Malcolm X once said, “People don’t realize how a man’s whole life can be changed by one book.” Books are transformative to the mind, body, and society. Yet we don’t realize how this change can be progressive, harmful, or even a little of both. It all depends on how exactly we approach the ink on the pages and the ideas we take away from it, to act on it. Literacy is that action. And so literacy has a soulful, life-changing quality to it then. Literacy’s got soul, in other words. But this soul metaphor of mine is not just a philosophical discussion. It is a real issue. While the United States has demonstrated a very high literacy rate, we need to examine why we continue to experience increasing school dropout rates, “at-risk” studentship, and restrictive academic standards across all levels of education.
Students create meaningful connections with literature and they use it to inform their own identities. This is particularly important for students who face everyday oppressions across the lines of race, gender, sexuality, and class. Resistance against oppression depends on the students’ critical literacy, or their ability to synthesize information and apply it critically to their own lives. Yet there is no such literacy, except for what is narrowly defined within the U.S. education system (i.e., basic reading and writing skills). Some might argue that this problem of literacy is no longer relevant given the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement for better diversity representation in literature (See Rosa Conrad’s blog on this movement and the issues motivating it). This problem of representing diversity is closely intertwined with the problem of literacy, of educating this representation. More diverse books will better reflect and appreciate students’ own diversities, but not so long as literacy education continues to perpetuate existing inequalities.
Literacy has become colorblind in the worst sense possible, as English-only policies are implemented in the name of a diversity rhetoric. It is a rhetoric that says we can be somehow diverse, but only so long as everyone assimilates under the same language; a language not native to their cultures, their homes, and their tongues. With such thinking, we are not actually talking about literacy. We are talking about English literacy. So consider what happens to the students who do not have English as their native language. It is assimilation to a culturally incompetent education model. Students’ souls have become fragmented under the name of diversity, chopped up and prepared to serve straight from the “All-American” melting pot.
This loss of language, of literacy, and of soul is worse still as the diverse ethnic identities of students are whitewashed within the education system. Traditional literacy education in the sense of reading and writing neglects students’ critical thinking and social activism in favor of standardized grammar and comprehension test scores. Many might suggest that literacy education and literature itself should be fun and value-free. While they definitely should be appealing and engaging for students, we need to recognize that education does not inform us about culture but is instead informed through culture. In the United States’ case, it is through white male middle-class culture. So literacy is already beholden to cultural values that do not reflect all students, particularly girls and students of color. Literacy can be very transformative and just, yet it can also be a tool of mass oppression as the soul wound echoes across our lives as a result.
The future is not hopeful as current reforms have largely worked toward making literacy appealing to boys and girls equally but separately. It is made appealing in the sense that diverse literature should cater to boys’ masculinity and to girls’ femininity. All the while proclaiming a rhetoric of diversity, celebrating masculinity and femininity as if they were mutually exclusive to each other. The souls of neither boys nor girls come out of this learning experience unscathed, as they are instructed to look at their everyday lives strictly in a masculine or feminine fashion respectively. Boys must be boys and girls must be girls, in other words. Even the addition of LGBTQA-inclusive literature fails to account for the lack of inclusivity within the very school system in which literacy is taught. It is a brilliant strategy nonetheless for the broader society, as the focus on reform remains fixed on diversity rather than the inequalities and oppressions facing students.
Literacy has been sold out, and so too has the soul. Literacy is now a product, a commodity, a profit margin. Yes, literacy skills can lead possibly to better employment and earnings, but it does not suggest that students have power over their own literacy. Power has been un-rightfully given to others: education policymakers and administrators. Literacy no longer has power to mobilize student resistance, interrogate the status quo, and bring about meaningful change. Reform is not enough, for we have seen its tendency to nudge the education system but never to rock the boat. We need to move forward with a public policy advocating critical thought and social activism in literacy education. We can start by continuing to push for better accountability from schools and publishers, to have more diverse representations in not only what children read, but also how they read. It is key to making this mobilization of communities and students alike a reality, to restore the soul.