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Aliteracy as a real social problem - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Aliteracy as a real social problem
I was perusing my daily dose of conservative sites that sometimes make me feel liberal, but also sometimes hit a cultural point that makes me say, "YES!" and I came across this lament from Suzanne Fields about the loss of reading for pleasure among young adults. I do fault her for not realizing that there's a huge reading culture on the internet and particularly among sf/f readers--thank you, J.K. Rowling--but I think she's very right about vast segments of society not being at all well-read. Hell, I am relatively well-read, and I only got around to Jane Eyre last month.

The thing is, it's not even just a question of missing the classics. It's a devaluing of fiction as fiction that's problematic. What fiction is encouraged, not only by assigment but by culture, is fragmented and "relevant" (aka, people read it because the main character "OMG, looks just like me!") A purported intellectual slams Harry Potter because the hero is a white boy, and how can girls and minorities relate to that?

(Well, you all said you didn't mind me making conservative posts, right? ;) Welcome to the main reason I'm a conservative.)

There are two reasons--not mutually exclusive, but quite different from one another--that we lose our connection to literature at our own risk.

The first is simply that story creates community. Orson Scott Card has written about this at length, and in this one instance, I agree with him point for point. It's not at all surprising to me that fan communities are among the most common and active on the internet, because we are forming in a way that communities have traditionally formed--a shared text, arguments about that text, general commonality of knowledge within that particular milieu. We are who we are because of the stories we tell one another, whether historical, legendary, folkloric, or literary. Disdaining our shared stories or analyzing them only from a fragmented position undermines our notion of ourselves as a community.

(Of course, the paranoid conservative assumes that's the point--a kind of psychological warfare against the community: "Don't believe the story you've been told before! Believe our new version of it instead!" I'm not quite that paranoid, and assume most people mean well, but I do think there's an unfortunate effect that people aren't counting on, since teaching a subversive reading of a text is generally thought of as a rebellion... but when the standard reading has never been taught, the negative reading ends up being the only one people learn.)

The other reason has more to do with the future than the past, and has less to do with particular stories than with the philosophy of "relevance," which pigeonholes texts and stories into ideas of what is right and proper for someone to read based on his/her gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, etc. We constantly have kids coming in asking for our "African American books section." I'll deal with book lists, but frankly, I put my foot down on literary segregation. Just a funny vibe I have in my head about introducing Jim Crow shelves.

But that nails-on-a-blackboard response to this kind of segregation isn't my reason for thinking it's actively dangerous to the future. The problem I see is that it's "boxed-in" thinking--the tendency to see the world with a kind of tunnel vision that, "Things are the way they are and that's the way they are." It's the mindset that doesn't read fantasy because "That can't happen." In "On Fairy Stories," J.R.R. Tolkien talked about how fantasy works, how it allows people to see things "as they were meant to be seen"--in other words, as different than ourselves, and as full of potential. By shutting the mind to anything other than what is currently actual, people are shutting off their imagination to see the world as it could be, to see possibilities and potentialities. And what can't be imagined also can't be realized. That's what good fiction does, what learning to see stories as stories does.

When I have kids come in and state that the difference between fiction and nonfiction is that "nonfiction is true and fiction isn't," I always have to hold myself back from getting into a philosophical argument on the subject. Fiction is all about truth; it's just not about facts. There's a difference.

23 comments or Leave a comment
From: anatomiste Date: July 15th, 2004 12:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
Hit the nail on the head again, you did.

I wish my dad could understand this. I tried to explain Harry Potter fanfiction to him once and he just asked "But wouldn't you rather write about things that really happen?" Perhaps I'll have him read that Tolkien essay.
vytresna From: vytresna Date: July 15th, 2004 02:26 pm (UTC) (Link)
It's called "Tree and Leaf." Though he does devote long portions of it to venting at the kinds of faeries that live in cowslips and that sort of thing.
ladyelaine From: ladyelaine Date: July 15th, 2004 12:06 pm (UTC) (Link)
The problem I see is that it's "boxed-in" thinking--the tendency to see the world with a kind of tunnel vision that, "Things are the way they are and that's the way they are."

Folks who have that mindset are the--ahem--"real world" version of Vernon Dursley. Dreams aren't real, there's no such thing as magic, and motorcycles absolutely cannot fly.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: July 15th, 2004 12:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
The Dursleys are a recognizable type, aren't they? :)
shezan From: shezan Date: July 15th, 2004 12:07 pm (UTC) (Link)
"nonfiction is true and fiction isn't"

Yet Freud wrote to Schnitzler that he wrote with assurance what Freud himself only groped at. Fiction is about finding the truth.

