Friday, October 9, 2009

What does it mean to be literate?

(I believe) one of the most important goals of Freshman Composition (and of college for that matter) is the development of critical reading/thinking skills - skills that most poetry and criticism readers probably take for granted.

That said, I am always a bit surprised when I get to more critical work during the semester and my students seem relatively uninitiated. Typically, they can analyze/ interpret pictures or ads, but with texts, they rarely question the information they are receiving. For that matter, they often even have trouble summarizing what they just read, even when the texts are fairly straight forward and fresh in their minds. I am sure that some of this is due to lack of interest, but it also makes me wonder...

Suffolk has relatively strict admissions standards. All of my students have been through high school, know how to write and read words and sentences, and have undoubtedly written research papers and read some classic authors. I would be willing to bet that all of them have read some Shakespeare. I would not call them illiterate, but if they have trouble summarizing a simple argument, could I call them literate?

The National Institute for Literacy, and the UN would call them perfectly literate because they can "read and write a simple sentence." By these definitions, they have probably been literate since the second grade, and this is an achievement, but calling them literate by those standards really shuts the door on a whole range on literacy. In a sense, it says, "this is enough, you are literate," almost branding them "success." In these terms, the UN considers 80% of the world as literate. But reading and writing a simple sentence is really not enough.

It seems equally important to me that students also be able to understand simple sentences or even further, be able to think about them and grapple with them before literacy actually takes place.

Yet, understanding alone poses a pretty complicated problem that most readers of poetry face at one point or another, because understanding a line implies that "it has been conceptualized to a given measure." But this definition is incredibly sticky since "a given measure" is not "entirely," and "entirely" is really impossible. So what makes an adequate measure for understanding a simple sentence?

At the most basic, I think a reader would need to understand the direct meaning of a sentence implied by its word sense. Take this simple sentence for example:

The beautiful rose burst into season.

At its most basic, the sentence implies by its word sense that an attractive rose (the flower) blossomed (or opened up). The majority of readers, I think, would grasp this understanding of the sentence; however, rose also (literally) means "an ornament" and burst literally means both "to break open" and "to come apart." Season in this sentence is much more complicated because the most straightforward implication is that the rose flowered, or it was "in the season" of flowering. However, season could also be "fashion," as in the rose became stylish, and if burst is seen as "breaking," the rose can be seen as falling apart into a season. Even beautiful could be seen as "enjoyable" instead of "attractive," which further complicates the literal meaning of the sentence.

Yet, beyond the literal, in order for a reader to be truly literate, he or she would need to take into account the sentence's symbolic levels of meaning, and this complicates the meaning exponentially. Most people would agree that a rose (almost to a fault) is a symbol for love or passion. And in this sense, the sentence also means that love is beginning passionately. Or if season is seen as foul weather (implied by seasonably (ie, seasonably cold)), then the rose or passion could be bursting (breaking) into foul weather (reality). And these symbolic meanings are every bit as present as the literal ones.

Moreover, there is a rich history of "roses" in sentences and in writing, and it seems that to really understand the sentence, a reader would need to be aware of some of the major allusions -at least "a rose by any other name could never be as sweet."

And in this same sense, writing about roses blooming has definitely be done - so much so, that it is cliche. A literate reader would need to be able to identify a cliche or at least have a sense of what is cliche and what is not.

If literacy requires all this, then the majority of people around the world are probably not literate (I am barely on the cusp myself). And furthermore, there must be ways of reading and understanding by which even fewer of us (myself included) are literate. Shakespeare is read by almost all English speaking high schoolers, and most of them probably apprehend him on one level or another, but so much is probably lost that I am not sure it can be adequately called "reading" Shakespeare. By these standards, not many people (if anyone) probably can "read" Shakespeare. And that means we are all illiterate in one sense or another since his work is such a cornerstone of the English language.