"Literature in Culture and Cognition," by Patricia Bizzell.  In Enos, Theresa. A Sourcebook for Basic Writing Teachers.  New York: McGraw-Hill, 1987.  134-6 .


 (Reproduced for classroom use only)

 Hirsch sees the acquisition of cultural literacy as crucial because it confers "not just linguistic knowledge, and knowledge about the topic, but also, and more important, knowledge of what others also know and expect about the topic, about the form, about the writer, and about the world" (28-29). Without such knowledge, student writers are prey to crippling writing anxiety "because there is . . . no dependable readership and no sense of membership in a literate community" (46). In order to confer the knowledge necessary to this membership, Hirsch strongly urges that writing instruction remain within English studies. "Every teacher of writing should ideally be also a teacher of literature in its broadest sense" (45).


  Arguments for cultural literacy, however, whether they define this literacy as intellectual method or as knowledge of shared texts, typically do not acknowledge that the method and the knowledge are specific not only to Western culture, but to this culture's privileged social classes. Hence students may be deemed culturally "illiterate" because they originate in social classes that value other forms of cultural literacy. In other words, there are multiple cultural literacies as well as multiple literacies. Indeed, literacy in a particular form of English is usually associated with a particular kind of cultural literacy. This is the main point made by research in literacy as a social practice.


  This point also helps to explain why arguments over the necessity of acquiring academic literacy can become so heated. I think that it is accurate to conflate what I have called academic literacy and literacy in the culture of the privileged social classes. To my previous definition of academic literacy as mastery of Standard English and critical thinking, I need only add some components of cultural knowledge." The problem then is whether the acquisition of academic literacy, because it carries with it the political power of its origins in the privileged social classes, will crowd out whatever other cultural literacies students bring to school, unfairly devaluing and perhaps eventually extirpating them.


  Some American academics have addressed this question in terms of only one component of academic literacy, namely, the mastery of Standard English, and have argued that to require Standard English does deracinate students from social groups in which it is not the common tongue. For example, James Sledd has denounced such requirements as political oppression." This line of argument, however, often tacitly acknowledges the cultural component of academic literacy even if the argument focuses explicitly only on forms of the English language. For example, Geneva Smitherman is obviously afraid that native speakers of black English will lose much more than their own language if required to abandon it in school." David Olson has agreed that " 'standard' English is not a general model of the mother tongue but rather the specialized instrument of the description and explanation functions of literate prose." Dominated by this special form of prose, schools come to define knowledge as that picture of reality appropriate to [its] requirements" (86). Olson believes that this leads to the devaluation of other forms of language and knowledge.


  We do have plenty of evidence that when academic literacy is presented as simply the "best" or "only" form of literacy to students from socially less privileged groups, students who value other forms of literacy, that these students tend to resist academic literacy and to fail in school." This outcome is not surprising in view of the fact that to accept academic literacy on these terms would also be to reject the students' home cultures, their ties with family and friends, everything that malwa their lives meaningful.


  According to one school of thought I have surveyed here, however, these are not the only terms in which to understand academic literacy. If we follow the thinking of researchers on literacy as a social practice, then we might wish frankly to avow that academic literacy has privileged social origins but that this very connection with .political power is what makes it worth having. In other words, we might emphasize the social context of academic literacy and its specific social purposes.


 What we don't know is whether academic literacy so presented could be acquired without deracination. We do have some evidence from bilingual education that it is possible to become comfortable with two different cultural literacies if these are acquired in social situations where both are highly valued." There is also some evidence that bilingualism/biculturalism confers the awareness of language as language that some literacy researchers attribute to literacy in general. For example, in the work of bicultural schoolchildren and in English novels by nonnative English speakers, Jane Miller has found


. . . a stance toward language on the learner's part which allows him to reflect on its nature and on its use. This, it is suggested [by psychologist Margaret Donaldson], is essential if he is to move towards literacy and towards what [psychologist Lev] Vygotsky sees as the genuine manipulation of concepts. He will leand to me his language for creative thinking rather than depending on the categories proposed by the language of his everyday experience."


Metalinguistic awareness, or an awareness of how thought and language interact, may be the one ability upon whose value all the various schools of thought on literacy agree. Debate continues about whether literacy of any kind, or academic literacy, or simply mastery of written Standard English, is necessary to mature cognitive development. But if we attempt to define functionally the kind of literacy whose lack has aroused this debate in the American academy, we might reasonably conclude that metalinguistic awareness is its principal component. Functional literacy in America, literacy that confers a reasonable degree of educational and economic success and political participation is that literacy which enables critical reflection not only on the different relations between thought and language that obtain among our various social groups, but also on the educational, economic and political uses to which these differences may be put.


For educational purposes only.




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