Your reasons for being a conservative are close to mine, indeed.
From: aries_siren Date: July 15th, 2004 12:32 pm (UTC) (Link)
We constantly have kids coming in asking for our "African American books section."

That disturbs me a great deal, being im an African American kid that comes in the library. It scares me to think that my peers think that even in the library, only an area o f its available

i dunno maybe i took the post the wrong way, it just reminds me that theres so much that people dont understand is avaialbe to them and they limit themselves
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: July 15th, 2004 12:36 pm (UTC) (Link)
It bothers me as well, aries_siren. I think what's meant is a general section to stow Omar Tyree, Zane, Sister Souljah, and Eric Jerome Dickey--nothing sinister--but the historical implications of having a separate section based on skin color terrify me.
vytresna From: vytresna Date: July 15th, 2004 02:34 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, and I would tend to look for Thomas Sowell in the Social Sciences section (Dewey system; Sowell gets scattered all over in Library of Congress system) and relegating him to shelves for black authors would make it a pill to find.

There are African-American sections of some bookstores, and they don't sell well at all. About the only people who do buy the books there are black, and the authors, I presume, would like as wide an audience as possible. It's rather an economic failure, so it'll probably die out.
buongiornodaisy From: buongiornodaisy Date: July 15th, 2004 05:55 pm (UTC) (Link)
True, some African-American authors would like a wider audience, but some are so Afrocentric that they specifically write their books for African-Americans instead of for all audiences. This is an admirable cause, though harmful to the author and to the audience. The author is limiting his or her story in order to reach a specific market, making their work more like costum-made products than art. I don't doubt that many of today's Afrocentric writers are good. I just don't want to crank open a book that screams "BLACKNESS" the moment I crank it open. I just want to read a story.
mincot From: mincot Date: July 15th, 2004 12:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
There's a real debate about what a university education is and how it should function that is relevant to this discussion. Basically, we have a problem in this country. The old liberal arts education did indeed build a common consensus and serve as a way to form community. But it was also rooted in a common ethnic and social identity. It was aimed, as Matthew Arnold admitted, at bringing the educated into line with upper-class white values. In a multi-cultural world, that practice is going to draw fire. However, unreflective multiculturalist persectives result in precisely the sort of fragmentation you are lamenting (rightly so), and make it difficult for people to build a comunity of ideas. (Although I have yet to meet a colleague who teaches that Shakespeare can ONLY be understood in terms of feminism! Nor does questioning the transparency of communication necessarily lead only to the claim that "we can't really ever speak to each other." Arguing for the constructedness of society does not therefore mean that "anything goes .. " You get my drift!) We also need to beware of a university drifting more and more into the immediately practical corporate sphere.

What Bill Readings (in The University in Ruins has suggested that we need is a way to combine the community of the old liberal arts education with the realization that there are many different ways of understanding, or what he calls the "community of Dissensus". He says (p. 185) that "we need to think about a community in which ... the possibility of communication is not grounded upon and reinforced by a common cultural identity." In other words, he argues that we need to find a way to have a common education without linking that common education to specifics of racial, class, or social specific identities. We would have to educate ourselves as humans, not as upper-middle-class white men, as women, as black, as ... (p. 191) "The University will have to become one place, among others, where the attempt is made to think the social bond without recourse to a unifying idea, whether of culture or the state."

I think Mr. Readings is on to something here. A common education must be divorced from the standards, practices, and goals of one specific subset of the population, however privileged. My question is, of course, how do we do that and still make education meaningful? Given human nature, and the difficulty of thinking beyond our own immediate circumstances, his goal of a community of dissensus may be an impossible goal, but one that perhaps is worth thinking about.

A liberal feminist's two knuts...thanks for a good and thought-proviking essay, Fern!
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: July 15th, 2004 02:26 pm (UTC) (Link)
In general, I object to the idea of having a community not founded on some kind of common idea--a common idea strikes me as the entire point of being part of a community. If I don't like the ideas, I'll tend to, you know, join a different community. Airfare isn't that expensive. ;)

Quite seriously, it's that sort of notion that I saw a lot of during my undergrad education (I ignored all politics during grad school--I just didn't care; I was there for a piece of paper), and I have to say, it was what made me a reactive conservative. I valued the works of Twain and Alcott and so on because they are OURS. Not theirs, not something belonging to a different class or a different era, but ours. The fact that I was a lower class daughter of a single working mother didn't change that fact, and I hated the implication that it was supposed to.

