Some writers regard literacy as a technology of the intellect, that it strengthens the power of thought and contributes to the

development of human consciousness, and self-understanding. Provide a critical evaluation of this statement. Keywords: Literacy, Language, Skill, Cognitive Processes, Education, Transmission of Knowledge, Consciousness, Conscientisation, Freire

There is general acceptance that literacy brings about many benefits and empowers. What is less conclusive are the ways in which literacy does so. Some writers regard literacy as the technology of the intellect, that it strengthens the power of thought, and contributes to the development of human consciousness and self-understanding. One can imagine how this hypothesis may raise contention. It opens a Pandora’s box of difficult questions, among them: Does being literate promote cognitive processes? If so, does this result in heightened awareness? Does heightened awareness necessarily imply greater selfunderstanding? How does literacy affect such changes; are these changes physiological, psychological or behavioural in nature? How ‘literate’ does one need to be to set in motion such developments? To explore these various dimensions, we must first acknowledge that literacy occupies multiple dimensions or spaces. As a functional skill, it has been equated with social status and the opportunity for better employment; as a transformative skill, it has been seen to promote thinking and habits conducive to continuous learning, and as a political tool, it is seen to empower and liberate the learner from the oppression of imposed servitude (Bantock, 1967, Freire, 2004, Kelder, 1996, Oxenham, 2004). At the

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heart of literacy debates remain the over-arching question of what constitutes literacy. Earlier definitions of literacy, such as “the ability to read and write” (Oxenham, 1980, p. 15), put forward simplistic notions focused on the mastering of the alpha-numeric text. This promulgated a view of literacy as an autonomous model; a “general, uniform set of techniques and uses of language, with identifiable stages and clear consequences for culture and cognition” (Collins, 1995, p. 75). Mass literacy campaigns, like those promoted in the Third World under the auspices of organisations such as the World Bank and UNESCO, lent primacy to the acquisition of language as a development goal in itself. The promulgation of mass literacy was believed to “equate with overall development” (Pennycook, 1999). Mass literacy seemed to offer hope as an avenue in which to play catch-up with the developed world. It was “expected to produce miracles among the poor – self-esteem, empowerment, citizenship-building, community organisation, labour skills, income generation, and even poverty alleviation” (Torres, 2003, p. 141, cited in Oxenham, 2004). However, the promises of economic and social mobility associated with the acquisition of literacy did not always eventuate as expected. Benefits accrued were neither uniform nor universal. As Giroux (1987) cautioned, “literacy neither automatically reveals nor guarantees social, political, and economic freedom” (p. 11). Royer (1994) and Kelder (1996), in reviewing the experience of literate black slaves in North America and the historical evolution of literacy studies respectively, refer to Graff’s use of the term “literacy myth” (1987, p. 265); and reiterate that historically, how literacy has been defined and linked to social, economic and political progress, as well as the development

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of cognitive skills, is mired in ambiguity. Hence, its mythical reputation for predicating almost automatic or magical transformation has proven too narrow and simplistic to capture the complexities of how literacy is actually acquired and practised. As such, our exploration of literacy necessitates a broader conception. The universalist or autonomous model of literacy mentioned above has been eschewed somewhat; various relativist or situational models have been discussed in its stead in an attempt to make sense of how literacy is embedded within diverse historical, cultural and social contexts (Collins, 1995). In effect, we can no longer speak simply about literacy but acknowledge that there are multiple literacies. The notion of multiple literacies has come to the fore, fuelled in part by the dynamic changes brought about by globalisation. As the world grows closer in terms of communication, the complications brought about by the diversity of languages, the many ways in which people communicate and new modes of communication have necessitated new literacy concepts. Literacy is no longer restricted to mastery of the alphabet or numeracy; it “transcends the written word and other representational texts such as visual art, television, information technologies and photography…” (Rassool, 1999, p. 50), it encompasses “other forms of cultural expression which do not use the spoken language” (UNESCO, 1999, p. 2) and includes localised forms of literacy which reflect “the ‘applied’ nature of the skills” (Oxenham, 2004, p. 1). Literacy is therefore not a decontextualised psychological skill that is static in nature; instead, “people are continuously modifying established literacy practices, adapting them to new situations, and, at times, straightforwardly challenging and sabotaging established literary practices” (Sheridan, Street and Bloome, 2000, p. 5). As a

