Ferdman’s article on Literacy and Cultural Identity showcases issues that I’m sure many educators have battled with. How much emphasis do we place on cultural differences in the classroom? In promoting literacy, are we asking students to embrace the dominant culture, or are we simply giving them tools to succeed in the future? Is success somehow tied to the literacy that we are helping students acquire, and if so, tied to a dominant culture?
There are no clear answers to these questions. At best, it seems that these questions simply stir up more questions that teachers cannot really begin to answer. If an illiterate person is “someone who cannot access (or produce) texts that are seen as significant within a given culture” (p. 186), then a person who cannot read and write in the language that is dominant in that given culture would be considered illiterate. In a country like America, this definition is extremely complex. Whose culture are we talking about? The majority? The dominant group? The people who create these definitions in the first place? What about the “significant texts,” who decides what is considered significant? Ferdman does his best to address many of these questions, but in my opinion, the more questions that he addresses, the more that are raised.
If we put aside the definition of literacy as simply being able to read and write, and take on the idea that it includes being able to comprehend and manipulate symbols in a culturally prescribed manner (p. 188), what does this say about people who are master manipulators of language yet operate outside of the mainstream cultural norm? [Cult leaders, perhaps….?? (for lack of a better example)]
If we buy into the idea that literacy is tied to cultural identity, and if we believe that teaching literacy at least in some small way is tied to promoting the dominant culture of the language we are helping students acquire literacy in, and if we are going to think about whether or not this burden that teachers are faced with can (or should) be addressed in some way, then I believe there should be a distinction between teaching literacy to children in a K-12 setting, and teaching or improving literacy at the post-secondary level. There is a huge difference, in my mind, between promoting a dominant culture through the teaching of literacy to children, and teaching literacy skills to adults. Children, learning how to read and write at a young age, are still shaping their identities in a huge way, and are required to go to school, without having any choice in the matter. Ferdman gives the example of how teaching literacy in different languages can impact a child’s gender socialization and identity in various ways, depending on the specific language’s focus on gender. In this case, I believe that more emphasis should be on allowing for some cultural variation in the teaching of literacy. If it is not possible to teach children to be literate in a wide variety of languages in the classroom, there can (and should, I would argue) be an effort to incorporate texts that are written from outside of the dominant discourse. However, this is a very different situation from an adult who is choosing to go to college for a specific purpose. Many adults in higher education are there to improve their job prospects, and better prepare themselves for the future. In this case, it is important to focus on the type of literacy that will help students meet their needs, which most likely means helping students access the academic discourse community, which is typically shaped by the dominant discourse of the dominant culture.
No matter what, I believe that helping students become literate is one of the most important things that a teacher can do, especially in a situation where literacy can help students access more resources within the dominant culture. I believe that the more languages that a person is literate in, the better equipped he or she will be to succeed. Giving students the tools they need to become literate in a specific language can hopefully be just another one of the building blocks needed to form a strong cultural identity.