The influx of new voices will add to the canon (slowly; it's the nature of these sorts of things to be slow), and I welcome them. Langston Hughes's poetry is a great addition to the canon not because he's from a different background than T.S. Eliot, but because Langston Hughes was a damned good poet. I consider him to be part of my literary heritage as well, because literature is the realm of ideas, and ideas know no race or gender or socioeconomic clas. They're free to everyone who wants them, and one person using them doesn't take them away from someone else. Ideas do battle with one another, certainly--they're doing so in academia now, as you pointed out--but I'd hate to believe that I'm supposed to fight on the side of "x" idea because I'm a poor/Jewish/female/illegitimate child. I'd prefer to choose ideas based on their merit rather than my pigeonholes. (Of course, I admit to having some fun with a feminist man who did believe this, when he tried earnestly to tell me that he was espousing a woman's point of view. He got twisted into a knot trying to maintain that he was right when a woman disagreed with him. If only he'd have gone for the idea instead of the gender, he'd have a leg to stand on!)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: July 15th, 2004 02:43 pm (UTC) (Link)
To continue, the convenient idea that we share (or are meant to share) is that all men are created equal, etc, etc. And that means that everyone has a right to aspire to the canons of literature, as well as to the presidency. So adding new voices to the canon is perfectly in line with tradition.

What I don't want to do is then discard old canon, or fragment old canon. Multiculturalism should be a grand addition to culture, not a destruction of it. Everyone should now be able to enjoy these new voices without feeling like they are there to "replace" old views. Lots of views can co-exist peacefully in a decent a democracy, and having them in different literary texts is a good way to show that historically. But there's no reason that they should be trying to supplant rather than add to one another.

In essence, what we're looking for is not dissensus, but a better and more inclusive consensus, in which people are not shut out of opportunities or history, but can still share in the things which have come before. (So sue me... I'm a utopian conservahippie!)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: July 15th, 2004 02:43 pm (UTC) (Link)
(Last sentence meant to include a smiley. ;))
cheshyre From: cheshyre Date: July 15th, 2004 03:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
Multiculturalism should be a grand addition to culture, not a destruction of it. Everyone should now be able to enjoy these new voices without feeling like they are there to "replace" old views. Lots of views can co-exist peacefully in a decent a democracy, and having them in different literary texts is a good way to show that historically. But there's no reason that they should be trying to supplant rather than add to one another.
Not defending this practice in the least, but I think one reason this happens is that there's only so much time in the twelve years of schooling, so in order to find room for new texts, they have to take other things out. [Suddenly wants to check her copy of Clifton Fadiman's Lifelong Reading Plan to see how *he* added multicultural authors, but unable to find it.]

Tangentially, there's a similar problem in the teaching of history. <creaky old voice>When I was in school</voice>, we really didn't learn much history outside Europe and North America. I'm not sure how schools handle it now, but I was very impressed when reading the Cartoon History of the World at how seamlessly the author intertwined African and Asian and European history without making any of them seem less important nor tacked on.
vytresna From: vytresna Date: July 15th, 2004 03:23 pm (UTC) (Link)
You're not endorsing that Catcher in the Rye be taught, are you? I mean, that book has banal language, a monotonous mood, and a ridiculously rambling plot. The only way to teach it is to pretend to see symbols that JUST AREN'T THERE. But sadly, many people see it as a classic.

Anyway, there's only so many books you can put into a course. Things have to be supplanted no matter what. The basic criterion, I think, should be its educational value. That's a legitimate reason why English teachers are hostile to fantasy, but that doesn't say anything about reasonably hard SF (by which I mean anything more scientific than Ender's Game, which should get in on its own merits), or why they always stick in things like Catcher in the Rye. Great Gatsby has educational value as to the '20s, but it's not at all an enjoyable read. Confused jumble of adultery before you figure out who's married to whom. Assigned books should be enjoyable - that's what gets people to read on their own time - but you're in school to learn, not simply to have a fantasy life (though that is certainly beneficial).

Oh, and some of the multicultural stuff I had assigned - Kindred by Octavia Butler, Maus by Art Spiegelman - is REALLY good. This from someone who kept heckling her copy of Grapes of Wrath in a very loud voice. I appreciate these additions, actually, can't have everything stagnate when there's decent stuff out there. But Kindred does NOT preclude Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Actually, I'm opposed to putting Harry Potter in a Brit Lit course. Enough people would do better reading that for leisure, and assigning a book is automatically oppressive. (Though, speaking of aliteracy, I did meet a girl who said she liked the movies but the book was just so confusing and dull. Harry Potter being the most readable book I have ever encountered (tied with Zilpha Keatley Snyder's works), I don't think she's enthusiastic about reading on a general basis.)

fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: July 15th, 2004 03:47 pm (UTC) (Link)
I actually enjoy The Great Gatsby (though it might be one I'd be willing to see replaced in a school setting, as I think the only thing about it that's particularly unique for teaching is the point-of-view choice... it might be better to find a book that packs more for the punch, like point-of-view and symbolism or somesuch), but I think that The Catcher in the Rye was inserted into "canon" too quickly for shock value. These things need some time to stew, and I don't think Catcher has the same kind of impact it did when it was released. It's one of those books that probably would have died a natural death if it weren't kept falsely alive by assignment. Shakespeare, on the other hand, is enjoyed as performance on a regular basis and quoted for fun. Same with Twain.

