The need to develop literacy is one of the most basic means of developing competencies in society. Beyond the basic skills of reading and writing, literacy entails the facility to make choices and to participate in society. Its critical role in society has been recognized by politicians and has figured significantly in recent debates focusing significant efforts to raise its levels even among developed countries (Schumer, 2007). According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) (2003), social progress can not be achieved without literacy and therefore, it should be considered as an urgent global issue.
Jefferson, Education and Literacy
Fundamental to the advocacy of literacy as an element of free and democratic societies is Thomas Jefferson’s. According to him, there is direct relationship between good governance, responsible citizenship and literacy (Kozol, 1985) This implies that without literacy, governments can not claim that it is effective and neither can its citizens be able to fully participate and become active in society. Literacy is seen as critical to well-being and the ability to become productive. Similar to Socratic views on knowledge, learning and virtue, an illiterate person is not able to develop the knowledge that can bring his enlightenment so that he can live a moral and just life (Freeman & Kassebaum, 1956). Such a view also suggests that literacy is an agent of social progress and the vehicle for social justice, liberty and democracy.
Considering this view, education is views as an effort to create competencies to create social participation and mobility. The same idea is considered by Schumer (2007) in today’s context: education should be able to raise literacy as an indication that government programs really benefit them. At the same time, educational programs should create functional, critical and cultural literacy. As much as literacy allows the student to learn about his world, it should also give him the means to express himself to others. Though the definitions of these literacies would be fully formed only in subsequent studies of literacy, Jeffersonian literacy encompassed the evaluation, discussion and appreciation through literacy.
These views is significantly ideological in approach but were still functional. It is through these ideals that the literacy became a basic educational objective. The basic premise of literacy as a means of personal development and empowerment remains as one of the main vision of education. According to the UNESCO (2003), the reservation of literacy to the privileged can be considered as one of the most pervasive means of subjugation, a scenario that has continued today particularly in countries were there is limited access to basic education.
Freire, Education and Literacy
Brazilian educationalist Paulo Freire (1991) knew intimately the value of literacy in empowerment and development. Colonial powers in Latin America traditionally limited access to education as a means on controlling its territories which aside from limiting the masses but also affected culture and value systems. His most noted work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, is considered as one of the key books that emphasized the role of teachers and the educational system as a means of espousing social liberation (Freire, 1993). In the said work, Freire states that there is an opposing diametric relationship between critical literacy and banking method of teaching. Banking method implies that knowledge is directed in one direction from teachers to students which does not fully realize the power of literacy since there is no interaction or dialogue between teachers and students.
Freire emphasis on the need for interaction and the role of teachers in creating such an environment creates a direct responsibility for educators to develop literacy. He emphasizes that to encourage children to develop literacy; teachers must develop teaching tools that are based on the “word universe” of their students and not their own (Freire, 1991). This highlights the importance of context to create meaning among literacy learners and students.
Like Jefferson, literacy is considered to have a social and personal function that enhances the well-being of the individual as well as the society that he lives in. However, Freire’s proposition gives little value to non-contextual experience of learning literacy since the value and meaning is derived from the context of the student alone (Shor, 2007). This perspective also created specific actors to the process of literacy and developed the importance of collaborative interaction by students and teachers. In such a model, educational systems are being challenged to consider the methodologies according to the context of students as well as to develop teaching or classroom environment that encourage student participation to dully develop literacy.
Lankshear, Education and Literacy
Colin Lankshear studied the implications of developing levels of literacy to socio-political and economic issues. The core of his view considered that literacy creates a proactive capacity. He considered that “proper literacy” should be the focus of development because it reflects the ability to “bring your knowledge and your experience to bear on what passes before you” (O’Neil as cited in Lankshear, 1987, p. 72). He makes a distinction between this type of literacy with improper literacy which he describes as the processing of text without developing a deep understanding or application of it (Lankshear, 1987).
Lankshear does not limit the responsibility of developing literacy to basic education but extends it to higher learning as well. One of the key reasons he identifies for the failure of literacy efforts is a weakness in the theories that are used in teaching and developing educational standards. He cites to a structural weakness in the systems of education and literacy in contrast to Jefferson’s ideological and Freire’s operational concerns (Shor, 2007). To be able to correct this failure, he suggests that the academe should rethink its gradualist approach and consider the issue of literacy as a central political issue that is a fractal of global political and economic dominance of developed versus less developed countries.
Lankshear’s work reflects greater a systemic approach in developing literacy compared to Freire but lacks the latter’s focus on an ideological level. Lankshear is among the first to specify the significance of what he considered as an adverse influence of capitalism in the development of literacy. In this manner, Lankshear considers literacy to go beyond being a skill but as a phenomenon in itself. In his model, politics has a direct action on literacy and is directly related to capacity of society to preserve rights, promote social development and control abuse of government. Literacy involves analysis and the critique of society to developing consciousness (pp. 215-222)
Henry Giroux, Education and Literacy
In Henry Giroux’ the Hope of Radical Education (1993), focuses on the impact of cultural politics in literacy. His focus is on critical literacy which involves students valuating their own context with that of a different socio-cultural perspective. The focus on culture reflects the emerging interest in it as a factor in the process of learning and thus, literacy (Esses et al, 2001). He also highlights the importance of the political environment that the individual moves in that dominated the manner by which he interacts with the environment.
