By Colin Lankshear.
New York: The Falmer Press, 1987, 260 pp.

Comments of Bob Corbett
Fall 1989

Educational officials in Missouri have recently expressed dismay that fast food establishments have down graded the reading levels required of workers. Several chains have begun picturing the purchased items--a hamburger, fries or coke--on the cash register because workers often have difficulties reading these words on key boards. Similarly, it is a rare cash register today which doesn't figure the amount of change, thus enabling even the numerically illiterate to make change.

Colin Lankshear provides a challenging and provocative exploration of the larger social, political and economic issues surrounding our literacy crisis. The central thrust of his argument is that with "properly literate" people use the power of words and ideas to transform their lived realities. Lankshear illustrates this claim with informed and enlightening analyses of the role of 'proper literacy' in the emergence of working class consciousness in 18th century England and in the adult literacy programs of contemporary Nicaragua.

He begins with Wayne O'Neil's distinction between mere reading and proper literacy: "...being able to read means that you can follow words across a page, getting generally what's superficially there. Being literate means you can bring your knowledge and your experience to bear on what passes before you. Let us call the latter proper literacy; the former improper." (p. 72) Lankshear links proper literacy with C.W. Mill's sociological imagination or even more properly with Paulo Freire's critical consciousness.

Given this distinction, Lankshear not only condemns nearly all primary and secondary education for falling short of even attempting proper literacy, but the universities too. This attack is most interesting because it doesn't rest only on failed methods, but on failed theory. He does cite familiar arguments pointing out how critical faculties are by-passed in much formal education. However, he goes on to argue that the dominant scientific epistemology of a gradually developing truer insight into the fundamental structures of the world, favors an excessively (uncritical) respect for authority and, in practice, leads to students being fed knowledge. To echo Freire's similar critique, bits of information are deposited in student banks.

But the problem is deeper. Not only do students not learn to approach subject matter critically, but they internalize a hierarchial approach to knowledge and life itself.

Lankshear's criticisms are certainly correct. Typically these weaknesses are treated as failures of method. But Lankshear locates the problem in a deeper structural problem. The received epistemology of the academic world, this gradualist approach to truth, typically avoids any structural analysis of society and reveals an epistemology which effectively assures current power relationships. Thus literacy turns out to be a central political problem, since lack of proper literacy is causative of a whole range of social abuses from racism and sexism to neocolonial domination of third world nations and the dominance of international capitalism in modern economics.

Unfortunately at this point the argument dissipates into much fuzzy thinking, ideological pronouncements and disturbing demands that an elitist "objective" knowledge be given to students in surprisingly non-critical fashion. Lankshear talks much of proper and improper literacy.

But there seem to be four, not two, concepts of states which are at stake. These are:

  1. Some people don't even learn to read, write or compute on a basic level. Such people lack both proper and improper literacy.
  2. Other people perhaps learn to read, write and compute, but cannot think critically or analytically about the world. This group has improper literacy, but does not have proper literacy.
  3. Some successful university students learn to think critically and analytically about standard academic issues in various disciplines, but do not seem to think about the structured political and social world with its injustices, and/or they don't learn to think and act upon their own political realities. Again, on Lankshear's account, this group must also be said to have improper literacy.
  4. Finally, even the very few who might be educated toward proper literacy as described in # 3, will develop their critical skills and political sophistication to think structurally and biographically, but still err in arriving at the true knowledge of their own 'objective' states of oppression. Once again, such a group suffers improper literacy.

Lankshear worries that even in cases where the public is democratically involved in its own education, it will not act and think as he believes it must: "Where subordinate groups are accommodated to some extent within policy discussions, the workings of ideological and cultural hegemony may result in their advancing or actively supporting policy contrary to their interests." (p. 233). Of course Lankshear knows what the proper objective interests are, and unless the students get not only critical skills, but the proper content and are motivated toward the proper political actions, then they are not properly literate.

The crucial upshot is that proper literacy is not only a skill or ability, it has specific content as well. There are grave dangers in Lankshear's espousal of teaching 'objective' truths and proper political actions to students in the name of proper literacy. It undercuts much of his own argument which celebrates freeing people to think on their own, and it denies much of his optimism that people, if taught to think clearly and analytically, can handle their own futures. I believe it is precisely this excessive concern that the formerly illiterate, formerly oppressed, cannot be trusted to create the proper future, which has led to the unacceptable authoritarianism of the Eastern Block countries, and problems of human rights which exist today in Cuba and Nicaragua.

Having the skills to think critically and analytically is an absolutely minimum need in order that people take their own freedom. But, insisting that they have the 'right' content and the 'right' actions is excessively interfering with the process of liberation.

Lankshear seems to recognize that this objection might be raised, so he attempts to describe the literacy instructor in a less authoritarian role. "As an 'outsider'--in terms, typically, of social class, culture, educational experience, etc.--the analyst must commit a form of class-cultural suicide, and become a constructive catalyst (rather than an instigator) for forms of reflection and action on the part of oppressed groups aimed at framing, interpreting, and implementing policies in their interests." (p. 233).

A constructive catalyst rather than an instigator--does this distinction make any sense? In Lankshear's provocative analysis of the development of the working class consciousness in the 18th century he presents a rather idyllic case where little was needed in the area of outside catalysts or instigators. The working class folks did it themselves, having, presumably, received some basic skills of literacy in the schools--surprisingly Lankshear is noticeably silent as to how these working class leaders developed the skills of reading, writing and critical thinking. However, in the case of Nicaragua, where a bureaucracy of catalysts or instigators is involved, Lankshear acknowledges that there are serious conflicts between this group of power elite (albeit a power elite with noble motives) and the common people themselves.

The critical issue, then, is: Is proper literacy a skill of reading, writing and thinking, or is proper literacy those skills, plus proper thoughts and actions. I believe we must see proper literacy as skills, including, centrally, the skills of criticism and analysis.

Lankshear is certainly correct that having been raised in a culture of oppression we are likely to have internalized the systems of justification of the power elite. Further, it is true that even people seriously trying to become free are often crippled and slowed dangerously by the hegemony of the existing system. But, the hope for genuine liberation is that which comes internally from free thinking people having struggled for their own freedom. Paulo Freire is correct that catalysts from the oppressor class are useful and perhaps necessary elements in this liberating pedagogy, but they must refrain from interjecting their content, even if they are religiously certain that it is 'objective' truth. Lankshear's book is an important step in the right direction. It is as valuable for its strengths and for its excesses of zeal. Its strength is to show us that a central failure of current thinking about literacy is in aiming too low--aiming at the mere acquisition of basic reading, writing and computation. Its strength is to show how involved our forms of literacy are in shaping our structural views of the socio-political reality. But Lankshear's analysis fails when it shifts from advocating literacy as an enabling tool of critical and social thought, and degenerates into indoctrinating students into having all the 'right,' or 'objective' critical ideas, a concept which is a fundamental contradiction in terms--'critical thought' taught as truth is not critical.

Lankshear launches an exciting discussion, illustrates his views with carefully worked out case studies and provides provocation for nearly all readers. To miss this book would be to leave a serious gap in one's understanding of the literacy debate.

Bob Corbett

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