Featured Blogger: Emily Michael

“Why Johnny can never, ever read: The perpetual literacy crisis and student identity”picture of Emily

This article challenges the idea that a literary crisis is looming over the younger generations. Which is funny considering that each generation does this as they get older, as the author, Bronwyn T. Williams points out. Why do we have this tendency to reminisce about the good ol’ days? Williams breaks it down into cause, reason, cultural capital, and solution.

So, what is the cause to this doomsday feeling for reading and writing? Of course, people always want to blame the teachers. People seem to be critical of anything innovative. Anything new and unfamiliar is like so scary! Pop culture is one of those things that the young people are into that make more seasoned individuals shake their heads. Yet Williams makes a really good point…the generation before them had the same drama about their own children’s literacy. Whaddya know, each generation sparks a new unseen fear of a failing in the education department. And of course, they turned out just fine, duh. Otherwise, they probably wouldn’t have the skills to be complaining about it in the first place. The author seems to think that the adult generation just wants something to cry about. Williams points out that a lot of this crying has to do with anecdotal evidence from the selective memory of the superior adult. I thought it was interesting that popular media likes to stoke the fire of literacy crisis. There are also flaws in these systems such as standardized testing that are poor portrayals of a student’s ability…go figure. So, it seems like the cause of this crisis has more to do with people’s groundless fears. We clearly have some anxieties about the younger generation’s ability to meet our level of literacy and exceed them.

The reason for these anxieties? Competitiveness in the market, status, and privilege. As a society, we somehow fear that we will fail the economic market if our children do not do exactly what we did. Yet, as the author points out, the economy has done nothing but thrive. So who exactly has these anxieties? Of course, it would be the middle class. They’re the ones who think they have the most to lose. Like yeah, rich people don’t have to worry about anything. They will private tutor the crap out of their kids because they can afford it. Unfortunately, the “poor” don’t usually get much say in any matter so the complaining isn’t from their end. Yet, why does the middle class want to see students as struggling? How does this perception of students affect the way we teach them?

It all comes down to dun dun dun CULTURAL CAPITAL. You might be wondering what the hell that is. Well, if literacy is more or less perceived as power in the eyes of the middle class, then a loss of literacy is like losing power. Literacy is a tool to be used to gain access to different classes. Yet, it’s interesting that only certain literacies are considered valuable in our culture. Those that are used in middle and upper classes are what matter…apparently. It is no secret that students these days are great at communicating in other ways such as online or through text messaging. For some reason those don’t count though? The whole agenda is very elitist in my opinion. Why is it that literacy only consist of the reading of “great books” and how does that make them a better person? Because being cultured equals status for the middle class. The middle class has the most to lose because they know that they need this edge for a white collar job. Williams makes an interesting point in saying that the middle class does not want to necessarily inherit MORE wealth but simply imitate the behavior of the upper class. Unfortunately having speech or language that is not considered “conventional” is considered to be of the lower class and thus anyone who uses it loses economic opportunities??? Wack. So, if someone uses unconventional language then they could potentially fall into the lower class though I’m not sure that’s how it works but cool. I thought it was surprising when Williams said, “Middle class identity is not primarily about economic status. Middle class identity…is the ability to display certain kinds of cultural capital.” Again, we go back to this fear of the unfamiliar. Language that is not within the conventional is considered a threat to this capital we’ve been talking about. What even is grammar and who decides how it is used? Is language not constantly changing anyway? But really it’s how you use it in a given situation. The context is what is important. It is less about grammar and more about how you convey meaning in a clear and structured manner.

The solution to this madness? It is really important to just teach students how language, culture, and identity work as a unit. That way a student can pull from their learning experiences to utilize them in any context. In this sense, knowledge really is power.

In a small group discussion, we wondered why students and instructors have different views of what reading should be. We wondered why there was a disconnect and whose fault is it? The educators? The system itself? The government?

