Literacy and Cultural Identity – Our Role as Educators in Different Classroom Settings

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.

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3 responses to “Literacy and Cultural Identity – Our Role as Educators in Different Classroom Settings

  1. I agree that teaching the dominant culture norms is important for both children and older students, but it seems to me that the purpose for teaching dominant culture is different for these age groups.

    In the case of children, teaching dominant culture is necessary for the sheer sake of making sure children are exposed to it. After all, this is clearly the channel through which children will find success for the rest of their school career. Yet, as you said, children are very impressionable and I agree that they need a great deal of exposure to other cultures and their discourses. According to our readings, this multiplicity gives learners confirmation that they are not being marginalized (at least not in school).

    With older students and adults, it’s a different story. At some point(s) in their school career, students have hopefully been exposed to the kind of critical literacy that obliquely asks readers to questions authors, their stances, and their authority in taking these stances. The reasoning here is a closed circuit: that is, the reader identifies the author’s stance and goes about examining whether or not this stance (and the author by way of the stance) holds water. However, our reading this week seems to argue that it is necessary to go beyond this oblique form of critical literacy and extend our questioning outwards. A student’s questioning of the text needs to go beyond the reader-author dynamic so that the reader is evaluating the text in the social culture that surrounds him/her in addition to the world at large.

    I think this takes your idea – what you said about giving students the dominant discourse so that they can succeed in their goals – and expands upon it. That is, not only are we giving them dominant culture and discourse as a tool to use but we should also be asking students to examine this tool to see what flaws it contains, how it marginalizes outsiders, and how it consolidates power for insiders. It is this hyper-awareness that will truly give students the power to use discourses to their advantage, whether that be in terms of effecting change or playing by the right rules or both.

  2. I don’t think there can be much disagreement that teaching literacy also does enforce a certain adherence to a cultural paradigm (the dominant one), and so perhaps varying the types of literature used to educate students in literacy may be the only approach to avoiding just giving them one dominant area. I’ve noticed this to some degree in schooling, but the other question I have is, how early on can one instruct your students not only to learn, but to question what they read?

    Critical reading/thinking doesn’t seem to be given much time until late in secondary education and onto the college level. I know that there’s only a limited amount of that sort of thing one can do with younger teens and pre-teens as younger individuals don’t develop much ability in the way of that sort of complex critical analysis, but I wonder how much of that has to do with not having taken the time to try more approaches to critical thinking at younger ages.

    There’s also still that question of what exactly the “Right” answer is. Where does an educator draw the line between a liberal but acceptable interpretation or refutation, and something more outlandish? Does that not tie into the dominant paradigm/discourse/culture as well? These sorts of questions come up when I think about these situations, and while they may not have answers (or at least answers that are easily reached) it’s still something to consider.

  3. I’d just like to point out the fact that only a “dominant culture” would debate the idea of segregating its education to “better serve” disadvantaged minorities. It reminds of a quote I read last year in a comp class. It was in regards to a controversial CCCC meeting and the doctrine of student’s rights. In reply, a black professor at a University said that she thought minorities had “no worse enemies than these people who are supposedly trying to help them.” Changing the curriculum in other words to match certain minorities would only further marginalize an already marginalized segment of society. There is also the fact that many Hispanic parents in studies, contrary to what Ferdman claims, actively fight against having their children put in bi-lingual classes, as they feel it will hinder their acquisition of English,

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