Nonacademic Writing: Social Theory and Technology

By Ann Hill Duin; Craig J. Hansen | Go to book overview

10
Participatory Writing: Literacy for Civic Purposes

Sandra Stotsky Harvard Graduate School of Education

Literacy has been historically associated with the development and maintenance of democratic institutions. Because ancient Athens was a face-to-face society, literacy may not have been critical for the daily functioning of democracy, as it was practiced then. Nevertheless, many scholars believe that it played a crucial role in the development of Athenian democracy and in the later development of democracy elsewhere. Indeed, the Athenians also saw literacy as instrumental in its development. As Finley ( 1983) commented in a discussion of the nature of self-government in ancient Athens, "the archaic struggle for a written law code was rightly looked back upon as critical in breaking the power monopoly of the old aristocracy" (p. 30). It clearly would have been of little use to have laws written down if none but the aristocracy could read them. Nor would it have been of much use, in more recent times, to have rights spelled out in writing, as in the Magna Carta or the charters for the colonies in the New World, if none but monarchs and their advisors could read them.

The reasons for the positive relationship between literacy and democracy are not quite clear. As Harris ( 1989) pointed out in a study of literacy in the ancient world, literacy has served ostensibly negative purposes throughout history. He noted that written language "makes empires possible," that it has been a means of "exercising power," that it has been used by those who claimed religious authority to "enhance their authority" (such as Moses), and that it may even have encouraged "a sort of canonization of discourse" (p. 39). Moreover, 20th-century history teaches us that a high degree of literacy does not guarantee a democratic society; the populace of Nazi Germany, for example, was highly literate. Nevertheless, as Harris noted,

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