|Date: Fri, 26 Mar 2004 17:11:15 -0500
From: Sally Wellenbrock Hinrich
Subject: Literacy and Literacies: Texts, Power, and Identity
AUTHOR: Collins, James; Blot, Richard K.
TITLE: Literacy and Literacies: Texts, Power, and Identity
SERIES: Studies in Social and Cultural Foundations of Language 22
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
Sally Wellenbrock Hinrich, Oklahoma State University
Collins and Blot build an argument that literacy is not merely an
independent skill for comprehending texts, measured by an arbitrary
institutional standard, but "inseparable from values, senses of self,
and forms of regulation and power" (page xviii). Integrating themes
from the French post-structuralists, the authors analyze ethnographic
and cultural studies to illustrate how literacy has been interpreted in
various points in history and in numerous societies.
Chapter 1 introduces the concept that, in addition to printed text,
literacy also relates to other cultural forms that hold meaning for the
specific cultural group (p. 3). Literacy is defined as an absolute
concept related to educational development as well as the required
skills needed to comprehend texts. Literacies, in contrast, represent
"sociocultural or situated models" that incorporate historical and/or
cultural variables (p.4).
Chapter 2 delves into the development of the "literacy thesis" which
promotes writing as the key to development of a superior form of
civilization (from Halverson, 1991). The authors critically examine
arguments by Goody (1986), Goody & Watt (1963) and Olson (1997, 1974)
who diminish the status of oral-based cultures while privileging
literate-based, Greco-European, cultures. Collins & Blot argue that
those who recognize only in the context-independent nature of written
text ignore the existence of the interpretive nature of both written
and oral cultures. The authors invoke deCerteau's (1984) position that
oral and written texts are "complimentary," existing on a continuum
rather than as objective absolutes (p. 30). Their argument concludes
that it is necessary to shift from the literacy thesis view (that only
a formal text represents literacy) in order to focus on the post-
structuralist view where multiple literacies develop from everyday
practices in addition to institutional criteria.
In Chapter 3, the authors argue that situated literacies need to be
developed and enhanced within each social context to create a local
construction of meaning rather than through the application of
arbitrarily defined skills . Drawing on geographically diverse work,
Collins & Blot blend the original ethnographic focus of work done by
Heath (1983, United States), Finnegan (1988, Sierra Leone) and Street
(1984, 1993, Iran), with a critical analysis of the implications of
each group's efforts to maintain an identity while resisting the power
of institutional literacy.
Chapter 4 focuses on the historic shifts in the interpretation of
literacy during the rise of European nation states. Beginning in
Renaissance Italy, the authors contend that the rise of printed text
and writing was employed to separate society by class as well as by
concept (written text over oral). Synthesizing historical accounts with
deCerteau's (1984) concept of the "polarizing" effects of writing,
Collins & Blot recount the 18th and 19th century growth of American
public schools where the primary function of literacy was to inculcate
discipline (while excluding women and slaves). Gradually the addition
of basic skills training in the curriculum created "a literature of
national lore and self-improvement" (p. 78). The authors then outline
how the definition of "illiterate," was again revised to represent not
just a lack of learning prescribed texts, but also assigned to any form
of non-standard learning, suggesting another shift in meaning that
created disparities affecting personal power and identity for social
and ethnic groups.
In examining the historical development of institutional literacy in
the late 1880s through the 1960s, the authors describe the effects of
the increasing standardization of technology and schooling that
ultimately developed into establishing testing standards to rank
students in the school systems. By the 1950s & 60s, students were
tracked into academic or vocational coursework based on aptitude and
achievement test scores. Accompanying this structuring of coursework
was the reinforcement of Standard English grammar and composition that
reduced other forms of language to non-standard status. Collins & Blot
suggest that, as a result, literacy and achievement became equated with
the number of years a student stayed in school.
Collins & Blot suggest that standardized testing began "quantifying
literacy," serving to enhance the "quintessentially American desire to
provide technical descriptions and solutions to complex problems" (p.
86). The resulting literacy policies permitted the rise of faceless
administrative power to rank and direct students into specific
coursework while at the same time claiming education was a means of
improving one's place in society. At the same time, resistance to this
standardization was realized with the development of distinctive
African-American oral literature and music using language in direct
conflict with institutional standards. Based on the literacy thesis,
emerging Black/African American dialects were associated with an
"illiterate" use of Standard English.
