Friday, February 19, 2021

In the End the Goal is Not Literacy, It's Understanding


I write every day, publishing here and in other forums like Medium and Edutopia, not to mention my two books. Yesterday, I wrote a post that might be considered a bit dismissive of writing, but please don't let that make you think that I don't value the written word. I'm a product of it, as are you, but it has its limitations, severe ones, in that one can never really say what one wants to say, only come as close as possible.

Like everyone who writes, which is most of us at one time or another, I sometimes write to convey information, persuade, entertain, or preserve something, but the primary reason I strive to put things into words is so that I can know what I think. This, of course, is the opposite of how we "teach" children to write. They are taught to start with a thesis, build their case, then end with a pre-determined conclusion. In other words, they are to think before they write, which, as the old woman quoted by E.M. Forester in his book Aspects of the Novel said, "Good gracious! What rubbish! How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?"

For me, the process of writing is, in many ways, my process of thinking and that is what usually happens here on this blog. Sure, I try to go back and tidy things up a bit to make it presentable before hitting the "Publish" button, and I can't tell you how grateful I am that people, millions of them, have found value in reading what I leave here and there, but mainly I write to understand. This too, is the opposite of how one is taught to write. One is supposed to imagine an audience and write to that audience, but that, I think, is only true when writing to inform, persuade, entertain or preserve.

Writing is certainly not the only way to arrive at understanding. An artist friend says she needs to work with "matter" to shape her thoughts, and, in turn, "I need thoughts to give a name and a sense of what happens to matter." The most famous teacher of all, Socrates, never wrote anything. He used his Socratic Method of conversation and questioning to drill down to understanding. In fact, he distrusted the written word:

“The discovery of the alphabet will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves . . . You give your disciples not truth but only the semblance of truth; they will be heroes of many things, and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing.” 

In fact, it's this passage that prompts me to write today (and yesterday for that matter). Oh sure, as well-regarded as Socrates is, he is only known today because his student Plato wrote his words. And like with many of the dead, white males of the Western Canon, we needn't take his words as transcribed by others at face value. He could have been wrong. Perhaps he, like many of us, was a mere Luddite, digging in his heels against a new and powerful technology, but his example of striving to understand even if it upsets our cherished ideals, I think, remains a good one. That's why I wrote yesterday. I value the written word, but I've had a number of conversations lately with people from indigenous backgrounds who have caused me to re-consider the written word altogether, or to at least place it on a lower pedestal alongside others of equal height.

Typically, we think of the role of educators as one of informing, persuading, entertaining (at least a little), and preserving (again, at least a little), but our real function is the two-way street of understanding. That is the business of education: to facilitate understanding. Writing is not an option for most preschoolers. For them, the pursuit of understanding comes through an ongoing spiral of play and the spoken word. One might even say that their's is a much more direct way to arrive at understanding, so much so that I sometimes find myself wishing I wasn't literate at all. 

There are times when I'm frustrated by the limitations of words. They get in my way and never quite say what I want them to say. The most irritating example is the use of jargon and buzz words, which are invented as shortcuts for people in the same profession or clique, but that quickly evolve into walls that keep the uninitiated out. When I'm trying to understand I seek to shed all jargon and use the simplest word possible. Instead of writing about my "head space" I'll write "mood." Instead of writing "meta," I'll use "big picture." The more commonplace the words, the easier it is for me to start to approach understanding. 

Children are more like my artist friend, however, or Socrates. Matter and dialog are real things in the real world. Writing is a step removed. I tell myself that the words I publish here are my tiny contribution to the great and ongoing dialog of humanity, but how can they serve that purpose when they are so distant from the real things taking place, like transforming matter or a conversation or a song or dance or digging a hole to China?

Reading and writing, what we call literacy, is a double-edged sword and we shouldn't allow ourselves to fall prey to placing literacy on a pedestal. As useful as it is, there are so many more kinds of literacy in the world, so many more grammars, so many more and beautiful ways to understand. In fact, most of these types of literacy are available to the young children in our lives right now, at this very moment. Alphabetic literacy can and should wait until they are seven or eight or nine or ten years old. As long as we provide the opportunities for them to explore, create and converse, they will teach themselves to be literate in the real world, multi-literate, profoundly literate.

I write to understand, but there are as many paths to understanding as there are people. Let's each find our own, walk together when our ways run parallel, and walk alone when our ways diverge, emerging as humans who understand, but in our own unique ways, which is the glory of humanity. In the end the goal is not literacy, it's understanding.

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