Thoughts on Critical Literacy, Schooling and Social Justice
The following is an excerpt from a collection of papers entitled “Critical Literacy, School and Social Justice,” by Allan Luke to be published in January 2018.
As I write, 2017 is proving to be a difficult and telling year. The future just happened to log on early. Policy and governance, truth and lies, and the boundaries between the legal and illegal, public and private are now played out through Twitter exchanges – where 140 character texts, often accompanied with image or video, have become central media of news, public policy, and politics. Social media have been key tools in social movements, political campaigns and activism of all stripes for well over a decade, with documented roles in the Arab Spring uprisings of 2010, the Obama campaigns, the Occupy movement and the rise of the Alt-Right, and indeed, the recruitment of youth into criminal and terrorist organisations. In the last year, new media have accelerated the destablisation of American political culture and geopolitics, reshaped the fourth estate, leaving political parties and their pollsters, media corporations and newspaper/print publishing companies gasping for air. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are changing what can be written, depicted and represented, about whom, where, when, and with what effects.
The public, the courts and the legal departments of tech corporations now deliberate over the very real possibility that an arbitrary comment sent in anger or in error or, indeed, with malicious intent, could trigger deportations, criminal acts, or indeed, violence and warfare. Twitter, Facebook and text message exchanges routinely are presented in courts of law as evidence of stalking, infidelity, assault, treason and libel. At border checks, US Homeland Security now can request individuals’ passwords for access to their digital messages, profile and accounts.
The practices, parameters and standards of human exchange and communication are in rapid transition. New textual capacities, conventions and affordances are made as we speak, and, no doubt, will have set new benchmarks and created new anomalies by the time that this preface appears in print. These transitions are providing the staging grounds for a volatile ideological, geopolitical and social order. Matters of cyber warfare, control and ownership of these new modes of information, information security and digital espionage are reshaping the means and ends of geopolitics, warfare, criminality, violence and conflict.
The practices, parameters and standards of human exchange and communication are in rapid transition.
Literacy is the capacity to access and use the codes and messages of communications media. If there were any remaining doubt that literacy is about the contingent daily play of relations of power and capital, about the making of truth and ideology, and about the shaping of time and place, relations of self and other – such doubts have been well eclipsed. Digital media is redefining the body politic and everyday life. We carry around a prosthetic archive of human knowledge in the devices in our pockets – or at least somebody’s algorithmic version of it. However willing or prepared, we are participants in the making of new paradigms and forms of life.
Meanwhile, old-fashioned social and economic inequality rolls on with a vengeance. Through near-continuous regional warfare, terror and famines, there are more displaced and impoverished people on the move than at any time since the end of the Second World War. This is no solace for those who have insisted over several decades that the increasing disparities between rich and poor, between dominant and minority cultures, between men and women, between those who rule and manage economies and political systems and those who labor away at its margins was unjust and unfair, unsustainable and at real risk of tearing apart the remaining fabric of a democratic social contract. While the battles for racial equality, for reproductive rights for women, for the security and health of children and families, for gender and sexual equality, for fair policing and just legal systems continue – there are near continuous backlashes against hard won civil rights and protections that we thought had been settled. The spectre of nationalism and autocracy, plutocracy and kleptocracy beckons.
While many countries still aspire to the extension of universal free primary and secondary education, the US, UK and Australia are undergoing a continued erosion of universal access to a public education that enables social participation and institutional access, gainful working lives and cultural self-determination. Whether through charter and independent schooling, home schooling, or the extension of state funding to religious and elite education – there is a shift from the view of education as a civic requirement, social entitlement and human right to one of education as a private commodity for sale.
But there is a glaring contradiction in the human capital model that has been the hallmark of the postwar social and educational policy. Like economic policy, it was built on the premise of an infinitely expandable model of capital and markets, economic and population growth. The further premise was that such growth, driven by the extension of technological infrastructure, had negligible long-term impacts on environments and ecosystems, and indeed, on species survival.
