Dear LRA colleagues,
I’ve been thinking a great deal about this election from the perspective of education more broadly, but also believe we would do well to think about it from the specific perspective of literacy education. Many of us have devoted much of our lives and work to literacy, and I believe this election poses particular areas of challenge for us that speak to, talk back to, and question some of the core aspects of our work in this area.
Here are a few areas of challenge I’ve been thinking about that I see as particularly connected to literacy — it’s very incomplete, but a beginning.
1. We are seeing the sense of disenfranchisement of both youth and adults (on both sides of a political spectrum, as well as representing many kinds of identities and interests) who feel as though their voices and perspectives are unheard and disrespected by a power structure that dismisses them as irrelevant;
2. We are seeing the rise of fake news sites and inaccurate memes, and the broad circulation via Facebook & Google of articles from such sites as truth;
3. We are seeing the equation of all media sources among many people as equally (un)trustworthy, regardless of their slant, their funding, the voices they include and exclude. At worst, we are seeing a fundamental distrust of media, including “mainstream” media, who are seen by a certain swath of the public as purveyors of untruth (I have encountered people online who insist that Donald Trump won the popular vote because they read it in an online article, and who insist that any media that say otherwise are not telling the truth);
4. We are seeing the increasing bifurcation of the political reading experiences of individuals on the right and on the left, and the difficulty of engaging in dialogue across perspectives when these reading experiences are so different;
5. We are seeing language used to skillfully manipulate, and to legitimize hatred and disenfranchisement;
6. We are seeing challenges to freedom of expression at a very time when many young people are particularly energized to speak out;
7. We are seeing the insistence on “neutral” classroom literacy materials and curriculum (as if there were such a thing). We are seeing a sometimes legitimate fear of teachers and professors using the written and spoken word to indoctrinate, set against the urgent and largely unmet need to prepare our young citizenry for a multimodal textual world that is anything but neutral.
I believe LRA has a responsibility to think closely, at all times but particularly at this time, about the role of teaching in preparing young people to live in literate political worlds immersed in the above complexities. Texts and pedagogies commonly used in schools continue to emphasize:
a) the unquestioned, unquestionable authority of text;
b) very little juxtaposition of competing texts and competing interpretations of text;
c) reading as a neutral skill to be acquired rather than a work of critical decision-making and textual interrogation;
d) few opportunities to use literacies in generative ways, through writing and other multimodal forms of expression, that enable students to speak with a political voice.
As I see it, we as a field have both political and empirical work to do. We need to think about what existing research (for example, in the areas of media literacy or critical literacy) may help us be able to think through, as well as formulate a research agenda that takes on the questions where we simply have too little information to be able to address them adequately yet.
I know I will continue to think about these concerns, and I would invite any of you thinking along these lines as well to be in touch if you feel so moved.