I'm not sure why you don't think fantasy would have educational value--it seems to me the purest form of literature, removed as far as possible from real-world social issues and so on and therefore able to be taught from a more purely literary standpoint. (And, if social issues have to come into it, most fantasy leaves room for people to have different interpretations of it, politically speaking, so there's a possibility of an actual dialogue as opposed to a monologue.) It's a great opportunity to teach the use of symbolism, because fantasy is metaphor by its very nature--that's true even of bad fantasy, so choosing some of the good stuff could only be helpful in talking about things that appear and are more than what they seem to be.

I've enjoyed some multiculti stuff, too. Maus is an excellent example, story-wise, and while I didn't read Kindred, I did enjoy Octavia Butler's Wild Seed (though I should point out that I didn't read the latter in class; I read it in free reading because it sounded like a good book when Orson Scott Card recommended it as one of his favorites). Like I said, I'm a big believer in letting new voices find their way into the canon.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: July 15th, 2004 03:49 pm (UTC) (Link)

The point is, though, that I'm not just talking about school assignments, but about a kind of cultural consensus and shared experience. Right now, I'd say HP is at the very least contemporary canon, and in fifty years, I expect it will be canon the way The Wizard of Oz, The Secret Garden, and Huckleberry Finn are canon--not because everyone reads them in school, but because eventually, everyone stumbles across them.
mincot From: mincot Date: July 15th, 2004 08:23 pm (UTC) (Link)
They're free to everyone who wants them, and one person using them doesn't take them away from someone else. Ideas do battle with one another, certainly--they're doing so in academia now, as you pointed out--but I'd hate to believe that I'm supposed to fight on the side of "x" idea because I'm a poor/Jewish/female/illegitimate child.

I agree with you, in general--in fact, the "I'm supposed to fight with X because I am Y" is PRECISELY the attitude Mr. Readings is trying to overcome. However, the point is that because ideas are not free of cultural context, including social and class and race contexts, that people *have* taken them as particular. I can't tell you how hard I have to work to get some of my black students to respond to the pure ideas in a western civ class rather than their political and social packaging. "Why should I care what those dead honkies think?" one woman asked me. "All it did was put us down." She was not engaging the idea, but rather reacting to the context in which one group or social class uses ideas to create a shared identity that then definitively excludes others or implicitly devalues their culture. "I don't know why I have to write like a white girl in order to be taken seriously," another woman complained to me. "In my neighborhood, I can write down that it ain't no this or that, and everyone respects me just fine."

Basically, Readings is trying to get to your vision (I love the term "Conservahippie!) --to see if we can create a community wherein ideas are not used implicitly to reinforce one perspective over another. That can only lead to the sort of pigeonholing we both decry--where I can't teach Toni Morrisson because I'm not black, or understand Japan because I'm not Asian, or relate to Othello because I'm not a man (and a sixteenth-century man,a t that). But to do that one first has to become aware of the places where ideas have been entangled with identity, in order to disentagngle them. Which is where his community of dissensus comes in: in the formative years of the modern university (the influx of the German system, so the late 18th through the 19th century) the university was used precisely to provide consensus--but a consensus that excluded those of other classes and cultures unless they also accepted all the values of that culture. (There is a group on H-Net for working-class academics who STILL see a large gap between their initial values and those of modern universities; the *ideas* they took to, like Fern--but the cultural embedding is very problematic for many.) Readings argues that if the university is to survive it should not be there to give us all a common consenus that ALSO is linked to a common identity. It should give us common ideas, which we can take and use as needed--and get us to where everyone can find ideas relevant, regardless of racial, social, or political identity. That is what he means by dissensus--not dissent, but a community in which people can in effect focus only on the ideas, because said ideas are not being also used as a cultural weapon. The ultimate conservahippie, in fact--very utopian.