In what were once referred to as advanced and post-industrial economies of the North and West, successive generations now face the disappearance of longstanding industries and jobs, insecure working conditions and benefits, public security and safety issues in urban environments, crises of affordable healthcare and housing, and the end of work in many hollowed-out urban cores, rural and regional communities. No wonder that a previous generation’s resistance to institutional authority has given way to this generation’s withdrawal into virtual worlds, endemic substance abuse and mental health problems, and a crisis of motivation described by teachers and peers, parents and elders. That these conditions sit in contrast to the rapid growth and expansion of emergent middle classes in China, India and other Asian societies – which face a whole other set of affiliated social and political, economic and environmental challenges – has set fertile grounds for fear, xenophobia and resurgent nationalism.
The broader educational question pivots on where and how technology, human techne in all of its scientific and artistic, material and semiotic forms, sits in all of this. Our generation’s schooling assured us that rational human science and technocratic progress would provide the means for the solution of these problems, that there was a necessary synergy between science, capital and shared human interests. We were taught by schools, mass media and popular culture to look to technology and science, free enterprise and the market to solve growing inequality, environmental crises, and practical problems of healthcare and nutrition, housing and transportation.
Human beings by nature invent and use physical, cognitive and semiotic tools to reshape, remake and recreate worlds of all kinds.
Human beings by nature invent and use physical, cognitive and semiotic tools to reshape, remake and recreate worlds of all kinds. Yet unfettered industrial expansion, commodity consumption and the production of waste are now acknowledged threats to species survival. There are robust and complex ethical debates about the consequences of developments in genetics and biosciences, nanotechnologies, and artificial intelligence, and continuing debates over a range of fossil fuel, nuclear and pharmacological technologies. Through new models of complexity and indeterminacy, Western biological and physical sciences have begun to move towards understandings comparable to elements of Indigenous knowledge systems: the view that all living species and ecosystems are inextricably interconnected, fragile and hardly impervious to the consequences of our actions and forms of life, and that where and how human beings live demands a new ethics of care for all living things and for the very planetary environment that we have for so long taken for granted.
How might educators work with youth and children, families and communities to both defend and prepare them for difficult and unprecedented everyday challenges and problems, and to enable them to voice and build new cultural and political, social and environmental futures? The educational question is about how literacies might be reshaped in response to these conditions, with longstanding institutions and enterprises built around the written and the spoken word in historical transition. It is not surprising that the rise of social media and web-based information and knowledge resources and the decline of traditional broadcast and print media have set the stage for current political firestorms over “fake news”, “false media”, hacked information and communications. Nor is it surprising that despite repeated claims that digital technologies would enable instantaneous access to information and knowledge in all its forms, it would also create unprecedented mass production and consumption of bullshit, lies and distortion; and that continued access to and sustainability of the archive of human knowledge would be subject to continuous cyber warfare, hacking, data corruption, hardware and grid failure.
In this brave new communications ecology, the authority of the written text and the spoken word have become contingent and unstable. All that was solid, taken-for-granted and presupposed about the legitimacy of expert knowledge, peer refereed science, the customary truth claims of elders and leaders, journalists and broadcasters, priests and professors, and what counts as historical events and facts, truth and belief has been put up for grabs. At its core, then, this is an epistemological crisis. The grounds for consensus on what is have been eroded and washed away in a torrent of noise, a continuous flood of redundant and irrelevant information, data, infotainment and junk. Without solid ground, debates about what should and could be quickly fragment into virulent dispute, tribalism and symbolic violence.
If whole communities, regions and populations are experiencing not only radically different material conditions and social relations, but actually are working from fundamentally different epistemological standpoints, cultural knowledges, vernacular and scientific ‘truths’ about the world – the very possibility for democratic consensus, much less equitable societies and social justice, becomes more elusive. Doxa is both the problem and the solution. Diverse secular societies by definition require the hard work of social consensus undertaken by and through public discourse and ideational exchange. Without working agreements about empirically and experientially ‘what is’, without shared intercultural understandings and an awareness of and engagement with the diversity of cultural background knowledge and scripts, without commonly accessible scientific knowledge and analyses, and, without a modicum of uncoerced good faith by all parties involved – a sustainable social contract is all but impossible, or worse yet gives way to banal symbolism, demagogic affect and cults of personality.
