Literacy in American Lives

Literacy in American Lives

Literacy in American Lives

Literacy in American Lives

Synopsis

Literacy in American Lives traces the changing conditions of literacy learning over the past century as they were felt in the lives of ordinary Americans born between 1895 and 1985. The book demonstrates what sharply rising standards for literacy have meant to successive generations of Americans and how--as students, workers, parents, and citizens--they have responded to rapid changes in the meaning and methods of literacy learning in their society. Drawing on more than 80 life histories of Americans from all walks of life, the book addresses critical questions facing public education at the start of the twenty-first century.

Excerpt

Literacy is so much an expectation in this country that it has become more usual to ask why and how people fail to learn to read and write than to ask why and how they succeed. in a society in which virtually every child attends school and where some kind of print penetrates every corner of existence, only the strongest sorts of countervailing forces – oppression, deprivation, dislocation – seem able to exclude a person from literacy. Asked to imagine how their lives would be different if they didn't know how to read and write, people I have spoken with are often baffled and pained. “I would be totally in the dark, ” they say. Or, “It would be like not having shoes. ”

To think of literacy as a staple of life – on the order of indoor lights or clothing – is to understand how thoroughly most Americans in these times are able to take their literacy for granted. It also is to appreciate how central reading and writing can be to people's sense of security and wellbeing, even to their sense of dignity. At the same time, these analogies ask us to take a deeper look. They remind us that, as with electricity or manufactured goods, individual literacy exists only as part of larger material systems, systems that on the one hand enable acts of reading or writing and on the other hand confer their value. Changes in these systems change the meaning and status of individual literacy much as the newest style of shoes – or method of producing shoes – might enhance or depreciate the worth of the old. Further, these analogies remind us that, despite a tendency to take the resource of literacy for granted, acquiring literacy – like acquiring other basic staples of life – remains an active, sometimes . . .

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