Bizzell, Patricia "Arguing About Literacy"

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Bizzell begins her essay with an introduction to groups of individuals that have historically been at odds with the normative model of literacy advocated in most academic. These individuals, says Bizzell, have often included “lower classes, foreign born, non-white, and/or female.” She insists, however, that change is possible.

Bizzell then examines arguments defending the academic status quo before transitioning to an argument for her view of literacy.

Social science research: Because the social sciences examine how individuals interact with each other and their social environment, there is not “monolithic concept” of what happens when an individual or society acquire literacy. Some of such research may be found, however, in the humanities - a department that typically analyzes stylistic differences as indicators of culture.

Humanists argue that changes one experiences after mastering literacy are not dependent on social factors, and that all individuals will experience similar changes in ways of communicating and organizing their thoughts. They do argue that literacy is dependent on mastering alphabetic combinations, which I took to mean mastering basic writing/spelling. Social scientists, however, predict a wider array of changes and base many of these changes on the social contexts of a given situation. Some social scientists have suggested that humanists’ findings are a result of their almost exclusive investment in Western academia.

By ignoring the suggestion that their observation pool is somewhat limited, humanists have limited the potential cognitive gains and furthered the somewhat unfounded suggestion that true literacy = academic literacy.

The concept of “cultural literacy” is the antithesis to the problem humanists identified as “The Great Divide.” Cultural literacy suggests that the changes an individual experiences upon learning language are not a result of mastering alphabetic literacy alone - that is, words and concepts are given emotion and meaning via the culture they exist in and point to.

Berlin then examines an argument from a scholar E.D. Hirsch, who argued for the status-quo of standard, written English based on research he’d done on information processing and memory. After the research, Hirsch concluded that standard English should be taught as it is the most “efficient” means of processing and conveying information. His preferences often leaned towards the stylistically academic, inherently making himself a victim of the cultural ideologies he dismissed.

After further research, Hirsch acknowledged the need for what he called “canonical knowledge” - that is, prior cultural knowledge which is necessary to understand any written text. To this extent, his views align with that of the social scientists’. But Bizzell noted that when he turned to pedagogy, he reverted to prescriptivism again. Hirsch claims that we need to teach illiterate incoming Freshmen the standards of the academic writing circle via exposure to works that embody it - he provides his suggestions in the form of a list (originally composed by Harvard). Yet Hirsch neglects to include work representativel of non-hegemonic bodies.

Bizzell sees several problems with Hirsch’s list, which can be summed up in his failure to acknowledge the attitude that makes us feel compelled to submit to standard English as the superior mode of communication.

As an alternative to what she deems Hirsch’s “foundational” view, Bizzell suggests that we both teach/learn how to argue and gain a “better understanding of literacy itself.” Because we cannot prove another absolutely wrong and our case absolutely right in most circumstances, we must resort to persuassion. Persuasion requires a complete understanding of the audience’s cultural knowledge and identity. Bizzell defends against critiques that understanding/manipulation of one’s audience is inherently dishonest - knowledge is not a body conveyed through rhetoric, but rather, knowledge happens when the speaker and audience reach an agreement. Therefore, the speaker does not exist outside of the rhetorical situation he creates. He too must be changed by the experience.

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