Literacies of Power: What Americans Are Not Allowed to Know, by Donaldo Macedo. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994. 206 pp. $15.95, paper.
Reviewed by Patricia A. Young-Mitchell, University of California-Berkeley.
The major premise of this book by University of Massachusetts professor of English and program director of Bilingual and English-as-a-Second-Language Studies Donaldo Macedo is that there exist, in the United States and other Western cultures, certain types of literacies or discourses that actually impede the dissemination of truth and knowledge.
In this analysis of what he characterizes as the deceitful literacies of the powerful and their "pedagogy of big lies," Macedo implicitly frames true literacy as the power to dispel the myths surrounding significant historical events, political ideologies, educational constraints, and social agendas of American culture. Key among the themes touched upon in this book is the author's contention that in the United States the cultural reproduction of literacy uses institutional mechanisms to prevent independent critical thought, especially by those whom it seeks to dispossess. He subsequently identifies the nation's schools and its media as two of the most pervasive perpetuators of these lies because they are, in his view, the predominant vehicles through which dominant ideologies are projected.
Literacies of Power is organized along five themes. In the introductory chapter, "Literacy for Stupidification: The Pedagogy of Big Lies," Macedo hypothesizes that an unfounded pedagogy has been used to keep Americans blind to the truth of Euro-American involvement in the wronging of the Western hemisphere. He attributes both this blindness and the belief in the myth of a "common culture" to Americans' general inability to create critical thought-that is, to their lack of mastery and knowledge of the literacies of power. Macedo demonstrates this through a comparison of Hirsch, Kett, and Trefil's (1988) Dictionary of Cultural Literacy and their list of "What Every American Needs to Know" to his own elaboration of American historical facts offered in this book's list of "What Every American Needs to Know but is Prevented from Knowing." As well, he suggests that next to the Western world's esteemed museums of fine art and science should be established museums of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and American slavery, the Vietnam War, the Holocaust, and the genocide of the American Indian-"museums of crime" that would serve to demystify the myths that often shroud the truth about American history and its dominant culture.
In chapter two, "Our Common Culture: A Poisonous Pedagogy," Macedo emphasizes his contention that the big-lie theory, along with its philosophical twin-the poisonous pedagogy of an American culture based on Eurocentric ideals and practices yet masquerading as a "common" culture-together inhibit the achievement of a true common culture in the United States, one that allows persons of all races, genders, cultures, and language groups equal participation and representation in U.S. society. This theme is further explored in chapter three, "Our Uncommon Culture: The Politics of Race, Class, Gender and Language," which presents a conversation between Macedo and Brazilian educator-philosopher Paulo Freire. In their conversation, these two theorists engage in a dialogue about the development of an anticolonial society based on cultural production, which Macedo defines as the process by which particular groups of people produce, arbitrate, and corroborate their mutual ideologies. This chapter is also notable for Freire's penetrating reflections on his classic 1970 work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
Macedo maintains in chapter four, "English Only: The Tongue-Tying of America," that the combined malapropisms of the American dominant group's pedagogical ideals involve schools and societal and government institutions alike in lies, deceit, humiliation, scare tactics, manipulation, and ridicule of non-White, non-male persons. …