Then we started to ask ourselves, why don’t we like reading? Perhaps we don’t like taking notes on EVERYTHING we read. It takes the fun out of it. We like reading for the pleasure of it not picking it apart until there is nothing left but the bone. Because there is a difference between article reading and novel reading. Reading an article is technical reading, reading for direct information. Novels are meant to be read for the pleasure, the thrill, the adventure.

But when we thought about it…aren’t BuzzFeed articles meant to do both? Scrolling through Facebook, we come across articles that pique our interest and we read them because we want to, not because we have to.

But what do the professors want exactly? They want us to read and analyze a text but can’t we do that in genres we enjoy? We all have books we want to read, but the difference is the teachers don’t want us to read that. We thought that while we want to read one thing, teachers want to read another so we can talk about it.

One classmate suggested that, growing up, we are not told that reading is important. The thing we thought was interesting is that we are not explicitly told we will be reading our whole life. Books are shoved down students throat without making books enjoyable and we aren’t taught how to read just anything for fun.

Another classmate reflected on teachers from their past who assigned books that were not comprehensible to them either. We wondered why a teacher would pick a book that they don’t enjoy either. If they don’t enjoy teaching it, neither will the students enjoy learning it. It is important to not only to be taught reading but to enjoy reading. Sadly, school doesn’t teach you how to want to read on your own. Is there really a purpose to reading canonical texts? It seems to be more about the school district wanting to assign something because it’s what they think they are “supposed to” rather than pick up books you can learn from and enjoy.

This tangent made us think of Accelerated Reading. Like good god what is that even? Whose genius idea was that? Reading as a point system and then taking a quiz to prove you read it…yeah, I remember finding ways to cheat on those tests. When we talked about it it made me wonder how they decided how much a book was worth. From the beginning, we are taught that books have a certain worth. And some books are worth more than others. But why??? Really. Why is some reading worth more than others?

In a class discussion we literacy as a skill versus a practice. And that was sooooo confusing. Why is a book club literary practice and not a skill? If practice is when you apply your skill…then just reading in general and learning the alphabet is the skill. But isn’t reading a practice of the alphabet and phonics? This brought us back to cultural capital. What is it?? Is it about respectability? If we read certain books are we going to be more respected. Or maybe it’s about how useful you can be to a group of people…how much knowledge can be exchanged? We realized this could be related to performance value, which interestingly enough led to a discussion about Sparknotes because…because it just did so try and follow:

Why does it matter if we use Sparknotes and can basically fake cultural capital? It is a text that helps you do work with other texts. What’s wrong with that? When thinking about the exchange value, Sparknotes is a form of literacy with value of exchange. You can obtain textual information and finish multiple books by having it broken down into the most important components. However, we realized that most text simply cannot be replaced with this medium. Some works such as Shakespeare are poorly translated. You can use Sparknotes to have the plot but what makes Shakespeare, Shakespeare is his language. That cannot be conveyed through Sparknotes.

When we think of education nowadays where we spit out any paper for a grade, it sucks the freakin’ joy out of reading! The class is being overwhelmed with the sheer amount of reading material. How can we be expected to read X novels at the same time? Unfortunately, Sparknotes only gives you one version of the text and that is the Sparknotes version. Each person brings their own flavor or pizazz to their reading. Actually reading the text changes your relationship to with that text.

Of course this leads to many more questions. Why not just watch the movie? Why don’t we let students choose in high school and then introduce canonical novels in college?  Will these kinds of questions ever have answers? I don’t think there is a right answer. But if we want to encourage students to enjoy reading, things will have to change.

Author Bio: Emily is a fourth year English Studies major at Chico State working towards her bachelor’s degree. She transferred to Chico State from Merced Community College with an Associate of Arts degree in Communication Studies. Traveling and exploring new ideas are important to her, which is why she studied abroad in London for a month in a faculty-led program.  She also enjoys reading “trashy” novels, drinking coffee, hiking new trails, and cuddling with her dog.