Discursus

I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library. Jorge Luis Borges

Tag: literacy

They Closed Their Schools

*Post updated.

I went to high school in Prince Edward County.  Lucky me.  They fancy themselves the Heart of Virginia, but really, it’s a terrible place.  The county seat is Farmville (and no, I’m not talking about the Facebook app.)  In 2007, 20.3 percent of the population lived below the poverty level, compared to only 9.9 percent in the state of Virginia.  NCES estimates that 16 percent of the population lacks basic prose literacy skills.

But the absolute worst part about Prince Edward County is its legacy of racism.  It touches every aspect of communal life in the area.

Maybe you’ve heard of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case which in 1954 overturned school segregation in the United States.  Well, in 1959 Prince Edward County closed all public schools rather than integrate them.  They remained closed for five years.  Prince Edward County was the only school district in the country to do this.  The community was torn so deeply and broken so completely, that they still haven’t gotten over it.

In American history, we had to read R.C. Smith’s They Closed Their Schools: Prince Edward County, Virginia, 1951-1964.  I think the title probably gives you a good idea of how interesting it was.  As a high schooler, I couldn’t understand why people couldn’t just move on, let it go, get over it.  Bygones and so forth.

Still, I noticed — who couldn’t? — the decided lack of black kids in my advanced classes.  It was puzzling — particularly because most of the white kids in advanced classes weren’t all that smart; they’d simply learned to work the system, to play the game.  I attended governor’s school for half the day, and during morning session, the handful of black kids there often sat at a table together.  Being half-Cuban, I would sit at the table with them, announcing loudly that it was the minority table and none of the white kids were allowed to sit there.  We had a hilarious time with the joke; it was the only way I knew of making a serious issue palatable, of stripping its power over us.

In Stuart Buck’s book Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation, Buck poses a hypothesis for the provenance of underperformance among black schoolkids: integration.  It seems Buck blames not integration itself so much as the way it was carried out in schools across the country, as black kids were bussed to white schools where they met with hatred, harassment, and — most damningly — “the soft prejudice of low expectations from racist teachers who assumed blacks weren’t capable and from liberals who coddled them.”  I haven’t yet read the book, but Richard Thompson Ford reviews it in Slate.

John McWhorter offers another thoughtful review in The New Republic, and further analysis of the “acting white” syndrome that derails black kids’ academic progress.  Reading about these issues now takes me back to my high school days, and I’m still left puzzled and perplexed, and I’ve yet to read any viable solutions.  But as McWhorter says, “Buck has cleared the ground of many illusions and innuendos, and this can only help us to get closer to a solution for the vast problem that still remains.”

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On literacy

My cousin just finished her master’s degree in literacy and culture.  I’d never heard of the degree before, but it sounds really fascinating.  Now I want one.  If I could stay in school forever, notching my gun with each new degree I’ve earned, I would be one happy girl.

Anyway, I was reading about literacy online today, and I found this website, which has about a gazillion links to studies and articles and reports on literacy (topics like parents reading to their children, reading in schools, reading and the brain, volume of reading, and particularly the relationship between TV and reading).  One link I clicked on led me to an article called “The Long Decline of Reading” on the blog Mssv, which quotes some sad statistics (like this one: “In the US, only 47% of adults read a work of literature – and I don’t mean Shakespeare, I mean any novel, short story, play or poem – in 2006.”) from the 2007 National Endowment for the Arts report To Read or Not to Read.  Mssv also linked to The Big Think, which is supposed to be like YouTube for intellectuals (argh — the baby is crying, but all I want to do is watch The Science of Laughing by Robert Mankoff).

With all these links and videos and articles to comb through, I almost wish I were back at my dead-end job with eight hours to fill with mindless Internet surfing all day.  Almost.

The new literacy

Clive Thompson reviewed Andrea Lunsford’s literacy project, the Stanford Study of Writing, for Wired Magazine.  Lunsford’s project is intriguing: it was a five-year study “investigating the writing practices and development of Stanford students during their undergraduate years and their first year beyond college in professional environments or graduate programs.”  She collected 14,672 student writing samples, including everything from in-class assignments to emails and blog posts.  I find it particularly interesting that they measured the students’ confidence in writing as well as the quality and volume of their writing.

According to Thompson, Lunsford thinks that technology, far from destroying writing and literacy, as is the oft-repeated lament, is reviving them.  But here’s where I find myself becoming skeptical: Thompson says that for starters, “young people today write far more than any generation before them.”  He claims, “Before the Internet came along, most Americans never wrote anything, ever, that wasn’t a school assignment. Unless they got a job that required producing text (like in law, advertising, or media), they’d leave school and virtually never construct a paragraph again.”  How can he possibly know that?  What about journal entries and the long-lost art of letter writing and pages and pages of bad poetry that’s kept private by the writer?  “Never wrote anything, ever,” is an awfully big claim to make without providing any supporting evidence.

Still, Thompson makes a good point (I suppose) when he says, “The modern world of online writing, particularly in chat and on discussion threads, is conversational and public, which makes it closer to the Greek tradition of argument than the asynchronous letter and essay writing of 50 years ago.”

I wonder if limiting the study to Stanford students affects the ability to apply its findings to the general American populace.  I’m not trying to say anything about Stanford in particular (I don’t know anything about the school, in fact), but schools generally have a particular identity, a certain homogeneity, that may have impacted the outcome of the study.  The Stanford Study of Writing was designed specifically to help augment the school’s program on writing and rhetoric and the writing center, but I’d love to see a wider-ranging literacy study of this nature.

Thompson also links to Marcus Berkmann’s New York Post review of David Crystal’s book txtng: the gr8 db8.  Crystal agrees that non-standard writing like texting actually challenges literacy skills because it demands sophisticated skills in reading and writing.  I know I’ve spent hours poring over enigmatic shorthand texts or facebook posts, trying to figure out what the heck the writer was trying to spell.  I love the playfulness and the mutability of language, which as Crystal points out is part of a long “European ludic (playful) linguistic tradition,” but I still think text-speak is irritating.  So there.

Newser

I was hopping about the Interscapes this morning.  Bookforum had a link to a moderately entertaining Newser article.  As I’d never been to Newser before, I perused the site after I was finished with the article, and I was a bit aghast to see their slogan: “Read less.  Know more.”  Whaaaa?

I understand the gist of their message.  Newser is much like The Daily Beast, a site I frequent, in that it compiles and distills the top stories of the day, so the reader doesn’t have to do all that silly, arduous work of research and reading and forming one’s own opinions.  (Though I much prefer The Beast for layout, site design, ease of use, and content.)  But come on — we have enough of a crisis in literacy and readership these days without adding to the problem with this sort of drivel.

Fact: one cannot know more by reading less.

On literacy

Anne Cunningham and Keith Stanovich published a paper called “What Reading Does For The Mind.”  Among its premises is this: reading makes you smarter.  Surprise!

Vocabulary is a big winner among readers.  The paper cites the research of Hayes and Ahrens (1988), who analyzed the distributions of 86,741 English words used in various contexts, and showed, among other things, that children’s books have 50 percent more rare words in them than do adult prime-time TV and college-graduate conversations.  The results aren’t limited to just vocab, though: Cunningham and Stanovich ran tests on kids and college students and “found that reading volume made a significant contribution to multiple measures of vocabulary, general knowledge, spelling, and verbal fluency.” Reading wins everything!

Finally, definitive proof of why I am so effing brilliant (but still can’t do maths).