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result, various expressions of communication beyond that of the oral and written varieties are now formally recognised to constitute particular forms of literacy (UNESCO, 1999, 2006). Nevertheless, literacy – regardless of how it is defined – remains a paramount goal; it continues to underpin the universal human right to education: “it is a right and the foundation for all learning” (UNESCO, 2006, p. 448). The development of a literate culture continues to be credited with the empowerment of citizens and with the development of political, economic, cultural and social infrastructure in nations. As recently as 2006, the annual UNESCO Education for All Global Monitoring Report touted the many potential benefits of literacy; among them, improved self-esteem in the individual, expansion of democracy, preservation of cultural diversity, promotion of gender equality and economic growth. It is evident then that the shining promises associated with literacy have not lost their lustre; they continue to exert hope and remain “fundamental to informed decision-making, personal empowerment, active and passive participation in (the) local and global social community” (Stromquist, 2005, p. 12). As literacy remains the cornerstone upon which systems of education are constructed, discourses about literacy, language and education are rarely examined in isolation. In the following sections, our inquiry into literacy and its impact on human development will necessitate the use of the terms ‘literacy’ and ‘education’ interchangeably to reflect this symbiotic relationship.

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Literacy: a skill or a cognitive process? The brief examination of the various concepts of literacy above does not lead us any closer to identifying how literacy may impact upon cognitive skills or greater selfawareness. However, it does set the scene for our inquiry. For one, it suggests that the issue of literacy, if viewed at surface level, can be deceptively simple. Secondly, the various concepts of literacy highlight that literacy is not merely a thing to be acquired, it is multidimensional and carries far-ranging connotations from communicative competencies, cultural continuity to power relations. When we engage with the written word, we are not merely concerned with text construction, we ascribe multi-layered meanings to what is written and read and in so doing, the act of writing and reading is at once symbolic, metaphoric and culturally suggestive. Therefore, the potential impact of literacy on the learner is not confined to the ability to make out letters or words; for the written and printed word carries within it “a whole traditional culture of great verbal, emotional, and intellectual complexity” (Bantock, 1967, p. 20). Hence, acquiring the technique that allows one to comprehend letters, words, numbers or images is not the ultimate goal. Method or technique by itself does not promote understanding; the learner understands only when he actively reflects, questions and assimilates what is learnt. This dialectical process between the learner and his learning is what informs true learning and promotes consciousness (Chochol, 1968). Therefore, the process of how literacy is acquired, developed and applied, the process of becoming literate if you will, is what

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provides insight into the power of literacy on the development of the self. In short, it is not whether one reads and writes but whether one “understand(s) what one reads and to write what one understands” (Freire, 1996a, p. 48) that suggests the degree of cognition or consciousness. And what one does with what one understands is reflective of the transformative power of literacy, for to “every understanding, sooner or later an action corresponds. The nature of the action corresponds to the nature of the understanding. Critical understanding leads to critical action.” (Freire, 1996a, p. 44). Therefore, in exploring the impact of literacy on the intellect and consciousness, one must acknowledge that there are two distinct and separate issues at stake. We need to distinguish between skills, or operational methods or techniques, from cognitive processes (Scheffler, 1991). Scheffler illustrated this differentiation through the example of how basic mathematical skills are acquired and applied. He suggested that the ability to follow a mathematical argument is not derived from acquiring mathematical skills per se but that it also involved “psychologically significant skills” that are utilised and required outside of mathematical problem-solving, such as “perceptual, symbolic, inferential, mnemonic, questioning, strategic and imaginative capacities” (p. 73-76). Scheffler therefore proposed that while skills can be taught, understanding or cognitive processes cannot, because “there is no substance to the notion that there must be simple rules for translating methods or operations into underlying psychological processes” (p. 72). To rephrase this, we can say that how we use our literacy skills may reveal how we think but our literacy skills in themselves do not determine how we think. In this case,

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skill is separated from the cognitive process; how they may possibly correlate forms the next section of our inquiry.

