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Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies

By Harvey J. Graff, author of Searching for Literacy

A few years ago, when a very bright and avidly reading eight-year-old friend announced that she had named her new stuffed bear and its cub Bakey and Bearey, I asked her how she spelled the words. Memorably and instructively, she replied, “I don’t worry about spelling.” She shed more light on questions of literacy than she realized. 

Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies explores the surprisingly broad and complicated underpinning to my friend’s answer to my culturally over-determined question. 

In the popular and political imaginary, literacy is a sine qua non of culture and progress, for individuals, societies, nations. It exists in dizzying varieties; there are hundreds of proclaimed literacies. But literacy also resists universal transmission. The reasons commonly given are as many as they are contradictory. They range from individual to institutional and political failings.  

Literacy’s place in popular culture is one tellingly ambiguous sign. Corporate capitalism celebrates reading and writing in normative, consumer, and durable terms—for its own benefit. These proclamations are revealingly, though poorly, expressed. Other voices are more mixed. 

Today few subjects attract the attention or spark responses as powerful as literacy does. Claims of literacy’s and illiteracy’s presumed consequences surround us. Few pressing issues—whether individual and collective well-being, social welfare and security, and the state of the nation, domestic or foreign—escape association with literacy. Divisive issues of politics, and of race, class, nationality, gender, or geography constantly run up against it.

Despite literacy’s acknowledged importance, its powers on the one hand, and the dangers of its diminution, on the other hand, are taken out of context and exaggerated. Literacy is seldom defined. This adds to the illusion of its efficacy and the underlying confusion 

At the same time, we thrive in a new era of a seemingly endless flowering of many or multiple literacies. They range from the "new literacies” of “new media” of visuality, screens, moving and animated images, numbers and symbols, to assertions of literacies, of some kind or other, of every imaginable subject, from aural to emotional, food, sex, culture, and countless others. And we are also told, even less clearly and coherently, that literacy, as we have known it, is irrelevant in the age of post-everything. I have compiled a list of almost five hundred “literacies” that I have seen mentioned in print. 

No wonder confusion is rife. 

Critical examination reveals a different set of relationships and promotes other understandings. Literacy’s uses and impacts are also aligned with continuities and control. Literacy’s impacts are dialectical and contradictory, seldom simple or unmediated. 

Similarly, literacy has at least as often been associated with the life of groups as with the individualistic legacy that dominates our images. On the one hand, we must focus on the collective as well as individual uses of literacy, as people throughout the ages have done in their everyday and more exceptional practices. On the other hand, both the collective and the individual dimensions influence how the other acquires, uses, and are affected by reading and writing. Neither exists alone. Consider schooling or religious or governmental practices, or popular reading culture, or the collective aspects of artistic and scientific endeavors. Simple images quickly give way. 

Dominant images emphasize literacy for liberation (which can be quite restrictive) and individual advancement, and less often for collective progress (or conservative reaction). The hugely simplified temporal association of classical Athenian democracy with the incomplete literacy of male citizens is an epochal case in point. However incomplete an association, it stimulated a powerful, indeed determinative influence and set of expectations over the past two millennia.

Among the most important—and least appreciated—critical elements are the absolutely connections among myths and images—historical and contemporary—and expectations, and the ways that they are embedded in and come to undergird attitudes, policies, institutions, and judgments. We need to study literacy and literacies in new ways in their widest living circumstances and relationships, lived and written, experienced and recorded. 

It is seemingly easy to study writing and “print.” But it has been so hard to study reading and writing as practiced across media and modes of understanding and expression, especially in their formative and fundamental relationships to conceptions, ideologies, policies, institutions, and expectations. 

Searching for Literacy is a hybrid. It is not a complete history of literacy or literacy studies. It is a critical account of the development of interests, approaches, methods, and understandings of literacy within and across fields, disciplines, and interdisciplines with an emphasis on the early modern and modern eras. It is revisionist.  

I argue that literacy and literacy studies are historical developments and must be understood in those terms. Those developments have had a profound impact on our traditions of thinking about and understanding literacy and how we study it. Literacy studies, especially in its academic, institutional, and policy forms but also in popular parlance, has lost a sense of its critical foundations. This lack of consciousness hinders, sometimes tragically, recent and contemporary efforts at promoting literacy and developing brave new notions.    

Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History at The Ohio State University, USA. He was inaugural Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies and founded the university-wide interdisciplinary initiative LiteracyStudies@OSU. One of the world’s authorities, his books are recognized landmarks, from The Literacy Myth to The Legacies of Literacy, The Labyrinths of Literacy, and Literacy Myths, Legacies & Lessons, among others on children and youth, cities, and interdisciplinarity. His autobiography, My Life with Literacy: The Continuing Education of a Historian. The Intersections of the Personal, the Political, the Academic, and Place is forthcoming.