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Patrick J. Finn
Nineteenth century anthropologists divided the world’s societies into two categories: civilized and savage. Civilized societies are large, diverse, logical, scientific, technological, have a sense of history, and are regulated by impersonal laws. Savage societies are small, homogeneous, regulated by face-to-face encounters rather than impersonal laws, and encourage solidarity. Twentieth century anthropologists kept the same categories but renamed them: Literate societies and oral societies. Written texts have many advantages over spoken texts: 1. You can examine two parts of a lengthy text side by side. You cannot easily do that while listening to an epic poem. 2. Written texts enable us to find inconsistencies that might go undetected in an oral culture. 3. Writing permits us to check facts and sources, and so there is less tolerance for inaccuracy. 4. Speakers usually have some familiarity with their audiences. They can make allusions to the their audiences’ knowledge, beliefs, and opinions rather than state them explicitly, and so much of the meaning of spoken texts is carried by allusion to shared knowledge, beliefs and opinions. A writer, on the other hand, often cannot gauge the distant reader’s knowledge, beliefs, and opinions, and so they are more likely to state facts explicitly, to make descriptions and explanations more precise, and to reason arguments in greater detail. During Plato’s lifetime literacy in an alphabetic script became widespread in Greece. As Greece transformed from an oral to a literate society, philosophy, science, and history burgeoned. Its society became large, diverse, logical, scientific, and technological. Eric Havelock proposed that literacy was necessary for these changes to take place and that these changes were inevitable because of widespread literacy. It’s a small step from believing that just as literacy causes a society to transform from an oral (savage) society to a literate (civilized) society, literacy will cause the unlettered child to transform into a “civilized” person—a fully participating members of a literate society. Gee called this “the autonomous model of literacy Low levels of literacy are associated with juvenile delinquents, convicts, people on welfare, high school dropouts, teenage parents, the chronically unemployed, and people having minimum wage jobs. Higher levels of literacy are associated with solid, successful citizens. This observation leads many to the conclusion that illiteracy causes social ills and literacy cures them, and that if children of the unemployed, the underemployed, and those employed at minimum wage jobs learned to read and write, they would, like Plato's Greeks, discover inconsistencies in their thinking and begin to engage in higher levels of thought. As a result, they would learn to deal with and become part of powerful institutions such as schools, big government, corporations, and professions that are built on and require high levels of literacy. They would, in short, get jobs or get better jobs, and poverty would disappear. The trouble is of course that basic literacy does not lead automatically to higher forms of thinking either in societies or in individuals. Highly successful literacy campaigns took place shortly after the Reformation in Sweden under the auspices Lutheran church. Protestant areas in France, Germany, and Switzerland reached near universal literacy by 1800. None of the litany of higher cognitive functions, modernization, or progress happened in these places. It was literacy for domestication and that’s what they got — domestication, not a riot of intellectual inquiry and progress. All children who achieve a fourth level of reading can be said to be literate regardless of whether they are from poor, working-class, affluent-professional, or elite homes. Until fourth grade there are classbased differences in reading scores, but they are small. Around fifth grade the reading performance of students begin to diverge along class lines and the differences in their reading ability go far beyond differences in the ability to sound out words or write sentences. This is best explained in terms of the levels of literacy students are taught and the levels of literacy that are commonplace in their communities The lowest level is the performative level. It is simply the ability to "sound out" words and turn sentences that are typical of informal face-to-face conversation into writing. The next level is the functional level. It is the ability to meet the reading and writing demands of an average day of an average adult. Reading USA Today, filling out a job application, understanding directions for using a household gadget, and writing a note to leave on the kitchen table for your spouse are some examples of functional literacy. The third level is the informational level. It is the ability to read and absorb the kind of knowledge that is


associated with school textbooks and to write examinations and reports based on such knowledge. The fourth level is essay-text level. The essay is public rather than private. It is not addressed to any individual and the identity of the author is unimportant. It is intended for a large audience with whom the author is not personally acquainted. The focus is on the content. Facts are stated explicitly; descriptions and explanations are detailed, and arguments are spelled out precisely. It is revised and edited to eliminate redundancy. Unstated and frequently unconscious assumptions and implications are made explicit; inconsistent assumptions and implications are confronted and resolved, and as a result, new knowledge is created. Modern science, government, politics, economics, literature, art, and language were developed using essaytext literacy. Powerful institutions depend on it in their day-to-day operations and development. The Autonomous Model of Literacy is a seemingly common sense idea that if you teach a person to read and write (performative and functional literacy skills) he or she will “naturally” acquire informational and essay-text literacy as s/he continues in school. Generations of teachers have learned from experience that this is not true, and yet it seems as if it ought to be true, and so we think, "We haven't made them literate enough," and we pour on more phonics and “writing” worksheets and blame children for whom it is not true.

Discussion: 1. Some authors have associated performative and functional literacy with working-class schools
and communities; informational literacy with the middle-class schools and communities; and essay-text literacy with the affluent-professional and elite class schools and communities. How does the concept comport to your experience as a teacher, student, parent, or citizen? 2. If you find the autonomous model of literacy valid, how do you account for the fact that, while it is not uncommon for working-class students and adults to acquire some facility with informational literacy, it is unusual for them to acquire essay-text literacy?