The Development of Multi-Faceted Literacy in American Culture
Though many theories have been formulated about literacy and how to apply proper education to it, few seem to grasp the fact that true literacy involves lots of different aspects. Though many educators have tried to put the term literacy into a strict definition, it is best understood as a complex educational aspect.
Literacy combines elements of culture, both nation and international. It involves picking up essential skills that can be taught in the classroom, as well. In addition to all of that, it involves a person learning the advanced art of articulation. Speaking well, writing well, and understanding how to get a point across are three things that should be included in that discussion, as well.
How a person understands literacy is dependent upon which of these theories that person accepts as being the standard. According to Dr. Robert Needlman, literacy needs to be understood in a broad sense, as it is very important to all other forms of learning. In a recent article on the matter, Needlman wrote, “Literacy is more than just being able to read and write. Literate children see reading as fun and exciting. They use reading to learn about a wide range of subjects, and they use writing to share their ideas” (Needlman).
This means that teachers must learn to teach their students how to read and write at the most basic level, but that is rarely enough. True literacy can not be gained without a wide application of many different principles. One position that has become very popular among educators in recent years is one that employs a strategy of teaching students to communicate. Learning how to frame words in sentences and paragraphs is not enough in order to truly teach someone to be literate. In order to be literate, a person has to be able to take those words and put them into coherent thoughts. This position is probably the one that most closely represents what today’s educators should be aiming for when they frame curriculums for students.
Skills based literacy is the building block from which all other things have to come. This is generally accepted by most educators out there. The problem is that some of these educators are not going beyond that. Though literacy starts with the basic skills, it certainly cannot stop there. It can only be effective if it is combined with a literacy program that teaches students cultural literacy and communications skills, as well. Teaching one without taking the time to teach the other is like teaching a person how to fish, giving them all of the equipment, and then forgetting to tell them where the pond is located.
Though learning the actual skill of reading and writing is obviously an important part of the process, the cultural aspects are even more important. Especially in the United States, cultural literacy has not been nearly as much of a concern as other aspects of education. This is partly because teachers have been teaching with their eye on standardized tests and partly because no real value has been placed on cultural literacy. Now, the value and importance of both understanding how to read and write and understand how to put those things into context is being stressed more and more in schools and to America’s youth.
Certain school districts have taken the initiative of instilling this sort of program within their curriculum for students. According to literature put out by the Poway Unified School District, cultural literacy is important to the development of students. Their website states, “The best lessons for cultural literacy come from the many students who sit in front of us each day in our classrooms. Their cultures, heritage, and stories formulate the most powerful cultural literacy curriculum” (Poway Unified School District). Elementary schools are not the only ones taking notice in this.
College writing programs have implemented strategies as well to give their students a chance to become fully literate. Reed College, for example, has an entire writing program that is dedicated to teaching students the proper rules for communicating in their writing. This program not only focuses on writing, but it also teaches the value of things like drama and other liberal arts. Hampden-Sydney College is another college in the United States that has put an emphasis on this type of education. Their rhetoric program must be completed by all students who come through the school, whether those students are business majors or history majors.
In the full context of a college liberal arts program, writing takes on a huge level of importance. Universities that offer these programs need to instill a writing intensive program across the board. This does not mean that just journalism or English students should have to concentrate on refining their skills. It means that in history courses, religion courses, philosophy courses, and other sorts of classes, a bunch of writing should be required. By incorporating writing into the curriculum of these other subjects, students will further learn how to communicate with their writing and they will become better at the other subjects, as well. Without an emphasis on writing, a liberal arts program is doomed to failure.
Successful communication is a necessary aspect of these programs, as well. That cannot be gained without learning how to write critically, though. As E.D Hirsch is quick to point out, the English language lends itself to much interesting diction for writers. In his book, Hirsch wrote, “Literature in English excels in every kind of writing. Its particular glory is its poetry. For historical reasons, the English language acquired a vocabulary that is unusually rich and nuanced, combining words of Germanic root (such as see and glimpse) with words of Latin root (such as perceive and envision)” (Hirsch).
There are quite a few different approaches to organizing a program such as this. Some colleges have started specific writing courses that teach students how to put their ideas into writing. More times than not, these classes are put into freshman year experience programs. These are the programs that teach students how to learn and how to be good college students. More times than not, these classes are taught alongside a study skills course. After all, most students are going to have to write multiple essays when they enter college and writing will be an essential part of their life. It only makes sense to preach the importance of writing from the very beginning of the college experience.
This is not enough, though. In today’s world, being able to write and communicate is essentially important. Just about everything revolves around it, including the business world. According to the Educational Testing Service, which handles much of the student testing in the United States, the situation is extremely dire. They state, “As society becomes more technologically advanced, the quantity and types of written materials are growing. Adults are expected to use information from these materials in new and more complex ways and to maintain and enhance their literacy skills through lifelong learning activities.
Literacy skills are critical not only for the personal achievement of individuals, but also for the social and economic development of each nation. These skills are no longer linked to a single threshold that separates the literate from the nonliterate” (Educational Testing Service). This quotation does much to state the overall importance of literacy in society and it also hammers home the point that literacy is becoming more important and more relevant, despite what some might think. In fact, it is dire, according to C.H. Knoblauch. In his Literacy and the Politics of Education, Knoblauch writes, “However, if literacy today is perceived as a compelling value, the reason lies not in such self-interested justifications but in its continuing association with forms of social reality that depend on its primacy” (Knoblauch).
