In any effort to promote literacy, there is another question that comes up. Whose literacy? Who gets to define it? As the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire who first described critical pedagogy said, “Who says that this accent or that this way of thinking is the cultivated one? If there is one which is cultivated this is because there is one which is not. Do you see it’s impossible to think of language without thinking of ideology and power?” Ideology matters when we define literacy. This hit home for me seeing an extreme example in a recent NPR history article titled “18 Rules of Behavior for young ladies in 1831.” Charles Varle wrote in 1831 that his list came in part from “the most celebrated books on Ladies education.” Here are a few: “Consult only your own relations,” “form no friendship with men,” “trust no female acquaintance, i.e, make no confidant of any one,” “Be not too often seen in public,” and “never be afraid of blushing.” I don’t really think I need to make any commentary of what I think of these “rules.” (Take a wild guess on that one.) The open question is would I be considered literate under this system? I don’t speak Latin or French. I don’t paint or play “pianoforte.” I study biology, but I don’t use that much gross anatomy or species identification which would have been the basics in the natural sciences of the day. And I don’t exactly stay home with no friends either. Under this ideology would people like me (read women…) be able to prove ourselves? As Paulo Freire put it, could we “articulate [our] voices and [our] speech in the struggle against injustice”? I think the answer is, and was, no. Not really. Putting it in this oversimplified context helps me tackle it for myself. What would enable a teacher living under this norm support my voice? At the heart of critical pedagogy is an idea – give me the power to question this “norm.” Again to quote Paulo Freire, “No oppressive order could permit the oppressed to begin to question: Why?” The idea is to let people talk and teach who may not be literate by a given standard (like most of us by the 1830s standard), but highly literate in another. In the case of women in the 1800s, I imagine this began to happen when school became mandatory and more women were hired as teachers in response to the advocacy of Catharine Beecher.
Basically there are two approaches to trying to help people out. The first to help directly, and the second to ask real and legitimate questions about a person’s priorities and the primary barriers to these. There are times and places for both of these (For example, I am thinking of the International Justice Mission which works to free modern slaves and prosecute modern human traffickers. There comes a point where a victim of human trafficking doesn’t need someone to ask them about the barriers to freedom. Prosecuting a human trafficker is a really good first step. You can’t stop there, but you do need to start there.) One group that I think needs a strong support system in the U.S. is ex-prisoners. I love way the one writing professor, Stephanie Bower at the University of Southern California, lead her class. Instead of having students get online and research statistics about ex-prisoners, or feed a superiority complex by asking students to write about how they “made a difference” after some three-hour service project, she invited a panel of people recently released from the prison system to come and tell their stories. I would love to get to sit in on that class.
I can think of times I have tried so hard to do something I forgot to listen. I’m sure Charles Varle, the man who wrote the “Rules of behavior for young ladies,” thought he was being helpful. Maybe we shouldn’t to hard on him. Sometimes we think we are being helpful too.