Does Literacy and Comprehension Prepare You to be an Asset to Society?

I find myself sitting at my computer at a loss for what to write. I am unsure of my subject and my structure for this paper, and I am afraid that if I don’t accurately portray my thoughts in writing ‘the teacher’ will view me as unfit for the class. Eventually, this will result in a low grade on my essay, in turn causing me to receive a poor grade for the class, consequently lowering my grade point average. If none of my essays are to my teacher’s liking, then I would have to retake this class; this would prolong the time in getting my degree- the degree that I have been working towards and wanting for so long. Finally after all of this I wonder to myself, why do I want this degree, this A, this approval?

How many other students my age- no, how many other students have thought these exact same things? We are taught to prepare for the next step in our lives; for example, while in elementary school we should do well to get ready for middle school, middle school you are preparing for high school, and so on. Do we need to achieve a certain grade or comprehension level to be considered worthy for the next grade? Does this ‘level’ or any amount of comprehension prepare you for acquiring a career and overall becoming to an asset to society? Many would argue no, that literacy and comprehension of texts is not enough to become successful in life- but how odd is it that many in our class thought that literacy was enough to attain most of our goals! Literacy, by the definition found on, is “1. the quality or state of being literate, esp. the ability to read and write.” This definition is what many people would say literacy is if asked randomly; but I would like to argue that literacy is not as simplistic as reading and writing; in our class literacy was referred to as a multidimensional concept, but this definition deceives the reader, leading them to believe this is two dimensional, black and white. Then this brings me to the question of this, what are the dimensions of literacy mentioned earlier?

This is the very question that our class has been dialoguing about for weeks now and it seems odd to me that we still have not come up with a total definitive definition for literacy. Literacy may be reading and writing to some, but without understanding that which you are doing- literacy is meaningless. Also, some may be considered illiterate but may know another language, for example, a person knows Spanish but is considered illiterate by American culture. Or the possibility of someone not able to write an essay but they know a computer better than anyone in the country, does this make them illiterate? Even the connotation of the word illiterate has changed with our culture, now with such a derogatory sense and often used as a synonym for stupid or ignorant- by these examples though illiteracy is not ignorance. Then culture comes into play as well, and at this point in the dialogue we start to come to this grand realization: literacy and its definition are defined by us, our culture, our society. Literacy could potentially be whatever we want it to be, but as a group, through media, schools, and conversation and so on, we have constructed a definition for an extremely important word.

Literacy seems to be much how Linda Brodkey put it, as a “social trope”. We construct our understanding of literacy by what is around us and societal influences within our lives. The person who knows Spanish is literate, but their ‘trope’ or understanding of literacy comes from a point of view that includes the Spanish language. In this sense you could even consider the computer analyst I mentioned earlier as being literate, in computers more than in words. Literacy is what we make of it- me coming from a suburban middle class home, I was taught that literacy is reading and writing from my previous school and other influences, but again this is my understanding and my ‘social trope’. All of us, as individuals have different experiences and attributes, therefore the cause of different ‘social tropes’ between all of us.

Now you may be asking yourself- what does it matter what literacy means? Think back to elementary school, I’m sure that many of us were placed into separate reading groups, and even if that is not the case just looking back to what classroom you were placed in can tell you a lot about what the teachers thought of your literacy achievement. From childhood on we are often categorized to help us compete with others that are at our level of reading, athletic ability, overall intelligence, almost anything. How do these standards form and how do we distinguish between an ‘A’ and a ‘B’?

In Literacy in American Lives Deborah Brandt writes about the privilege of literacy, within the first page the reader can tell she feels the ability to read and write are some of the most valuable assets people have. However, shortly after she writes about the dangers of the gift; “But it [literacy] was a mechanism by which the great bureaucracies of modern life tightened around us, along with their systems of testing, sorting, controlling and coercing” (p.2). I would have to agree with Brandt, literacy is often tested in our culture, we are always trying to see who is ‘better’ or ‘worse’. No one seems to question it since we have become curious to see where we stand with others. How can you judge literacy though? With my current understanding that literacy is what we make of it, it seems impossible to accurately test literacy which many academic institutions claim to do on a daily basis. Some may be better at writing than answering multiple choice questions on a test, while some may be better at speaking in public than at writing an essay- how do you make a test that encompasses all the forms of literacy to accurately test someone’s ‘competence’? Furthermore, and more importantly, why do we need to know where ‘we stand’ within any group of people?

