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Understanding Literacy

Beth Barton Schweiger—

The power of literacy’s hold on the modern imagination cannot easily be measured. One way to begin to comprehend it is to pose a question: who is against it? From local school boards to Capitol Hill to the United Nations General Assembly, the consensus that literacy empowers and liberates people has driven policymaking for more than two centuries.  In 2003, the UN inaugurated the Literacy Decade under the slogan “literacy is freedom” and declared reading to be a human right. The ability to read makes people not only intelligent, but also employable, wise, wealthy, tolerant, and even happy. Who could possibly disagree?

As it turns out, anthropologists, linguists, and historians do.  Scholars of “the new literacy studies”—although they are now half a century old—do not dispute that reading offers many benefits.  But their work shows that our expectations about what reading can do are culturally embedded, or ideological.  Literacy, they show, is not a universal commodity that can be airlifted into deprived regions and unleashed to effect remarkable progress.  Instead, these skills work differently in different places at different times, always dependent on the context in which they are practiced.

Among the Vai people of Liberia, psychologists found that skills in specific scripts generated subtle differences in cognition. The Vai are adept in three scripts—an indigenous script they learn outside of school, the national language of English taught in schools, and the Arabic they learn in their Islamic practice. For the Vai, it was schooling, rather than literacy per se, that determined how they used these skills. Another landmark study of two rural communities in the North Carolina Piedmont found that different family structures, religious practices, and communal norms determined how children who lived just six miles apart used literacy. A third study documented four different kinds of literacies in a single village in northeastern Iran: a maktab literacy taught at the village Islamic school; a commercial literacy generated by economic changes in the fruit-growing region; a dabestan literacy taught in the State schools; and an urban literacy that differed from that used in villages. These Cheshmehis, like the North Carolinians, used literacy skills in light of political and economic changes, religious practices, and educational norms. 

The same principle held true in nineteenth-century America, where people enthusiastically proclaimed the ideology that literacy left liberty and prosperity in its wake. Reading, they declared, was necessary to liberal democracy, American imperialism, market capitalism, and Protestant nationalism. What white reformers never acknowledged was how critical American chattel slavery was to their understanding of what reading could do. When Frederick Douglass proclaimed that books were his path to freedom, he voiced one of the great assumptions of modern life, the ideological sea in which we still swim.

Yet these reformers burdened reading with impossible expectations. Daily life in their own communities saw literate slaves in bondage, literate Native Americans brutally disinherited, literate poor people who remained impoverished, and many literate women who shunned political equality with men. After emancipation, freedmen and women learned to read in astonishing numbers. Yet they were still lynched and disenfranchised by Jim Crow laws at the end of the century. Their experiences, and those of many other literate people, sit uneasily in a liberal narrative of American history that says freedom and equality are within reach of all who can read. 

Literacy is not a technology that can be deployed like so many widgets to fix what is broken. People determine the meaning of reading in the places and times in which they live. Nor does literacy guarantee liberal results, as the examples of Germany in the 1930s, contemporary Zimbabwe, or millions of social media accounts show. Literacy may be necessary for a just society in our time, but it is hardly sufficient. Its power alone cannot set people free.


Beth Barton Schweiger taught for fifteen years at the University of Arkansas. She is the author of The Gospel Working Up and editor of Religion in the American South.


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Featured Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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