Literacy and the cognitive processes Goody and Watt (1963), for example, have presented that literacy promotes rational logic. They point to traditional literary societies such as Greek literacy society, comparing this to traditional oral societies, for evidence of “characteristically analytic, teleological and relational thinking (p. 341).” Their basis for the supposition that literacy led to the development of rational logic rested upon their assertion that writing creates a “different kind of relationship between the word and its referent,” one which created an objective distance that engendered abstract thinking. It allowed the writer “to objectify his own experience” (p. 339) and put down his thoughts for posterity and reflexive analysis. Goody and Watt proposed that through the act of recording, one could engage in critical analysis in a categorical, abstractive fashion; the past is viewed as distinctly separate from the present, and thus, is freed from the constraints of the immediacy of time. In their argument, traditional oral societies lacked in this regard and were therefore “restricted to (the) impermanency of oral converse” (p.344). In so doing, they argued, a literate society is “impelled to a much more conscious, comparative and critical attitude to the accepted world picture” (p. 325). Goody and Watt’s premise is echoed somewhat by Bantock (1967) who suggested that to learn to read and write implies “modifications of consciousness” (p. 112) as the written text afforded one the opportunity to “look forwards and backwards, to ponder and

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repeat…” resulting in the development of cognitive processes which were “sequential” and “linear.” (p. 119) Bantock proposed that in this way “logic and structure came to dominate over tone and feeling,” promoting greater introspection or “inwardness,” which in turn “stimulated extended experience” (p. 120-121). Unlike Goody and Watt however, Bantock went one step further and linked the cognitive processes to emotion and identity, suggesting that the ability to read and thus, share (though from a distance) the experiences of others, forged greater empathy and also created a sense of identity, with the self and with others. While Bantock was steadfast in his acknowledgement of the potential benefits of literacy for self-development, he was mindful that literacy, if offered as a one-size-fits-all prescription, would “induce… a widespread apathy, once the basic skills of reading and writing have been – often tardily – acquired” (p. 130). In a scathing rebuttal, Halverson (1992) challenged Goody and Watt’s premise that literacy develops logical thinking. By presenting several examples, such as the oral practices inherent in Talmudic scholarship, he proposed that “logical processes do not require abstraction” (p. 307). In so doing, Halverson refuted the claim that different mental capacities were required to critically analyse information or order thinking when dealing in written as opposed to oral form. Halverson argued that literacy skills and cognitive processes are inter-related but not inter-dependent. His disagreement with Goody and Watt’s literacy thesis had less to do with their assertion that the writings of traditional literate societies provided evidence of rational logic; rather, that such evidentiary proof was offered up as equating to causal proof. In Halverston’s view, “languages do not think, only individuals do” (p. 314), therefore, just because rational,

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logical and conceptual thinking is evident in the writings of literate societies, it did not establish prima facie cause for such thinking. Instead, Halverson asserted that it was “a certain type of schooling, not literacy, that develops the kind of rationality in question” (p. 312). Collins (1995) cautions similarly, that it has been the “failing to separate effects of schooling from effects of literacy” (p. 80) that has resulted in a misconception of literacy’s impact on the cognitive processes. Therefore, if how literacy is taught, rather than the acquisition of literacy per se, serves as a catalyst for the development of cognitive processes, it would also stand to reason that pedagogy is the determining factor to what type of cognitive process is promoted, practised and rewarded. Whether or not this process extends to increased cognition or self-awareness is another matter. This further implies that there must be pedagogies which promote cognition and some which do not. To elaborate on this point for the purposes of clarity, it is my assertion that cognitive processes inform how a learner thinks things through but this does not equate to cognition, or awareness of self in relation to others. That is, how I think is distinct from what I think about in terms of myself and others. When Halverson suggested that a ‘kind of rationality’ was promulgated by a ‘certain type of schooling’ he was critiquing primarily Western-schooling environments which promoted what he termed “modes of Western rationality” (p. 312). In brief, his contention was that the kind of rational logic prized by Western academics was shaped by teaching and learning contexts which promoted and rewarded the demonstration of a particular form of deductive reasoning. As evidence of further proof, he referred to the

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results from the Vai Literacy Project conducted by Scribner and Cole (1981), where comparisons were made between the performance of Vai subjects who were literate but who had not received formal schooling to those who had received schooling. It was found that the amount of schooling exerted the most influence on how students answered logic problem questions. Therefore, in this case, literacy in itself was determined not to be the influencing factor in the shaping of rational logic of the kind suggested by Goody and Watt; rather, it was the learning context.

Education: knowledge transmission or promotion of consciousness? If whether one is schooled influences one’s cognitive processes, what about those who do not receive formal schooling? Rather than infer an inferior kind of rational logic or lack thereof, it should be expected that someone who is unschooled and illiterate would demonstrate a less standardised and predictable reasoning. Cognitive skills are evident whether or not one is schooled or literate. Scribner and Cole asserted this when they wrote:

“The assumption that logicality is in the text and the text is in school can lead to a serious underestimation of the cognitive skills involved in non-school, non-essay writing, and reciprocally, to an overestimation of… intellectual skills….” (Scribner and Cole, 1988, p. 61.)

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Scheffler alluded to the same when he proposed that method or skills should not be mistaken for the cognitive processes. Therefore, we can surmise that how an individual expresses reasoning, whether in song, through dance or other forms of communication apart from reading and writing, is equally demonstrative, evidentiary and valid. However, reasoning – and by extension consciousness – can be subverted or expanded depending on whether or not the student is included as the architect of his own learning. As Shor (1993) advanced, whether a student is allowed to critically examine his learning, question and reflect upon his experience or interpret his own reality, will influence his level of consciousness. Indeed, it has been the contention of many writers that ‘schooled literacy’ often results in a top-down transfer of standardised knowledge that does little to empower the individual or promote his consciousness. In such cases, the goal of literacy is not to promote cognition, raise awareness or allow the identity of the self to emerge, but to subjugate learners to patterned thoughts and ideas, and by extension, to a bound reality; it is education that “reproduces the dominant ideology” (Freire and Macedo, 1987, p.38). An alternate pedagogy, one that empowers, is education that promotes teaching and learning from the “inside out” (Freire, 1996, p. 48). Giroux (1987, 1993, 2006) has, on numerous occasions, argued against literacy which simply offers “transmission and mastery of a unitary Western tradition” (1987, p. 3) and pointed out, rather cynically, that this is a result of collusion between enterprise and education to churn out workers for the job market; even going as far as to suggest this reduces training costs for employers. Chonchol (1968) raised a similar point with

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regards to education; he cautioned against a perception of education as a “systematic extension of knowledge” (p. 138), where the teacher is viewed as all-knowing and students as mere recipients of knowledge. Chonchol suggested that such a conception of education dehumanised as it did not promote consciousness within the student. Shor (1993) termed such education as a process that domesticates and under-develops rather than liberates the learner. Along this same cautionary vein, Collins (1995) has likened the mass promulgation of literacy as a “hegemonic project.” In his view, this has resulted in the “displacement of non-standard varieties of language,” the “discrediting of alternate literacies” (p. 84) and reinforced social divisions pitting those who are literate against those who are illiterate. The results can be disastrous. In referring to the Native American experience for illustration, Collins suggests that literacy and schooling have perpetuated “cultural genocide and self-loss” (p. 85). Hence, we can deduce that literacy or education which transmits knowledge subverts consciousness for it is based on “a discourse of recognition whose aim is reduced to revealing and transmitting universal truths” (Giroux, 1993, p. 178). Instead, education that empowers and promotes consciousness must therefore be one which respects the learner’s context, engages the learner as a free agent in his own learning, and equips him with the tools to take necessary action for further selfdevelopment. It must impart upon the learner a sense of self, a thirst for inquiry and exploration, the ability to confidently assess and reflect upon his own learning, as well as acquaint him with himself and the world about him (Bantock, 1976, Scheffler, 1991). Scheffler (1991), in referring to Dewey (1961), concurred that the aim of education must

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“first and foremost… develop critical methods of thought. Its task is not to indoctrinate a particular point of view but rather to help generate those powers of assessment and criticism by which diverse points of view may themselves be responsibly judged” (p. 146). To do so requires enlisting “the student’s purposes in learning, so that the relation of the various studies to his own choices may become evident” (p. 148). Undoubtedly, the most well-known of pedagogies which exemplify the above would be of that taught and practised by the Brazilian educator Freire. For example, the objective behind the adult education program he coordinated in Recife was not focused merely on teaching adults to read, but “how to read in relation to the awakening of their consciousness” (Freire, 1996a, p. 43). Consciousness, according to Freire, meant “conscience of the world” for this “engenders conscience of the self, and of others in the world, and with the world.” Further, Freire stressed that “it is by acting in the world that we make ourselves” (Freire, 2004, p. 72). In short, Freire advocated literacy education which not only empowered but promoted a realisation of self and a demanded that one exercise one’s potential as an agent for social change. The basis of Freirean pedagogy lies in his belief that man is in a constant dialectical exchange with himself and with his world, that “the role of man was not only to be in the world, but to engage in relations with the world” (Freire, 1996a, p. 43). In proposing this, Freire charged the individual as agent and interventionist in his own reality and his own learning. He imbued the individual with the power of creation; what was man made he termed culture, distinct from that of the world of nature. Hence, whether one was literate or illiterate, he was not powerless; he was not subjugated to

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adapt to the reality about him. Instead, he had the power within him to create culture and by extension, his reality. Therefore, upon acquiring the skills to read and write, another avenue for participation is open to the illiterate. The act of communicating, of forming words, of writing it down or reading become acts of culture. Thus the learner, through creating literate culture, becomes co-creator of his reality by inserting himself into an extended world, one which, if he were illiterate, he would be reduced to the periphery. In this way, “literacy learners” become “active subjects” rather than “mere incidentals” (2004, p. 70). Therefore, man first reads the world, then the word; after which “reading the word implies continually reading the world” (Freire and Macedo, 1987, p. 35). In this way, “literacy education,” equates to “an act of knowing” (Freire, 1996b, p. 128). Knowledge and consciousness expands, for “the more accurately men grasp true causality, the more critical their understanding of reality will be” (Freire, 1996a, p. 43). Therefore, to be literate is to be actively engaged, not a state of attainment to be simply achieved. As Giroux (1987) has suggested, “to be literate is not to be free, it is to be present and active in the struggle for reclaiming one’s voice, history and future” (p. 11). The use of literacy education in such a context empowers because it engages individuals as “historical and ethical beings, capable of opting, of deciding, of breaking away” (Freire, 2004, p. 73). Thus, it is pedagogy that champions hope, reveals hitherto unseen choices and promotes possibilities. It propels the learner to engage with the written word in such a way as to see literacy as not external from himself or reserved specifically for the elite or literates. It challenges the learner to move from a limited consciousness that suggests his situation is hopeless and fatalistic, to one of critical

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consciousness, where “men reflect about themselves and about the world they are in and with” (Freire, 1996a, p. 81). It promotes literacy not as a skill to be mastered but as a tool for expanding consciousness. This approach to literacy, inherent in Freire’s pedagogy, has been applied by more than 350 organisations in 60 or more countries. ActionAid, for example, utilises a strategy called REFLECT (Regenerated Freirean Literacy through Empowering Community Techniques), which allow for participants to express themselves through various communicative means such as graphs, maps and the like. In doing so, participants first learn to read their world before naming them through words and numbers. Upon critically reflecting on their situations, the participants then prepare action points to realise these into concrete results. Thus, the learner acquires not just literacy skills but “an attitude of creation and re-creation, a self-transformation providing a stance of intervention in one’s context” (Freire, 1996a, p. 48).

Conclusion We have explored the many potential benefits of literacy, chief among them as to whether literacy strengthens the power of thought, and contributes to the development of human consciousness and self-understanding. In doing so, we have proven that literacy is not a “monolithic technology with predictable social and cognitive consequences” (Brandt, 1990, p. 25, cited in Royer, 1994). We have also established that historically, how literacy has been defined and understood, has influenced how literacy has been taught. When delivered merely as a means to transmit knowledge, it limits the learner’s

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exercise and practise of consciousness. We conclude that the power of literacy does not lie in the ability to read and write, but rather to understand what it means to read and write. It is only through understanding the larger implications of literacy that literacy can be harnessed to promote consciousness and self-understanding.

“Literacy makes sense only in these terms, as the consequence of men’s beginning to reflect about their own capacity for reflection, about their world, about their position in the world… about literacy itself, which thereby ceases to be something external and becomes a part of them, comes as a creation from within them.” (Freire, 1996a, p.81)

Word count: 4,103 words

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References

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