Literacy = Power

The following is my case for literacy in academic essay form. For those who are interested, see the lengthy post below. For those who just need an abstract, here are my basic points.

1. It is beneficial to all students to master standard English, since (fair or unfair) it is the dominant discourse in the United States.
2. Adopting a dominant discourse as a second language or code can be detrimental to one’s sense of identity, and as a result must be taught with care and sensitivity. However, if taught effectively, literacy opens many of society’s doors.
3. The dominant discourse is the language of those in power, and in order to either gain or challenge the powerful, this same discourse must be used. Hence, students gain influence in our society when they gain literacy skills.

Working the System: Literacy as the Path to Power

If you listen hard enough on a grey Tuesday morning, you can almost hear the question echoing through the hallways of America’s schools: “Why do we have to learn this?!” Resentful (or just honestly curious) English students everywhere want to know the reason behind the ever-growing pile of books, writing exercises, and class discussions that they face week after week. They want to know how literacy relates to their lives. Too often, teachers respond with the explanation, “You need to pass this class to graduate,” or, worse, “Because I said so.”

There is a better, deeper answer to give language arts students about why they should care about their education. Simply put, those who can read, write, and speak within an academic discourse are those who have access to power. This is a truth that is an integral part of our society, whether we approve of it or not. Using works from theorists Richard Rodriguez, James Paul Gee, Lisa Delpit, and David Bartholomae as a guideline, I intend to discuss the strong connection between education, literacy, and power. This connection will be used as an argument for the study of English, in hopes that even the most hesitant English students may find some practical inspiration for their day-to-day coursework.

In his article “The Achievement of Desire,” Richard Rodriguez gives a personal account of his educational experiences. He begins as a very young child barely able to speak English, and ends up as a respected scholar. Though his journey is not without its own hardships, Rodriguez serves as the perfect case study for the path to power by means of literacy. The power related to the fluent use of language comes in many forms. For Rodriguez, it ultimately manifests itself as the ability to express the wisdom he gained from his experiences.

From the very early stages of his education, Rodriguez begins to change: “with ever-increasing intensity, I devoted myself to my studies. I became bookish, puzzling to all my family. Ambition set me apart” (Rodriguez 431). The change that overcomes Rodriguez already as a boy introduces a very important component of literacy: its power to shape the individual. In his essay “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics,” James Paul Gee talks about discourse as not only a way of speaking, but also of being (526). The way that language is used can shape identity. For Rodriguez, this meant that his identity was changing away from one accepted by his family and toward one accepted by the academic community. The way that this change influenced Rodriguez’s life down to the most intimate level proves Gee’s point that “What is important is not language, and surely not grammar, but saying (writing)-doing-being-valuing-believing combinations. […] Discourses are ways of being in the world; they are forms of life which integrate words, acts, values, beliefs, attitudes, and social identities…” (526). Changing a discourse modified not only the way that Rodriguez spoke, but also these other factors that Gee lists as part of a discourse. Through discourse, Rodriguez was changing the shape of who he was altogether.

The change of identity that happens through the adoption of a discourse happens in a certain sequence. Every person begins with an initial, home-based identity. Gee calls this the “primary discourse” (527). He goes on to propose that any newly acquired discourses are therefore secondary discourses; of which there are two types, dominant and nondominant. The dominant discourses are those that academics try to master. Incidentally, they are the discourses that, when mastered, can be used to gain “acquisition of social ‘goods’ (money, prestige, status, etc.)” (Gee 528). The support for this definition is largely apparent in our society, as the most lucrative careers—medicine, law, business, and technology—all operate within a dominant discourse: standard English. The change that Rodriguez goes through is in this distinct direction—from primary discourse to dominant secondary discourse. He is moving in the direction of power in the form of social goods. Gee defines “literacy” as “the mastery of or fluent control over a secondary discourse” (529). If we, too, accept this definition, we can see literacy and power as one and the same.

