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Tripod Members Page last updated:
28 March 2001

Literacy and Freedom


Janet A. Emig {*}

This community holds,

a view of verbal literacy that is uniquely balanced and weighted; uniquely generous and ambitious: uniquely  infromed and grounded and uniquely ethical.  It is a view that is poignantly and powerfully needed by the world we live in, as literacy as, we define it, is a necessary condition for freedom.  Literacy is a requesite for our literal survival.

Our view then is that litreracy

is balanced-- by which I mean in part not reading-obsessed.  Historically, literacy has placed an emphasis upon the restatement, memorisation and recapitualation of a very narrow band of of texts.{**}  For more than eighty years there has been an unremitting cry for 'functional literacy.'  This is usually defined  as "the ability to read common texts such as newspapers and manuals and to use the information gained, usually to seek employment."  Note that literacy is defined as ability to read- exclusively.  In mass education movements down the centuries, writing has meant only the capacity to sign one's name.  No more.  No general recognition that literacy is a double-helix of reading and of writing.

Where is the writing in all this?

Driven by out passive view of literacy we spend out lives reading 'texts.' We interpret, analyse, weigh, explain the words of others.  Those texts come from our collection of verbal heirlooms, literature; language at its highest pitch.  While we, poor groundlings, are doomed to produce non-literature and pseudo-literature in an attempt to 'prove' the extent of our literacy.

Why are so many reading obsessed?

One possibility is that being asked to stay within the constraints of another text, or at least a single interpretation of that text, can prehaps be a training in docility that can well serve religious, political or aesthetic majority well.  Against such valuing systems and structures, we need a definition of writing and of an opposing systewm of values sturdy and tough enough to survive, even to prevail.

Where is a view of writing worthy

of our ambitions for it, for our students and for ourselves?  One place to find such a definition is to be found in James Moffett essay, "Integrity and the Teaching of Writing."  It is an array composed of five definitions.  These range from the most material and external to the most inner:

1. drawing and handwriting;
2.transcribing and copying;
3.paraphrasing and copying;
4. crafting conventional or given subject matter;
5.revising inner speech, or as Moffett calls it, 'authoring'.

The first four definitions are self-explanitory; but Moffett says of " full-fledged authoring" that it is authentic expressionof individual's own ideas, original in the sense that the author has synthesised them for him or herself.  Authoring is revising inner speech to live in the world as words with a purpose shaped to an actual audience.

Writing, however, is not authoring,

exclusively.  As Moffett says,  "Writing consists of not just one of these activities but odf all of them at once.  All definitionsare correct.  When people write, they are simultaneously drawing letters, transcribing their inner voice, plagarizing concepts and frameworks from their culture, crafting their thoughts into language forms, and revising the inchoate thought of their inner speech.  None is wrong, but failing to include all is wrong.  Nor is it true that the learner begins at the bottom and works up."

Now that we have before us an adequate

definition, let us go on to the other beliefs we hold.  Our view of literacy is is informed; informed by simplicities not complexities.  For in our practicality we know that no one learns a process that is not practiced.  We learn to write primarily by writing.

Our view of literacy is grounded,

as well as informed. We know that words are events that effect other events, and if students are truels to learn to read and write, they must witmness literacy making a difference, first to themselves than to others.  By grounded we mean that literacy represents at once a means and a 'motive for action{***}  For most of our students the desire to suceed academically now and financially later may prove motive enough.  But for others, we must, as we know, show, not tell.

Another way in which our concept

of literacy is grounded is that we know that literacy, or course, represents power.  Power is often a clandestine concept that often elects not to speak its name.  We believe, we know, that literacy is a way up, a way out, a way in; and that those who say let them eat TV or CD or MTV or i-Net are, insideously, the most elitest among us.  For elitism, even in the most elitist of schools, can never work in a classroom.  We know that not to be literate in a culture built of and by words is to be deprived of one's fundamental human rights.  We continue to believe  in these rights in spite of all that would persuade of convince us that democracy is a failed experiment.

We believe that writing in concert

with reading uniquely sponsors thought and imagination.  The imagination: What is it?  The mind actively constructing, the not-here; the not-now; the not-me. The mind actively constructing actual worlds inhabited by actual others, who breathe and bleed, think and feel.  The mind constructing possible worlds inhabited by possible others.  The mind constructing and furnishing the interior of one's own sensibility.  For literacy furnishes the interior of our sensibilities.  Only by acquiring a public language, literacy, is it possible for us to talk to ourselves and so to acquire a sense of privacy and a true sense of self.

If not-here, where?

Belfast, Wounded Knee, the Golan Heights, Kosovo, the South Bronx.  If not-now, when?  Fiftht century B.C., the Ching dynasty, the pre-Bellum South, 2004, the Renaissance.

If not-me, who?

Any sentient being. To regard any murderer such as King as literate then becomes a barbarous romanticism.  In the face of the hard, inescapable yet not unalterable  realities, this literacy is the only 'civet' whch will enable us to sweeten, and so put to constructive use, the imagination.

What is it we must imagine?

Alternative social, economic, and sexual structures and arrangements since so many we have are obviously bankrupt.  Can there be economically only capitalism, socialism communism?  Does only the nuclear family provide the magnet to which most human values and feelings can adhere?  Are only schools and churches the arches under which communities can come together and find coherence?  Finally, we must imagine the unimaginable -- the death of the earth itself.

We regard ourselves as the conscience

of our profession.  If we are, we havew no alternative to holding this view since only so ambitious a view is adequate to the needs of those we teach.  That view holds the literacy is not worth teaching

if it does not provide access;
if it does not sponsor learning;
if it does not activate the greatest power of all --
the imagination

We and our views of literacy are needed

-- they are the only ones I know subtle and humane and tough enough for these times.  May our beliefs prevail; and may we and our students, like our earth itself, survive and prosper.


* Freely adapted by G. Grant from a keynote address given by Ms. Emig in March, 1982 at the convention of the Conference on College Composition and  Communication.  It was printed in The Web of Meaning: Essays on Writing, Teaching, Learning and Thinking, New Jersey, Boynton/Cook Publishers, Inc. 1983,  pp.171-178.  I cannot recommend this book strongly enough.
** Emig cites several studies supporting this point. A more recent discussion is to be found in The Reading-Writing Connection, by Nancy Nelson & Robert C. Calfee (Univ. of Chicago Pr. 1998) *** A.L. Lauria.

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