Many of my favorite authors and educators believe literacy has the power to change the world. Paulo Freire, in particular, drew on his literacy work with the marginalized Brazil for his magnum opus “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.”
So imagine my disequilibrium when I came across a writer who challenged the idea that literacy can lead to a better world—based on the fact that, well, it still hasn’t.
Derek Rasmussen* writes: “It is interesting to note that although we prescribe literacy to the oppressed, literacy has not necessarily cured the oppressor… We say to the supposedly lesser-developed: Literacy will help you build a just society, although it has not done that for us.”
I had to reread that line a few times to make sure I understood what he was saying (go ahead, I had to). And… he makes a good point. Many of us assume that literacy = access to knowledge = better world. So, how do we explain the fact that, while we live in a world more literate than ever before, injustice is still rampant?
Well before anyone throws in the towel on literacy, perhaps its worth considering that Rasmussen’s argument has less to do with whether or not we can read, and more to do with what we read. Or, in this case, what we don’t read.
Literacy has the transformative power to open our world, increase our empathy, and expose us to new viewpoints, but not if we don’t use literacy to expose ourselves to those other views.
Many of us (myself included) fall into the trap of simply using literacy to reinforce our own worldview. Oftentimes, this process begins in school, where we’re taught to value certain types of literacy above others, and are told that certain types texts are inherently more valuable than others (e.g. “the Canon“).
But it doesn’t stop there. Even the internet, which was supposed to tear down barriers to communication, has become a space where we can spend all day clicking around our own, curated “echo chambers” that cater to our own interests and views.
Mark Twain once said “the man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read,” but it’s also true that someone who does not read new perspectives also gains little advantage.
To this day, I know no more powerful way to empathize than to read the story of another. It’s true that we can listen to others’ stories, visit new places, or even watch a well done documentary to gain perspective. But while these are all powerful, necessary experiences, they’re all still external experiences; you’re watching or hearing what someone else has to say. But when you read, the thoughts and images must take shape within your own mind. Think about that for a moment: The thoughts and images crafted by another take shape—not on a screen, not through your ears, not even right in front of your eyes—but in your own mind. There’s a reason books have always been objects of close scrutiny and censorship under dictatorial regimes (and, who are we kidding, in our own schools).
Literacy is dangerously transformative, but not if we only use it to reinforce what we already think we know. If instead, we put literacy towards its greatest uses, then even a single story can demonstrate the full, transformative power of literacy.
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*Rasmussen, D. (2001). Qallunology: A Pedagogy for the Oppressor. Canadian Journal of Native Education, 25(2), 105-16.