All opinions are not equal. All representations do not have equivalent effects and consequences.
At the same time, the quasi-democratic response that “everybody is entitled to their own opinion” holds up about as well as the sophistic claim that “everything is discourse, representation or construction”. All opinions are not equal. All representations do not have equivalent effects and consequences. There are material, social and cultural facts, historical events that occurred and truths about the world out there, as difficult as they might be to agree upon. And the fact that discourse mediates our perceptions of the world neither means that there is no ‘real’ world, nor that all constructed versions of it have comparable material, social and environmental effects. Some representations of the world just don’t matter much. Others are, quite literally, matters of life and death. Understanding and anticipating, critiquing, engaging with and remaking the consequences of utterance and text, message and image are the everyday work of the literate.
As I write this in Brisbane, the middle class, multicultural state school down the road carries on. My neighbors’ children walk down the street to the school each day, class size 30, average teacher age 40, uniform-wearing middle class mixed immigrant/multilingual and White Australian students of various Judeo-Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and an increasing percentage of ‘no-fixed belief’ families. Like so many schools, it carries on, seemingly impervious in the teaching of new and old knowledge, national and regional literature and history, basic skills and higher order thinking, number facts and physical education. As in many Australian schools, there is a publicly displayed and symbolic acknowledgement of local Aboriginal lands and peoples – but this does not have a notable influence on what is taught and learned. Each week features some kind of project work, worksheets, sports, free play, and preparation for standardized tests. The school and its students remain, for better and worse, somewhat oblivious and impervious to the contexts of crisis, violence and displacement I have sketched here. In so many communities, the school remains a stolid institutional microcosm and a social field designed for social and economic reproduction, thankfully consistent in its uncalibrated imperfection. It somehow manages to stand apart, at times deliberately disinterested and at times, despite its best efforts, a lifeworld seemingly insulated from the ebbs and flows of substantive cultural and ideological conflict, environmental and political crises, technological and material change.
I am never quite sure whether this durability of practice – the capacity of this peculiar and unique institution to carry on its traditional structures and practices even as societies, cultures and institutions around it deal with conflict and contradiction, strife and struggle – is a good thing or not. In one sense, it strives to provide ideological and political continuity, selective versions of knowledge, behaviour and discipline in a kind of throwback manner. Schools work in a universe of unplanned time lag and inadvertent nostalgia, playing perpetual catch-up to the rest of the world, its problems, institutions, disciplinary knowledge and cultures.
On the one hand, there are ample educational rationale for this distancing of the school from society: the provision of safety zones for children, questions of developmental readiness to deal with real social and community issues, the making of an ethical and moral playground prior to the entry into work and citizenship, and so forth. On the other hand, following Dewey and Freire, this very resilience of residual tradition and the quiet durability of practice are at the core of the problem. For schooling as we know it still sits in a kind of synchronic insularity from the material forms of life it purports to prepare its students for, hoping for a distant, longitudinal transfer of training of school knowledge and capacity to adulthood, citizenship and, where and if it exists, work and occupation.
Schools work in a universe of unplanned time lag and inadvertent nostalgia, playing perpetual catch-up to the rest of the world, its problems, institutions, disciplinary knowledge and cultures.
If ever there was a time to reconsider the nature and purposes of education and schooling in society – it is now. If ever there was a time in which a common institutional experience where the children of peoples of diverse histories, cultures, languages, standpoints and beliefs were brought together in common interest and common cause – it is now. If ever there was a need for critical literacies, for a universal, free education that includes an ongoing dialogue and conversation about how the worlds that we live in are selectively represented and portrayed, by whom, in whose interests and to what ends – it is now. If ever there was a time to debate, discuss and make problematic questions about the material effects and social consequences of texts and discourses – it is now. If ever there was a need to get grip on the differences between the known, the real and the factual and how it can be misrepresented and distorted – it is now.