In chapter 5, Collins & Blot suggest that issues of literacy and
language were externally shaped in the 1960s through large, government-
driven programs to develop and promote a national image of a well-
educated citizenry. The concurrent emergence of social movements (such
as rights for women and minorities) allowed individuals to engage in a
search for alternate identities in order to construct solidarity within
a particular social or ethnic group. The authors point out that while
the schools promoted certain literacies in a non-inclusive way, the
schools also failed to provide literacies that would help students in
their lives outside and beyond school. Collins & Blot demonstrate
conflicts of identity developing from "schooled literacy" using studies
by Heath (1983), Rose (1985, 1989) and Gilyard (1991). The authors
contend that a contradiction exists in modern American education which
endorses "recognition of difference" while it simultaneously imposes
standardized programs, such as literacy requirements and testing norms,
on all students in equal fashion (p. 121).
Chapter 6 begins with examination of historical texts for
transformations of the cultural history of indigenous peoples of Latin
America framed in the rhetoric of colonial languages. Through literacy
programs originally targeted to create a localized workforce,
indigenous groups were forced into using colonial languages to live
within and to form resistance against the dominant culture. Using a
post-structuralist view of writing the authors look at forms of local
opposition in the histories of Hispaniola, the Andes, and post-colonial
Aztec/Mayan cultures to examine the meaning of literacy. The authors
revisit anthropological and ethnographic records to show how certain
groups reshaped the received literacy to meet their needs on an
everyday basis in spite of the legal and historical motives behind the
existing texts of conquest.
In the final chapter (7), Collins & Blot argue for the importance of
valuing local "social memory" in addition to creating a "textual
preservation" of memory (p. 163). The authors refer to the rise of
"computer literacy" and technology as transformation of texts to
cybertext as another step in the history of literacy, not the final
phase of text. What is at stake is not the form; rather it is in
understanding that "meaning is not in a text, but in an interpretation"
(p. 172). They caution that any derived meaning is ultimately affected
by the "power" and "identity" of the interpreters (p. 173). The authors
outline two principal definitions of literacy used in current practice.
First, the "unitary account" derived from traditional literacy, where
drill, behavior and testing form the basis of education, "which
foreground carefully measured and quantitatively ranked progress" (p.
173). The other model is "whole language relativism" that includes
plural literacies, where printed text is not the solitary form, but a
form which also accepts literacies based on cultural symbols, visual
arts and computer technologies as well as the "child's home-based
discourses" (p. 173).
Collins & Blot close with the comment that any complete definition of
literacy needs to account for "the long-term historical pattern" that
is absent in either of the present interpretations (p. 174). Concluding
that the definition of literacy is still politically and socially
contested, the authors predict further interpretations and
implementation of policies related to the relationship between literacy
and literacies will remain at the forefront of debates in education.
The final chapter did not propose any conclusions about what should be
done to resolve the questions; rather the reader is left to ponder the
implications of the authors' arguments in the ongoing debates.
For those interested in delving into the implications of the orality-
literacy dichotomy, Collins & Blot have added an intriguing perspective
into the ongoing debate. The authors' discussion of the historical
development of local practices in Latin America and Africa added a new
dimension to the more frequently cited studies of British colonial
expansion and subsequent domination of the English language around the
world (Pennycook, 1998; Kachru, 1992; and many others). Multiple
studies and detailed references presented in the text, however, require
the reader to pay close attention to the authors' arguments in order to
follow some of the more complex lines of reasoning. There are two
related subjects that I would like to see expanded in any future
edition or in another volume. First, throughout the text, the groups
cited in the examples were based on homogenous cultures within a given
society. How are multiple literacies to be realized when communities
must address the needs of citizens representing many different social
and linguistic practices? I would like to see an analysis of studies
describing groups working together to construct a local framework that
recognizes multiple situated literacies.
Second, although Collins and Blot make a strong argument against
standardized testing, how would the authors suggest that all children
be assessed fairly? need to present some means of demonstrating how
students are progressing. It would have been helpful to have an
additional chapter or subsection focused on groups developing
assessment practices that incorporate the concept of multiple
In closing, I can also recommend the book as a worthwhile resource for
those interested in the continuing discussion of literacy issues as
well as for those interested in cultural diversity and language
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University of California.
Finnegan, R. (1988). Literacy and orality. Oxford and New York: Basil
Gilyard, J. (1991). Voices of the self. Detroit: Wayne State University
Goody, J. (1986). The logic of writing and the organization of thought.
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Goody, J. and Watt, I. (1963). The consequences of literacy.
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Heath, S.B. (1983). Ways with words: Language, life, and work in
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Rose, M. (1989). Lives on the boundary. New York: Penguin.
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