Monday, April 27, 2009

The Ethnography of Literacy (Precis)

In John F. Szwed’s article “The Ethnography of Literacy”, Szwed elaborates on the misconceptions of literacy and how it is studied. Literacy around the world is viewed very differently. In the United States, for example, literacy has been singled out as a root cause of poverty where the responsibility for failure is assigned variously to poor teaching, overcrowded, classes, family background, the media, and the directions of contemporary society itself. But as Szwed claims, “we do not fully know what literacy is” we teach our children something we know very little of. Literacy has been viewed as a yes or no matter where either one can or cannot read but as Scwed states, “literacy goes beyond the basic assumption of being able to read and write”, we should consider the “social meaning of literacy where the roles these abilities play in social life, the varieties of reading and writing available for choice, the context for their performance, and the manner in which they are interpreted and tested, not by experts, but by ordinary people in ordinary activities” are taken into consideration (422).
The reading and publishing of novels is declining and as a result illiteracy is on the rise. Szwed attempts to explain that literacy is not declining but what is declining is what we consider to be literate. For example; most wouldn’t consider magazines, billboards, bills, graffiti, junk mail, cereal boxes or pornography to be a “book” but it is something that requires the same abilities one would need to read a book and be considered literate. Current available statistics “tell us nothing about the variety of function that reading and writing can serve. To consider only the use of books, in addition to providing information and pleasure- they are bought as decorations, as status symbol gifts, investments, and for other reasons yet to be discovered” (425), therefore to consider a person literate only if they read books would be incorrect.
Aside from the influence of school on literacy, family life along with extracurricular activities such as church also has a major influence on children. This leads to the assumption of families thinking that the school is not properly educating their children and vice versa. Scwed also talks about a case where black students using Ebonics were told that the words used in their poetry were misspelled and incorrect. Here the school did not take into account the language varieties the students may have. Similarly is the case with bilingual children where schools must learn to take their background into consideration when evaluating their literacy and competence.
Though I agree with Scwed with his views on literacy. I also feel that old literature (novels) must continue to be enforced on our children. The reading of contemporary literacy structures of today won’t be enough to keep future generations afloat, for novels not only require the ability to read but to critically think as well.


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