. They didn’t come out of nowhere. They didn’t arrive from a different planet.

Want a different ethic? Tell a different story.”

Thomas King, The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative, 2003.

The stories of our sets of relationships and of our sets of values and beliefs — the stories of each of us in our cultures — instruct us as to how to act and what to do with our lives. As King says in the quotation, the stories that serve as the ground upon which our relationships, values, and beliefs are constructed are made up. It’s all made up: the stories of who we think we are, what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s good and what’s bad, what’s true and what’s a lie, what’s important and what’s not. Even the stories we call non-fiction are made up: the experiences chosen for inclusion in a biography are selected, arranged, and written in a specific way in order to tell the story the author wants to tell; we are all familiar with the saying “history is written by the victors,” which means that those with power get to make up the story; a self-help book is designed and constructed to lead the reader down a specific path of thought and feeling. Initially, this can be a discomforting realization. Nothing is truly True. Nothing is rightly Right. Without the certainty of our “values and beliefs” – our stories – we feel anxious and lost.

There is another way to see this though, a way that makes it not so scary. Realizing that everything is made up and that we, in fact, are the ones who make things up, can actually be quite liberating. It tells us that we have power.

We can construct the stories that we want, stories that explain ourselves and our world and our places in it, on our own terms. Of course, since the essence of humanity is “the ensemble of the social relations,” it is best if we construct stories in which we get along with other people and treat the world we live in with respect and care. Otherwise, we get the “destructiveness” Suzuki speaks of. Knowing how to construct with language, and knowing how to read the constructions of others, is therefore essential to the task of creating our selves and our world and our cultures in the ways that we desire.

We need to loop back up to Marx again here and remind ourselves of his critique of Feuerbach’s new materialism – that it is not enough to simply ground philosophy in humanity; we must also critique human action in order to change it for the better. The human action under consideration here is the action of linguistic construction – the making up of stories that become the “values and beliefs” that Suzuki feels plague “the modern, urban human mind.” Marx explicitly states that the task is to change the world. Suzuki the activist has dedicated his life’s work to trying to change peoples’ minds. My argument is that education is the way to change those minds on the scale necessary to create real socio-cultural change. And King points us towards the field that educators need to address to make such change possible – stories. If you want to be different, or if you want your culture to be different, or if you want the world to be different, you have to make, tell, and believe different stories.

King quotes “Nigerian storyteller Ben Okri” to reinforce his point, and it is worth reproducing that quotation here to reinforce my point (which is King’s point anyway). Okri says:

In a fractured age, when cynicism is god, here is a possible heresy: we live by stories, we also live in them. One way or another we are living the stories planted in us early or along the way, or we are also living the stories we planted – knowingly or unknowingly – in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaningless. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives.

The final quotation is from Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony:

“Everywhere he looked, he saw a world made of stories. …It was a world alive, always changing and moving; and if you knew where to look, you could see it, sometimes almost imperceptible, like the motion of the stars across the sky.”

Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony, 1977.

Tayo, the protagonist in Ceremony, is a Native-American who returns from World War II psychologically damaged and broken. His world no longer makes sense because the horrors of war have unraveled the sense his stories used to make. The stories he used to know and believe no longer explain, or serve as a stable ground upon which to construct, his sense of self. To heal, Tayo undergoes a ceremony that concludes with him telling a new story to the elders, a story by which he can again make sense of himself, his world, and his place in it. The quotation in the epigraph marks the point in the novel where Tayo begins to develop an awareness of what he needs to do to heal. Like King and Okri, his awareness consists of the realization that the “world [is] made of stories.”

This final quotation concludes this short essay on my understanding of literacy because it invokes two noteworthy points. It relates back to the concept of change in the Marx, Suzuki, and King quotations, but it does so in a way that makes the possibility of change more possible. Tayo says that the world of stories he sees “was a world alive, always changing and moving.” Stories do not stand still.

Exploring early forms of writing.

Exploring early forms of writing.

One of the first conversations I have with the Upper Elementary level students is about the shift from oral to written communication and the impacts it had on human culture, the primary impact being that once something is written down it is difficult to change, as opposed to oral cultures where stories change a little every time they are told. Knowing this about stories and culture helps us to understand why making significant change in the world is difficult. We are used to things staying the same. Once something is written down it has legitimacy and power. You can’t just come along and change things. For once you embark upon that path, the stable ground gets shaky and we begin to feel anxious and scared, like Tayo. But like Tayo, our stories need to change if we are to heal, if we are to make a better world, better cultures, and better selves. Tayo’s realization is that stories are always in motion, always changing, so it is imperative that we learn how to read and write our selves and our worlds.

Which brings me to the second noteworthy point from the quotation: Tayo also says of the “world made of stories” that “if you knew where to look, you could see it.” This is what literacy education is to me — teaching students where to look so that they can see the world of stories around them, and how they are made and what they mean, and how and why they mean what they mean. If we understand the world of stories we live in and live by, we will not feel so anxious about the made-up, constructed nature of it all, and we will become empowered to construct our own stories of self, place, and culture so that we can truly understand the world and ourselves. When we understand in this way, we can better work to see and understand “the ensemble of the social relations” that makes up our human essence.

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