Naturally, the idea of freer access to money, prestige, and other social goods is an appealing one to most of us. Once one ponders the simple connection “mastery of dominant discourse equals power through social goods,” he or she can begin to wonder why there might be a struggle at all to persuade students that literacy is an admirable goal. Truly, if obtaining skills in academic discourse led straight to the bank with no outside complications, there would be no resistance whatsoever to literacy training. But, complications do exist, and they make the process of literary education anything but simple in certain scenarios. This is why literacy training is, at times, a difficult and controversial business.

There can be conflicts, especially in non-mainstream students, between their primary discourses and the dominant ones that they are asked to acquire in an academic setting (Gee 543). Since discourses surround identities, this conflict can swell into a full-blown crisis. For example, if a poor black student is raised to believe that wealthy white people are his oppressors, he may find it very disturbing to use an academic discourse which is characteristic of a wealthy, white culture. Such an extreme difference in discourses can cause education to be a choosing of sides; where a student must choose to sacrifice his home values and culture for an education, or vice versa.

Returning to our case study, we can see a clear conflict, just as described above, in Rodriguez’s situation. Throughout the process of acquiring his dominant discourse, Rodriguez remained unhappy, plagued by the discourse he had left behind: “I intended to hurt my mother and father. I was still angry at them for having encouraged me toward classroom English. But gradually this anger was exhausted, replaced by guilt as school grew more and more attractive to me” (435). Though he truly desired to master the academic discourse, Rodriguez was a longtime “Scholarship Boy: good student, troubled son” (432). This loss of one identity to gain another is a tragedy of literacy, and—according to some theorists—it cannot be avoided, except by outright refusing to obtain a dominant discourse.

There are those who proudly reject this view, however, and Lisa Delpit is one of them. In her essay “The Politics of Teaching Literate Discourse,” Delpit maintains that it is indeed possible for non-mainstream students to gain mastery in a discourse without rejecting their sense of self (552). She uses several illustrative examples of successful people who began within a nondominant discourse but successfully transitioned into a dominant one without damage to their primary identities. The examples are inspiring, but they are exceptional. Delpit explains that special conditions are required for such success: “Teachers must acknowledge and validate students’ home language without using it to limit students’ potential” (553). In other words, to transition successfully, a student must understand the value of the primary discourse as well as the dominant one. The role of educators is instrumental in this process.

In Delpit’s examples, the teachers “put in overtime to ensure that the students were able to live up to their expectations” (549). Rodriguez’s experiences may support the theory that involved teachers can ease a harsh transition. Though he admired his teachers, his efforts were more centered on becoming like them instead of becoming a new version of himself (Rodriguez 445). Perhaps if Rodriguez had an instructor who taught him to value his cultural roots in concert with academia, he would not have suffered the emotional pain and alienation that he mentions throughout his memoir. This is a strong testament to the value of teachers, as well as to the good education which students should expect from them.

The conflicts that are associated with acquiring new discourses, whether subtle or disruptive, do not have to be categorized as a negative aspect of education. In fact, the journey through such conflicts can be one of the most positive things about literacy. Even Gee, from his realist stance, argues that “conflicts, while they do very often detract from standard sorts of full mastery, can give rise to new sorts of mastery” (544). A new mastery can definitely be seen in the purposeful, sensitive language of Rodriguez’s writing. Although he initially had problems with identity and guilt, he came out of his education with an ability to voice the things he had learned in the process. As he puts it, “If, because of my schooling, I had grown culturally separated from my parents, my education finally had given me ways of speaking and caring about that fact” (Rodriguez 449). Despite his struggles, Rodriguez emerges an academic who can record his experiences in a way that others within the academy can understand and therefore, relate to—something that would not have been possible had it been delivered in a primary discourse.