In addition to that, there is sentiment from other literary sources about the American situation. The Formation of National Cultures states, “In America, the reality is that we have not yet properly achieved monoliteracy, much less multiliteracy” (Foundation of National Cultures). This means that the United States still has to work on both the simple parts of literacy, as well as the more advanced aspects.
One of the staples of any liberal arts program is a good history department. History courses are interesting because of the fact that they incorporate many different aspects of reading, writing, critical thinking, and lots of other skills. Students are not only forced to write and read critically, but they are often forced to do these things in a cultural sense. History courses not only teach what happened and when it happened, but they study cultural trends. Writing and reading have to be a huge part of any history course. Framing a history course with an eye on literacy is easy. In fact, it would be very difficult to even consider teaching any sort of history class without the inclusion of these things.
As far as the actual setup of a course is concerned, it would not be all that difficult to integrate. The course would need a strong textbook, which must be read each and every night. In addition to that, the instructor of the course would teach the class in a lecture/discussion format, where students have to get used to both critical listening and critical communication. During each class period, students would have to listen to an instructor and take notes on what that professor is saying. This is one way to not only teach students the art of writing, but it also teaches students to think about the most important things that they are hearing. From that, they will react to that knowledge.
The course would not be taught with only lectures, though. There would obviously be some grading that would be required. Writing would be integrated into the course in both essays and in tests. For the essays, students would be required to submit a number of them, depending upon length. This would give students a chance to not only explore the liberal arts staple of history, but it would also make them learn how to express themselves in a logical way. Essays would require proper writing skills, as well as good organization and good understanding of the material at hand.
This would be an appropriate test of the knowledge and a good way to further integrate literary skills into the course. When it came time to give the test, writing would be on that, as well. Some part of the test would include an essay, where students would have to prepare a concise thought without too much time to research the issue. By doing these things, writing, reading, and critical communication could take their rightful place of importance in the liberal arts field. Without them, the courses would be naked and barren.
By including writing and reading in liberal arts programs, a university would not be precluded from also offering advanced writing courses. Traditional definitions of literacy have come up with the conclusion that it is actually a skill that must be learned and mastered. Though the cultural literacy idea has become much more popular in recent years, the idea of literacy being a skill has still not been lost. With the right amount of instruction, students can learn how to both read and write at a very high level.
Like with other subjects in a curriculum, writing programs must take the opportunity to teach both the basics and the advanced aspects of writing and reading. Colleges would be well advised to offer a literacy major or minor within their course catalog. With this program, the university could offer tens of classes on writing and reading. Everything from critical writing to business writing could be offered within this major. With that knowledge, a student would be able to go on to many different careers, since it has been established that writing and reading is such a large part of the business culture today. As long as literacy is a skill, it is something that must be harnessed and taught in universities and in lower levels of schools, as well.
Elementary, middle, and high schools would be smart to adopt similar programs, which would further prepare students for the rigors of college literacy programs. In short, this would take a concerted effort at every level of academia if it is going to be successful. This is something that Allan Bloom takes very seriously in his book, The Closing of the American Mind. In there, Bloom writes, “I used to think that young Americans began whatever education they were to get at the age of eighteen, that their early lives were spiritually empty and they arrived at the university clean slate unaware of their deeper selves and the world beyond their superficial experience” (Bloom). The need for education at early levels is of the utmost importance to people like Bloom.
No matter what definition of literacy a person subscribes to, the fact remains that it is a very important part of education that must be addressed. At current standing, schools are not doing nearly enough to teach the skills and to instill the type of cultural knowledge that is essential in order to truly communicate. Literacy is far more complicated than many educators have been willing to give it credit for. The first step to truly teaching literacy in a correct way is to understand that it is a changing thing.
According to the folks at the Perkins School for the Blind, literacy includes many different aspects that must be accounted for. Their website reads, “The development of literacy is founded upon our experiences – beginning with birth – and our interactions with the world and those around us. Over time, these experiences enable us to develop the ability to connect meaning to words and letters. First, though, the path to literacy requires establishing communication and connecting meaning to objects, events and people in our world” (Perkins School for the Blind).
This means that literacy is constantly being learned by everyone, each and every day. With this sort of knowledge in hand, it is easy to conclude that literacy must be included in every aspect of education. When talking about a classic liberal arts education, this is especially true. No matter if the skills-based literacy interpretation is correct or the other interpretations are correct, one must concede that all aspects of the idea should be considered.
When shaping the plan for literacy training within a liberal arts program, lots of things must be considered. Luckily for those people who frame curriculums, many liberal arts classes already require many pieces of literacy to be included to begin with. From critical writing to reading to other forms of communication, literacy will always be a part of history, philosophy, English, and the other subjects within liberal arts. With that in mind, the key is to highlight those skills and make sure that students are given an opportunity to enhance them.
Bloom, Allan. Closing of the American Mind.
Educational Training Service. What is Literacy? http://www.nocheating.org/portal/site/ets/menuitem.c988ba0e5dd572bada20bc47c3921509/?vgnextoid=2a8eaf5e44df4010VgnVCM10000022f95190RCRD&vgnextchannel=6773e3b5f64f4010VgnVCM10000022f95190RCRD
Hirsch, E.D. Cultural Literacy.
Knoblauch, C.H. Literacy and the Politics of Education.
Perkins School for the Blind. Perkins Panda Early Literacy Kit. http://www.perkins.org/literacy/panda/
Poway Unified School District. Cultural Literacy. http://www.powayusd.com/projects/edtechcentralnew/culturallit.htm
“Formation of National Cultures”
Needlman, Robert. What is Literacy? http://www.drspock.com/article/0,1510,5133,00.html