We all desire to be accounted for the work that we do- if we put in twenty more hours studying than the guy sitting next to us we want it to show in our grades or degree. For this reason we have set up a system of numbers and letters to show who is achieving more than the next person. There is more than that though, if you look at American capitalist society, many of us are obsessed with getting ahead and obtaining our goals. We are competing against others since the day we step into school- think about it! Even in kindergarten you can be held back if the teacher and other authoritative figure believe that you are not adjusted, intelligent enough, or a slew of reasons that could potentially be refuted, and often are by the family. We are competing for rank in class, grade point, and almost every test we take we are compared to the other students within that class. Competition is second nature in our society- it is almost impossible to escape it.

To compete, we need a plethora of attributes to help us to attain a ‘successful’ status according to society’s standards. In Luke’s essay When Literacy Might (Not) Make A Difference, Luke describes the different forms of capital and how they may contribute to one’s success. In essence, there is cultural capital, economic capital and social capital each of these containing values, the amount of value depending on who the evaluation of skill is being done by. By giving examples I hope to somewhat portray the definitions of various types of capital, and by using a college admissions director as the example it is easy to see how different form of capital can help under different circumstances. Cultural capital consists mostly of skills and degrees which could be valued by a college admissions director, he seeing that you achieved a certain grade point average, which can enable him to label you as fit for the school. Economic capital, this being money and material items, could be relevant if you choose to ‘buy’ your way into college where cultural capital may not be as valuable. Social capital could be considers a person’s ‘connections’ and if the student ‘knew the right people’ acquiring an acceptance letter from the school may not be a problem. Interestingly enough, Luke is not the only author we have read that has mentioned capital- in Anyon’s essay “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work” he cites capital as a major part of one’s potential in life, “Capital can also be symbolic. It can be the socially legitimated knowledge of how the production process works, its financial, managerial, technical, or other ‘secrets.’ Symbolic capital can also be socially legitimated skills- cognitive (e.g., analytical), linguistic, or technical skills that provide the ability to, say, produce the dominant scientific, artistic and other culture, or to manage the systems of industrial and cultural production.” All of these forms of capital make our experiences and skill legitimate and a combination of these seemingly makes the ideal employee- so how de we attain all these forms of capital?

Some are through school (such as embodied) while others you are born into, these making different forms of capital not equal among all of us. We are taught literacy and comprehension in school and if we do well enough we can attain qualifications and merits to help us onto the next part of our life. What American society often likes to ignore is the other forms of capital can also be just as, or more important. Of course, all of us would like to live in the fairly tale world, ‘if you work hard enough you can do anything’, and honestly some people would not have gotten anywhere if they had not believed this. However, I believe that our society needs to take into account how important these other forms of capital can be- the types of capital that Luke and Anyon discuss in their essays.

School helps us to attain embodied capital, certificates and qualifications. With the numbers and letters that we attain throughout our school years, we can use these at a latter date to help legitimize our abilities and attributes with ‘evidence’ of our hard work; although, earlier within the essay I mentioned the college admissions example, so haven’t we have established that embodied is not necessarily the only thing we need to become ‘successful’? I have already stated that other forms of capital you can be born into, or are possibly rare opportunities arise where we are able to attain more of these types of capital. This leads me to the conclusion that not all capital is equal and school can only give us certain types of capital. Our education system is constantly blamed for illiteracy or high unemployment, with many saying if our schools were better more people would be able to enter the work force. However, with these different forms of capital, our education does not seem to be the only problem, if it is even the problem at all. School and literacy learning may not be enough, which further mirrors Luke’s statements, and even the title of his essay.

We are taught that if we work hard enough we can achieve anything we want; but this may not be true in our system of numbers and letters. In the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, the bulk of his book cites how literacy is not enough by using ‘successful’ people by society’s standards and showing how opportunity and chance helped these people to become who they are today. In the “10,000-hour rule” Gladwell discusses in length the oddity of National Hockey League players normally having birthdays in January or February. At a first glance, it seems chance but with further observations on Gladwell’s part he found that the cutoff age for classes for starters is on January 1st. When a person starts hockey at age four, the difference between a child that will be four the entire year compared to a boy that will be four in December is huge! Physically they probably cannot compete, but they are forced to by the standards of the league. These children who are older, smarter and more physically able quickly move up the ranks while that later half of the year children are held back mistakenly assessed as not able to move up, when really the age difference is so great it makes it almost impossible to compete with the January 1st ‘s in the league.