The ethical imperative is not only to enable all citizens and young people to assert and protect their rights and those of others, but it is also to enable them to engage with how their societies and economies are shaped and governed at a time when their diverse standpoints and experiences are badly needed. It is to engage these people with the tools to map out and live gainful lives in ways that are not exploitative and destructive of the very places, communities and cultures where they live. This will require not just digital and print capacities, but as well skills and knowledges with cognate, physical and manual tools that, for now, may appear to be retrograde and obsolete: how to grow living things and sustain environments, how to build and fix the objects of everyday life, how to develop and maintain convivial face-to-face social relations.
For now and the immediate future, I would avoid writing off print literacy and typographic cultures. They remain a crucial stop-gap defense, a well-trodden critical ground, and an initial jumping off point for working through these immediate transitions in dominant media and modes of information. While artificial intelligence and neurobiological technology will eventually augment print and script, writing and reading as a means for storing, recovering and using texts – for now, writing systems remain durable, affordable, transportable and relatively easy to master as a means for access and contribution to the human archive. The book and print also provide an insurance policy against the instability and insecurity of the digital archive. It is neigh impossible to hack or corrupt or crash the book sitting on the shelf in my study.
If ever there was a time to reconsider the nature and purposes of education and schooling in society – it is now.
Raised in a perpetual tradition of the new, immersed in a culture and economy based on planned obsolescence, institutional amnesia, and a narcissistic cult of representation and appearance – we tend to affiliate the critical with a skepticism towards all that is traditional and customary. The conservative case is that schooling is a means for learning received skills and practices and canonical knowledge, an invitation to participate in a revered conversation of Western cultures and sciences. Confucian-based cultures begin from a traditional veneration of received cultural knowledge and wisdom, but strive to maintain a strong focus on attitudes and dispositions that include a respect for elders and teachers. Indigenous cultures globally continue their fight to retain traditional ways of initiating youth into language, multi-generational wisdom, practical skills for survival and respectful engagement with land and kin, place and spirit – in the face of continuous threats to survival.
An education for critical literacies is an invitation to join an intergenerational, intercultural and peer conversation that is about imagining and building what could be, about the utilization of diverse cultural tools and knowledges to address real and pressing social, economic and environmental problems, about the collaborative dreaming of inclusive, generative and sustainable forms of life, about the engagement and use of cultural wisdom and scientific knowledge to address what appear to us to be insoluble environmental and planetary problems. This is at the heart of Freire and Dewey’s visions of education as a way of speaking to the most pressing of social and environmental, economic and political problems – and as a way of building more convivial and just societies. ….
Dear Ontario friends and colleagues.
First off, thanks for your continued work with kids, communities, systems and the demanding everyday work of teaching and learning. I retired from academic/public life around 2014, after my last visit to Ontario. Thanks to the work of Pauline Beder and the Secretariat video team, the videos on critical literacy, multiliteracies, culturally appropriate pedagogies, Indigenous education, quality pedagogy and school reform are still available to schools. Know that a lot of us out here in the rest of the world remain proud of your work in Ontario. In fact, given the current global geopolitical situation, your work and that of all Canadian teachers is all the more important as a lighthouse in what has become a very stormy sea.
I was pretty busy in retirement last year, playing and writing music – when the world, politics and life caught up with me. Right in the midst of the US election, I received an urgent invitation to address the annual meetings of the American Literacy Research Association in Nashville. I didn’t realize that this ‘staying retired’ thing required so much discipline. For me, it was time to pass over leadership and ‘voice’ in the field to the next generation of teachers, professors and leaders, having said my piece and feeling utter confidence that the next wave of educators – critical teachers and scholars of diverse backgrounds – was more than ready to take the reigns. That bit of Quixotic thinking was wiped by the events of the past year: staying silent isn’t an option.
The Nashville talk to the US audience in December is found here.
You’ll also find a new piece on the race of teachers and students (a tribute to my Chinese-American year 6 teacher), an overview of school improvement work using the 4 resources model, and a new piece on youth and the need for digital ethics. So I’ve been busy the last few months.
Finally, I’m sharing this excerpt from a collection of papers that will be published in January: Critical Literacy, Schooling and Social Justice (Routledge, 2018). Again – thanks for staying in touch and good to be in dialogue again.
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia
12 October 2017