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The Gospel of John opens with one of the New Testament’s most evocative yet cryptic phrases: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” The passage then goes on to say, “And the Word was made flesh …”

These clauses are typically interpreted to mean that a divine plan, divine precepts and injunctions, and divine law preceded and directed human history. But these phrases also allude to words’ immense power. That includes the power to embody ideas, express values, shape mind-sets, convey emotions, keep records and transmit thoughts and sentiments across space and time.

We live in a moment when language appears to be especially fraught. Our very words seem extraordinarily fluid, elastic and hotly contested. Any word that seems to signify, accurately or not, hierarchy, inequality, racism, sexism or some other form of prejudice is subject to condemnation and cancellation. At the same time, the meaning of certain words denoting harm, trauma or violence has broadened, in a process called semantic creep, to apply to ever more instances of injury and suffering. Even grammar and syntax are under dispute as sexist or racist or ableist, while systematically disparaging alternate dialects and vernaculars.

Language is increasingly viewed as a key component in American culture’s structures of power, which privilege masculinity, denigrate Blackness, equate darkness with evil or sin, and normalize or obfuscate inequality and difference.

It’s no accident that a popularized linguistics has grown more prevalent as a growing number of people view language as problematic. The heightened interest in pop linguistics can be seen in John McWhorter’s weekly New York Times newsletters, in Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcasts and in books like McWhorter’s best seller Nine Nasty Words.

Accompanying the growing contestation of language is a supposed crisis of literacy. We are told that:

  • Thirty-four percent of fourth graders are below basic in reading.
  • One hundred and thirty million Americans—more than half of all adults—read below a sixth-grade level.
  • Technologies including television, the internet, smartphones, laptops, tablets, apps, video games and electronic media are displacing book reading and slow, close, critical or reflective reading.

Some observers consider the so-called crisis of literacy overblown. A UT Austin colleague, Melissa Wetzel, has questioned whether there is a substantial difference between first- and second-language learners (and between the more and less affluent) and has argued that the language of crisis too “narrowly defines what it means to be literate.”

Whether real or exaggerated, the crisis of literacy resonates within American culture because the acquisition of literacy is widely considered a defining symbol of human progress and a necessary precondition for individual advancement, economic development and liberation from ignorance and superstition.

That’s why NGOs routinely call literacy a human right.

The very word “literacy” has acquired impressive cultural weight. No longer is the term inextricably linked to the ability to read and write. It is now a synonym for any area of competency. Today, one frequently hears about the importance of cultural literacy, data literacy, digital literacy, financial literacy, geographical literacy, media literacy and visual literacy, not to mention numeracy. Then, there’s the newest kinds of literacies, the so-called 21st-century literacies, which encompass computational literacy, cross- and multicultural literacy, contextual thinking, information literacy, multimodal literacy, and more.

By one count, more than 500 different kinds of literacy are mentioned in print.

Which suggests to me that all humanists worth their salt should know something about literacy studies. Readers will find Harvey J. Graff’s forthcoming Searching for Literacy—a study of the ways that literacy is acquired, used, regulated and exploited in specific contexts as well as a full-throated critique of many of the ideas about literacy advanced by anthropologists, linguists and psychologists—an especially valuable introduction to this booming yet bitterly contested field.

Literacy studies is a notoriously fragmented area of study, divided in its approach and orientation between the scientific and the cultural, the quantitative and the qualitative, the cognitive and the material, the hard and the soft. It is also a field claimed by multiple disciplines, including anthropology, history, linguistics, literature and psychology. In the second half of the 20th century, literacy studies, has, like many other academic fields, taken social, contextual, cognitive, linguistic and historical turns.

Graff’s book exposes and questions a series of myths that have dominated literacy studies at various points in time:

  • That the ability to read and write is superior to other forms of communication, especially the oral, and that people who are “unlettered” are by definition intrinsically inferior in intellect.
  • That the shifts from orality to symbols to alphabet, from speech to script, from memory to written records, from classical and elite to vernacular language, and from printed to electronic language, represent fundamental disjunctions and radical ruptures and divides in human history.
  • That the emergence of writing facilitated a major shift in the vocabulary, syntax and the structure of language and thought, including a movement toward more complex words, more complicated sentence structure and grammar, and more abstract and conceptual thinking.

There are other misconceptions and mistaken beliefs that Graff attacks:

  • That “literate” is a synonym for “civilized” or “progressive” or “advanced.”
  • That literacy is largely (and best) acquired through formal instruction in schools.
  • That the proliferation of new media threatens to erode the most important literacy of all, the ability to read and write, and has encouraged the rampant dissemination of disinformation, abetted by the breakdown of various gatekeepers, that threatens social order, civic knowledge and American society’s long-term development.

Certain key arguments run through Graff’s book:

  • The division between orality and literacy is grossly exaggerated, as speech can adopt many different forms and speech and writing continuously influence one another.
  • Human communication has always taken multiple forms, and scholars of literacy need to take fuller account of the musical, the auditory and the artistic and other visual modes of expression and communication.
  • That control over the means and modes of communication is as important as control over the modes and relations of production.

Searching for Literacy covers a vast range of topics, including handwriting; ghostwriting; graphics, tables and charts; performance and dance; and even advertising copy. The book offers a particularly telling dissection of the utopian dreams and apocalyptic fears that have accompanied the rise of new media and raises serious doubts about whether the equation between of education and economic development is as causally linked as Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz argued in The Race Between Education and Technology.

But central to the study is an examination of the ways that literacy functioned in a variety of historical contexts, at times as an instrument of power and ideology, but also in other ways. He explores how various groups—women from a variety of social classes, the working class in several countries, enslaved African Americans and others—used reading and writing, sometimes, as a way of constructing a sense of community and at other times, as an essential instrument for collective resistance to various forms of power and inequality.

Richard Hoggart’s 1957 classic, The Uses of Literacy, a foundational work in culture studies, reveals yet another way that literacy could function. His book shows how exposure to mass culture and popular media undercut the moral economy of the British working class.

Researchers continue to debate whether the ability to use words to express abstract thought and to arrange words in complex, flexible, rules-based ways is unique to humans. But there is little doubt that humans are distinct in their ability to comprehend and make meaning through reading, express and communicate meaning through writing, and convey ideas and emotions with a distinctive linguistic voice.

When Frederick Douglass was 11, his owner, Hugh Auld, declared that allowing the future fugitive and abolitionist to learn to read and write would “forever unfit him for the duties of a slave.” As Douglass himself recognized, literacy signified freedom—not physical freedom, but liberation from the bondage of the intellect that had prevented him from imagining a truly free and autonomous life.

Our students have greater linguistic, communicative and analytical abilities than we often think, even if many haven’t yet mastered the academic vocabulary or modes of discourse and written expression associated with the college educated. It is our most important job is to help our students further develop and refine their capacities to read and write analytically. Language, after all, is the vehicle to read closely, think abstractly and critically, understand and evaluate conflicting perspectives and norms, and express logical, evidence-based arguments orally and in writing.

As Frederick Douglass exemplified in his own life, command of language is itself among the most potent forms of power.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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