Giroux emphasizes that the purpose of developing literacy is to allow students the ability to interrogate their knowledge and experience: this act is to be considered as the highest and purest form of literacy (Giroux, 1992, pp15-17). Schools are considered to be the setting of cultural production in contrast with previous views that generally considered schools to be acted upon by culture (Robert, 1998). In this capacity, Giroux advocates that schools should be the venue where students are able to express their views and at the same time be educated of what they need to know about their world. In the process, cultural literacy is developed and allows students to understand other contexts instead of being limiting their literacy to their own context (Giroux, 1992).
The consideration of culture raises the importance to understand not only the mechanism of literacy in an adapted language but also one’s native language (Giroux, 1991). The consideration of first and second language development and competencies is one of the key measures that Giroux considers. For example, first language direct affects second language, thus, methods of supporting literacy in the second language have to be considered based on first language as well. Giroux’ work reflects the academic movement towards the significance of culture. It also reflects the realization the complexity of society and the need to recognize the individuality of its members. Giroux in particular emphasizes the need to understand literacy in a plural perspective to be able to develop literacy in other fields.
Perspectives on Literacy
Examining the various perspectives on literacy and its types, one realizes that literacy has gone far beyond its conventional definitions or being able to read and write. UNESCO (2003) considered illiteracy as one of its main focus because of the universal recognition of its importance in social development. Though the understanding of the mechanism and context of literacy has shifted over the years, its critical role in being able to improve one’s condition and society has remained the same.
Considering the rate of globalization today, it is easy to understand the need to widen perspectives regarding what constitutes literacy not only in terms of its context, mechanism or culture but also in the new applications it has in society (Kozol, 1985). The various perspectives of conventional, functional, critical and cultural literacy are all essential in being able to deal with everyday challenges. Each is critical on its own: conventional literacy serves as the foundation; functional literacy entails a purpose to the exercise of skills; critical literacy demands building cognition and knowledge; and cultural literacy recognizes the importance of literacy in a diverse society.
Bruce (2002) points out that the pressure to develop literacy has become more urgent because there are more skills that have to develop that are based on it. He cites as example information literacy: educators advocating technology in their programs have to be able to first establish fundamentals of literacy. The concern for literacy is not limited to the field of education. For example, recent researches show that low literacy has a detrimental effect to the ability of patient to understand prescription (Wolf et al, 2006).
Literacy is the core of any academic endeavor. Considering the level of literacy demanded by today’s society, no one can expect to be able to fully participate in it while being illiterate. The realization should be that literacy is not just based on a single ideology, language, culture or context. To be able to fully empower individuals in society, it is critical that they be given the opportunity for literacy; otherwise, they will not be able to function effectively or productively in society.
The educational system is one of the main avenues for the development of literacy. Thus, classrooms must not be just a venue of knowledge and information: they must also be a platform of literacy. They should be able to allow a collaborative system of education that encourages the study, development and critique of the world. Current literature suggests that the standards of literacy are still being developed particularly because of intensifying multiculturalism and technological development. Based from experience, perspectives and conventions of definition evolve with time but literacy can be expected to remain a focus locally and internationally. In conclusion, there is a need to continue studies on literacy because of its value to individuals and society. Without literacy, no one can experience true social empowerment and social progress can not be realized.
Bruce, C. (2002). Information Literacy as a Catalyst for Educational Change: A Background Paper. Retrieved on May 28, 2007 from http://www.nclis.gov/libinter/infolitconfand meet/papers/bruce-fullpaper.pdf17
Esses, V., J. Dovidio, L. Jackson and T. Armstrong (2001). The Immigration Dilemma: The Role of Perceived Group Competition, Ethnic Prejudice and National Identity. Journal of Social Issues 57, 3: 389-412
Freeman, Howard E. and Kassebaum, Gene G. (1956). The Illiterate in American Society: Some General Hypotheses. Social Forces, Vol. 34, No. 4. pp. 371-375
Freire, Paulo. (1991). The Importance of the Act of Reading. Rewriting Literacy: Culture and the discourse of the other. Candace Mitchell and Kathleen Weiler, eds. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey, 1991. pp. 139-146.
Giroux, Henry A. (1992). The Hope of Radical Education. What Schools Can Do: Critical pedagogy and practice. Kathleen Weiler Kathleen and Candace Mitchell, eds. Albany: State University of New York. pp. 13-26.
Giroux, Henry A. (1993). Literacy and the Politics of Difference. Critical Literacy: Politics, praxis, and the postmodern. Colin Lankshear and Peter L. McLaren, eds. Albany: State University of New York, 1993. pp. 367-378.