Saying that one wants to divorce ideas from identity formation does not also translate to the gutting of or removal of the canon. It does remove artificial barriers to that canon, so that one can have Shakespeare and LAngston Hughes, Augustine and Aquinas and the compilers of the MAhabharata all talking together. It does not include things "just because" they were written by someone of X gender of Y race.
mincot From: mincot Date: July 15th, 2004 09:09 pm (UTC) (Link)
I should add that I usually respond to those students with, "We're all human, and these ideas are important no matter what your skin color. If we all just stayed in our racial pigeonholes, the world would be a poorer place." To the ones who object to looking beyond the African-American community of ideas, I say things like, "Well, other ideas have helped to shape your world, like it or not--how are you going to deal with them unless you know what they are?" or "Are you telling me I shouldn't be inspired by Dr. King because I'm white and he was black?" or "Well, because whoever's standard it is, writing does need a standard of some sort because words DO matter and they DO have specific meanings. And human nature being what it is, you can't change things unless you are part of the conversation, and to do that you need to work within certain conventions." (Furthermore, in the case of historical writing, EVERYONE is translating ideas between cultures. Know anyone recently save Patrick O'Brien who was utterly steeped in a past century? ;)

Many of my students, white and black, have had poor training in schools, or come from cultural backgrounds in which learning was not only not encouraged, but where they were actively discouraged from learning skills. (yes: people overcome that sort of background. Yes, it takes an extraordinary person. And these folks I work with are ALL extraordinary in one way or another.) They tell me that "We're just too dumb to get this stuff," and I tell them that that idea is nonsense--they may hvae been told that they were too dumb by people who confused fluency in academic achievement and class values with intelligence, but that that association is just plain wrong. They are having to learn skills, that's all, and to translate ideas between cultures, often with inadequate preparation. It will mean hard work, but they are in a more nurturing place right now, and they can (and will be expected to) catch up. Once they learn to translate, they figure out the ideas, and have a LOT of fun engaging the ideas and becoming part of the conversation.

I used the term "Translation" deliberately. The medival notion of translatio was not merely a transfer of ideas between languages, although it included that sense. Rather, it was the movement of ideas, objects, people, etc. from one locus to another, whether physical or textual. In addition, means to bring the authority / presence embedded in the first idea, place, thing, etc. into another. Informed by this idea, I hope that my students can translate themselves from their own backgrounds into a larger discussion of ideas--and that they can operate there AND in their own cultures, and bring the best from each into the other, and be richer for it. I have had several students turn into fine academic writers. I have had others who could never see the utility of academic writng, and, in their professions, they didn't need to follow academic forms. Instead, they wrote magnificently reasoned papers in call- and- response format, rather than an argumentative format--and I said, fine. HOwever, a paper that was shoddily researched and reasoned would NOT be fine, no matter the form.)
fiatincantatum From: fiatincantatum Date: July 15th, 2004 01:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
*covers eyes*

I've had too much caffeine.

I read that as "Alliteracy" and thought "what has alliteration got to do with anything?"

OK, being quiet now...
timesink From: timesink Date: July 15th, 2004 01:44 pm (UTC) (Link)
A purported intellectual slams Harry Potter because the hero is a white boy, and how can girls and minorities relate to that?

That kind of thinking has always driven me crazy. My heroes growing up were all Evil White Men, although I personally thought of them as People Who Were Worth Emulating In My Career.

And I've *never* read Jane Eyre.
buongiornodaisy From: buongiornodaisy Date: July 15th, 2004 06:06 pm (UTC) (Link)
Exactly. It really irritates me when I see or hear of other blacks being criticized for being "too white," for listening to "white" music, for being interested in "white" things, etc. Yeah, so the African-American community is trying to maintain its unity and identity, but you can't do that by mocking those who have developed natural interests and treating them as rejects. That only makes them turn away from the community all together. It'd be much better if, instead of cramming all this "blackness" nonsense into black people's heads, the African-American community endorses good character based on the examples of good people, rather than forcing African-Americans to look *only* at African-Americans. This is severely limiting and doesn't do a good job with trying to maintain peace with other ethnic groups.


And, yes, all my fictional heroes growing up were and all my fictional heroes/crushes now are (mostly) white. And I've related to them more than most other black fictional characters I've come across.
scionofgrace From: scionofgrace Date: July 16th, 2004 02:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think there's a misunderstanding when people sequester African-Am. Literature. It's those same folks that Americanized Harry Potter. They don't seem to realize that the Chronicles of Narnia are just as thoroughly British, yet are loved by Americans of all kinds. People sort of assume that if a book has been written in a different culture (which much of Afro-Am culture is) for a different culture, you won't get it. Not true. We read Dumas and Hugo, do we not? And the Greek classics, and British Literature, and kids seem to have no problem at all with manga and anime.

If a story is true enough, in that it deals honestly with ideas that are true, culture will be no handicap.
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