A better example is in his chapter called “The Trouble with Geniuses”. Two extremely intelligent people that should have all the chances in the world take two completely different life paths. Langan and Oppenheimer both are considered geniuses but they are born into two different social classes; Langan born into a poor large household while Oppenheimer in a rich or ‘privileged’ home with both parents and a lot of money. Gladwell argues that these two children were taught to deal with authority differently because of their social class. Poor children typically view authoritative roles as untouchable, and always correct with no room for negotiation. If a teacher tells a mother of a student that Billy has not been doing his homework, the parent does not question, instead she goes home to chastise her child for his behavior. Just the opposite tends to occur in rich house holds, in the same situation the rich mother would have questioned the teacher and asked if she had checked her records again and made sure that she was correct. These two ways of dealing with authority seem trivial but with Langan and Oppenheimer it was apparently crucial. Oppenheimer had no problem with graduating from college even though he committed acts that would normally have expelled a student, while Langan asked simple and normal requests to some of his college professors with constant rejection, the reason? Gladwell would argue their class taught them to question or not question authority- Oppenheimer was able to get out of terrible situations by debating with the school while Langan was too meek and intimidated by authority to refute simple questions.

Essentially their economic capital influenced their social capital- the social capital being the ability to debate with authoritative figures to attain what you would like. This can be an essential quality to be successful; would a CEO ever be able to run a company without questioning heads of other companies? Would a factory worker ever have to question his foreman? Both would be no, and these skills we acquire can ‘make or break’ us and our career choices.
Knowing that these forms of capital can affect our lives so much, I realize that embodied capital can thoroughly change our course in life- especially if we are not competitive with the rest of our socially legitimatized group. In a “Test Scorer’s Lament” by Todd Farley he writes on being a test scorer for many of the state standardized testing and the A.C.T.s that anyone hoping to go to college must take. He describes the environment in a passage within his article where he criticizes the legitimacy of these score that they send out to students.

“If test scoring is ‘scientifially-based research’ of any kind, then I’m Dr. Frankenstein. In fact, my time in testing was characterized by overuse of temporary employees; scoring rules that were alternately ambiguous and bizarre; and testing companies so swamped with work and threatened with deadlines that getting any scores on tests appeared to be more important that the right scores. I’d say the process was laughable if not for the fact those test scores have become so important to the landscape of modern American Education.” (2)

Earlier within the essay I mentioned how impossible it was to legitimately test one’s literacy- but on top of that, the scoring system that we have come to base almost all embodied capital off of is considered ‘laughable’ by the people who are grading, this is enraging! Our standardized tests, that determine our literacy, reading comprehension, rank in school and state, and even funding for the very school is done so haphazardly makes me question the validity of these tests at all. Here I begin to realize that my argument forms full circle, coming back to the topic of categorization “testing, sorting, and coercing” as Brandt would say.

We need a test that allows for all forms of intelligence to be measured, we need workforces to equally judge all forms of capital to make sure those who are most qualified able to attain a job- all of these things seemingly impossible. In fact, that is exactly how I felt after reading many of these articles, but in the end of Luke’s essay he seems to have hope for our future students and educators. He closes with this.

“It means that to teach and research in these new social, economic and cultural conditions, we must all become sociologists of the local—testing folk theories of literacy against possible life trajectories across emergent social fields, analyzing and critiquing the local institutional fields where capital is transformed and exchanged... for less discriminatory social institutions, for the equitable distribution of material and symbolic resources. Without these, all the cultural capital in the world won’t make much of a difference, regardless of what the story says.”(25)

The main point that I have taken away from these articles and essays, about education, class and literacy is this: the relationship between illiteracy and education is not a simple black line, but a series of lines hidden underneath the apparent single concept- these lines may be different colors and thicknesses, but lines that connect many ideas to the grand theory that many choose to focus on- literacy.