Kozol, Jonathan (1985). The Human Cost of an Illiterate Society from Illiterate America by Jonathan Kozol. New York: Doubleday
Robert, Peter (1998). Extending literate horizons extending literate horizons: Paulo Freire and the multidimensional word Educational Review 50(2), pp. 105-114
Schumer, Chuck (2007). Positively American: Winning Back the Middle-Class Majority One Family at a Time. New York: Rodale Books
Shor, Ira (2007). What Is Critical Literacy? Journal for Pedagogy, Pluralism & Practice New York: College of Staten Island, CUNY. Retrieved on May 28, 2007 from http://www.lesley.edu/journals/jppp/4/shor.html
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (2003). Education for Social Reforms. Retrieved on May 28, 2007 from http://portal.unesco.org/education/en/ev.php-URL_ID=11833&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html
Wolf, Michael S., Davis, Terry C., Bass, Pat F. III, Tilson, Hugh H., Parker, Ruth M. (2006). Misunderstanding of Prescription Drug Warning Labels Among Patients with low Literacy. American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy 63(11): 1046 – 1055
References – Annotated Bibliography
Bruce, C. (2002). Information Literacy as a Catalyst for Educational Change: A Background Paper. Retrieved on May 28, 2007 from http://www.nclis.gov/libinter/infolitconfand meet/papers/bruce-fullpaper.pdf17 – Discusses the importance of information of literacy in reforming educational programs and highlights that there is a need to reinforce basic literacy competencies before the potential of technology in the classroom can be realized.
Esses, V., J. Dovidio, L. Jackson and T. Armstrong (2001). The Immigration Dilemma: The Role of Perceived Group Competition, Ethnic Prejudice and National Identity. Journal of Social Issues 57, 3: 389-412 – According to the study conducted, immigrants are facing difficulties in literacy in their new language, English, as well as in other assimilation skills because of the lack of recognition of culture as a factor in these issues.
Freeman, Howard E. and Kassebaum, Gene G. (1956). The Illiterate in American Society: Some General Hypotheses. Social Forces, Vol. 34, No. 4. pp. 371-375 – Evaluates the impact of illiteracy in American society that has become one of the factors identified in social exclusion and dependence on social services
Freire, Paulo. (1991). The Importance of the Act of Reading. Rewriting Literacy: Culture and the discourse of the other. Candace Mitchell and Kathleen Weiler, eds. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey, 1991. pp. 139-146. – Considers the practice of reading in its importance in personal development and empowerment through the cognitive exercise of reading and the development of personal and social context
Giroux, Henry A. (1992). The Hope of Radical Education. What Schools Can Do: Critical pedagogy and practice. Kathleen Weiler Kathleen and Candace Mitchell, eds. Albany: State University of New York. pp. 13-26. – Considers that educational reform can only be achieved by developing an understanding socio-cultural factors that influence literacy which entails the literacy from external perspectives
Giroux, Henry A. (1993). Literacy and the Politics of Difference. Critical Literacy: Politics, praxis, and the postmodern. Colin Lankshear and Peter L. McLaren, eds. Albany: State University of New York, 1993. pp. 367-378. – Highlights that the recognition of socio-cultural and political difference is critical in the development of true literacy
Kozol, Jonathan (1985). The Human Cost of an Illiterate Society from Illiterate America by Jonathan Kozol. New York: Doubleday – Advocates the illiteracy should be considered a priority issue not only in its social impact but also beaus of its economic and political impact
Robert, Peter (1998). Extending literate horizons extending literate horizons: Paulo Freire and the multidimensional word. Educational Review 50(2), pp. 105-114 – Highlights the perspective on education and literacy proposed by Paulo Freire in developing education as an effective tool to address illiteracy
Schumer, Chuck (2007). Positively American: Winning Back the Middle-Class Majority One Family at a Time. New York: Rodale Books – Focuses on the most urgent issues of American middle class which includes the suggestion of the objective to enhance literacy and math competencies by 50% within the next ten years
Shor, Ira (2007). What Is Critical Literacy? Journal for Pedagogy, Pluralism & Practice New York: College of Staten Island, CUNY. Retrieved on May 28, 2007 from http://www.lesley.edu/journals/jppp/4/shor.html – Discusses critical literacy and the various theories and perspectives that have been developed on it by various studies
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (2003). Education for Social Reforms. Retrieved on May 28, 2007 from http://portal.unesco.org/education/en/ev.php-URL_ID=11833&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html – Enumerates the United Nations education initiatives and programs to support literacy around the world which have been developed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in an effort to reform world standards in education and literacy
Wolf, Michael S., Davis, Terry C., Bass, Pat F. III, Tilson, Hugh H., Parker, Ruth M. (2006). Misunderstanding of Prescription Drug Warning Labels Among Patients with low Literacy. American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy 63(11): 1046 – 1055 – Discusses the impact of low literacy in health care which has led to concerns that many patients are unable to fully understand medical information.