The positive results that Rodriguez found from his education are an example of why Delpit advocates for non-mainstream students to acquire an academic discourse. Some critics of Delpit would argue that students cannot be empowered by adopting the language of those who oppress them. Delpit, however, stresses that being within the discourse of an oppressor is what truly gives power: students can then criticize a culture from its own system of philosophy and communication (552). Gee also implies that criticism of a dominant discourse is only effective when the criticism comes from within that same discourse: “Any discourse concerns itself with certain objects and puts forward certain concepts, viewpoints, and values at the expense of others” (538). The very nature of a discourse, as described here by Gee, is defined by its high level of exclusivity. Criticism, like all other forms of expression, must conform to the exclusive mannerisms, values, and viewpoints belonging to the discourse that one wishes to denounce.

Both Gee and Delpit speak of dominant discourse as a possible criticism tool, and they have an incredibly convincing point. All discourses are specialized, and only recognize arguments from within themselves. Considering that, as well as the fact that those in power use dominant discourse, it is nearly impossible to effect change if one is outside the dominant discourse. In “Inventing the University,” David Bartholomae also concedes this point, calling those who are able to use academic discourse as “writers who can both imagine and write from a position of privilege” and change political and social relationships (515). He goes on to explain that—while a person may have excellent ideas—the ideas of a writer will not be widely recognized unless they are delivered in the appropriate code, the code of those in power (521). Just as Rodriguez became able to share the complex cultural and psychological implications of his education, anyone who acquires a dominant discourse will be granted the chance to express his or her views in a way that cannot be dismissed by those in power. For, if they did dismiss it, they would be dismissing their own beliefs, values, and logic.

Power comes in many forms. It can mean money, expensive suits, and expensive wine, the power to get what one wants and needs. It can mean success, prestige, dignified nods on the street, or admiration from peers. It can mean giving voice to one’s dreams, ideas, and most sacred values in a way that the world can relate to. It can mean being able to demand attention from those in authority. It can mean paths to understanding and critiquing the inner workings of establishments, cultures, and people. It can mean self-realization. All these are things that we have seen in the case-study of Rodriguez. Any or all of them can be accessed with true literacy. Literacy is power.

Returning to the question that began this discussion—“Why should students care about a literacy education?”—I can now offer a response. That response, fortified by the ideas of Rodriguez, Gee, Delpit, and Bartholomae; is this: Literacy allows a student to work the system. By “system,” I mean the rules of mainstream society. By “work,” I mean to use to one’s own advantage. If one wishes to change or participate in society, she must invoke the discourse of that society, or she will fail to be recognized. As Gee puts it, “you can’t be let into the game after missing the apprenticeship and be expected to have a fair shot at playing it” (529). Fair or unfair as it may be, this condition is built into our society and cannot be changed. The system cannot be destroyed, for it is far too long-standing and far too large. Therefore, the only way to have any power at all is to make the system work for you. And the only way to do that is to become literate. With literacy comes the power to do as we wish within society; whether that wish is to bring volatile change, to gain status and wealth, or merely to participate quietly and thoughtfully in mainstream life. Acquiring dominant discourses, acquiring literacy, is access to such power. And that, I think any student would agree, is a very desirable prospect.

Works Cited
Bartholomae, David. “Inventing the University.” Literacy: a Critical Sourcebook. Ed. Ellen Cushman, Eugene R. Kintgen, Barry M. Kroll, and Mike Rose. Boston: Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2001.
Delpit, Lisa. “The Politics of Teaching Literate Discourse.” Literacy: a Critical Sourcebook. Ed. Ellen Cushman, Eugene R. Kintgen, Barry M. Kroll, and Mike Rose. Boston: Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2001.
Gee, James Paul. “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction and What is Literacy?” Literacy: a Critical Sourcebook. Ed. Ellen Cushman, Eugene R. Kintgen, Barry M. Kroll, and Mike Rose. Boston: Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2001.
Rodriguez, Richard. “The Achievement of Desire.” Hunger of Memory: the education of Richard Rodriguez. Boston: D.R. Godine, 1981.

2 comments
  1. Holly said:

    You took English 201, didn’t you?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *