Literacy in its Fundamental Sense

“You taught me language, and my profit on ’t is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you for learning me your language!”—Caliban, in The Tempest.

I once asked my mentor, the late Dr. Stephen Norris, if he had any thoughts on the notion of “21st century literacy”. He thought for a moment and said, “I don’t see that it’s significantly different from 16th century literacy.” He was enjoying a joke, of course, but like all good jokes, there is a healthy measure of truth in it. Etymologically, to be “literate” is to possess “letters”. Scholars were once referred to as men and women of letters. The literate had mastery over written language; the ability to read and write conferred on a person a set of otherwise unattainable intellectual capacities.

There is no reason to doubt this view today; one cannot begin to grasp contemporary fields of knowledge without the capacity to read and write. It is not surprising, then, that literacy has become something of a motherhood issue in education. Literacy is a good thing. For everyone. We need to develop literacy tests. We need to develop literacy interventions. We need to hold school accountable for the literacy of its students. And a whole industry is born. A successful industry. So successful, in fact, that it has generated a whole sub-industry of imitators, pretenders and usurpers. I’ll deal with them another day. For now, let’s just refer to “scientific literacy”, “financial literacy”, “environmental literacy” etc. as derived senses of literacy.

Literacy in its fundamental sense—reading and writing—is at the heart of any reasonable conception of education in the modern world. Norris and Phillips (2003) persuasively argued no matter how important we may believe scientific literacy to be, it is a mistake to attempt to educate for it without establishing fundamental literacy first. The argument is that modern science is not merely dependent on literacy; rather, literacy is a fundamental constituent of science. Science as an activity involves the reading and the creation of literate texts. It is the (relative) fixed meaning of written texts that makes it possible to have public understanding of theories, methods, hypotheses, analysis and so on. Further, science as a discipline is only possible because the fixed meaning of text makes meaningful critical discourse possible. The upshot, they argue, is that the literacy of text construction and textual interpretation are central to the very enterprise of science. The issue now becomes determining what counts as literacy in its fundamental sense. Yes it’s reading and writing, but what about them. It is tempting (and even common in academic accounts) to reduce reading to decoding the meaning of words and sentences. If you know the words, goes the argument, then you can read. But this is clearly inadequate. To meaningfully interpret a text, you must also be able to construct a sensible interpretation of what the words and sentences mean, and be able to assess this construction’s meaningfulness. Literacy in its fundamental sense is the ability to infer meaning from texts.

If Norris and Phillips are right—and I think they are—then their argument will apply to many of the “imitators, pretenders and usurpers” I dismissed earlier. The many literacies that are being championed in contemporary educational discourse need to be assessed both in terms of the demands of the discipline, but also by their relationship to literacy in its fundamental sense. These secondary literacies may or may not be worthy of time and place in school curricula, but they will need to be taught and learned only after literacy in its fundamental sense is addressed.

Reference Norris, S. P. and Phillips, L. M. (2003), How literacy in its fundamental sense is central to scientific literacy. Sci. Ed., 87: 224–240. doi: 10.1002/sce.10066

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2 thoughts on “Literacy in its Fundamental Sense

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