Stuckey, Elspeth J. — The Violence of Literacy

Stuckey, Elspeth J. The Violence of Literacy. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/ Cook, 1991. Print.

In this annotation I will focus on chapter one, “Literacy and Social Class,” of Stuckey’s book. The thesis of the chapter can be summarized by the following: “[s]hould English teachers wish to change English teaching, they will have to understand the interrelationships of English teaching to American work” (12). She begins this chapter by asserting that the lauded American notion of having as a classless society is fallacious. She contends that America’s propensity to deny class is rooted in American individualism in which “citizens get what they achieve” (3). Citing sociologist Frank Parkin, Stuckey argues that this notion of individualism actually promotes “rifts in economic opportunity” because in reality “citizens make their lives according to an economy; they live in commerce, not in isolation. Despite the sociomythology to the contrary, any life demands a social network, not rugged individualism.”  Furthermore, in order “[t]o understand the American class system [one must…] understand American work” as “occupation is the salient marker of class” (11).

Most importantly, Stuckey argues that “today, the link between decisions about capital and decisions about social, economic intercourse is literacy. Literacy is the language of profit; in America, profit begs text” (19). Thus, literacy is a harbinger of both class and occupation. She contends that in the information revolution of the late 20th century information equates to literacy. As information replaces industrialization, those who have access to and often control of information (i.e. literacy) have control of capital. Therefore, knowledge—literacy—is a form of capital; it is a potentially oppressive tool to be owned by a dominant group. Stuckey further explains:

This is to say that literacy is a function of culture, social experience, and sanction. Literacy education begins in the ideas of the socially and economically dominant class and it takes the forms of socially acceptable subjects, stylistically permissible forms, ranges of difference or deviance, baselines of gratification. Becoming literate signifies in large part the ability to conform or, at least, to appear conformist. The teaching of literacy, in turn, is a regulation of access. (19)

In this way, “[i]t is possible that a system of ownership built on the ownership of literacy is more violent than past systems of indenture, slavery, industrialism, and the exploitation of immigrant or migrant labor” (18).

This chapter in Stuckey’s book presents a salient—perhaps even shocking—depiction of literacy. The goal of her book, as stated in the introduction, is to demolish the American myth of literacy as the great equalizer, the equitable ticket to economic and social opportunity. She faces the daunting task of debunking powerful notions ingrained in the American cultural narrative: equal opportunity through literacy, classless society, and individualism.  She begins that demolition by explaining how literacy is inextricably bound to class and work. Work—among other markers—determines class, and class determines a person’s access to literacy. The intended audience of her book is English teachers who she, unfortunately at times, potentially alienates with her critical tone. From the very beginning of the book, she warns English teachers about being unintentional gatekeepers through literacy instruction. Her intention in this chapter is to reveal the reason for this unintentional gatekeeping.   

The main takeaway from this chapter for me is the notion that literacy is built as an unbiased, impartial, classless, raceless, genderless norm in the American cultural narrative. However, literacy standards and education are impacted with dominant ideology pertaining to class, race, and gender. Thus, I plan to explore the ways the creators of the Common Core (CC) tout their literacy standards as the former. Then I will approach my data set (CC English 9-10 standards and CC state test) with the following question in mind: Who is allowed to be literate and who is denied?

-Katie Garahan


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