Friday, 16 September 2011

The notion of Literacy and Political Justice

Years ago I was sent a book by someone I consider a good friend whose name is Dr. Jarich Oosten, a professor of Anthropology at Leiden University, The Netherlands. The book is called, A History of Reading, by Alberto Manguel.

As with many of my other books, I so savoured the idea of enjoying reading it I only got around to it recently after so many years because - as with my other books - I wanted to give it my full attention. I mean, at the risk of sounding elitist, most of the books I own are nonfiction so as not to just be entertained but to make me think seriously. What fiction I read I tend to choose with much greater care. HA! I guess I'm delicate that way.

Anyhoo, whether I've been subconsciously mulling over the Manguel book and thinking about the whole notion of literacy because of it or whether it's because I've been intructing adult learners, the idea of literacy and political well-being has been somewhat foremost on my mind recently.

As I've said in my earlier blog entries, I consider "literacy" as not just being able to read and write but includes also the ability to understand and contemplate the ideas in a discourse, to paraphrase Northrop Frye: being literate is having the ability to be taken up by the subject. So it follows that, I'd say, the notion of "language competency" is prior to and builds on "literacy" per se because without linguistic competency the idea, the purpose behind literacy is a cheapening of the human spirit.

In one of the chapters of A History of Reading, Manguel talks about ignorance as being the perferred milieu of despots, tyrants and totalitarianism in general to thrive in therefore the whole idea of literacy is both feared and hated by the-powers-that-be, whether its slave-owners or kings or fascists. I'd also include corporatism (ie, business- or government- bureaucracies) because of its nasty tendency to re-present its own reality and selfish needs as a prepackaged absolute "truth", as something of a trust-worthy brand-naming and/or glossing over of inconvenient facts in favour of selected, flattering ones.

Manguel writes:

"Censorship, therefore, in some form or another, is the corollary of all power, and the history of reading is lit by a seemingly endless line of censors' bonfires, from the earliest papyrus scrolls to the books of our times".

The organized religions (and I include here political parties with set constitutions and corporations) seem especially prone to the imperative to censor and control information, facts and ideas. And, as Manguel points out, since the ability to read and write cannot be unlearned, totalitarianism of every sort feels the need to restrict literacy through a canon of acceptable works or an index of forbidden ones. The nazis, following a long line of predecessors (evil is banal and without originality), made book-burning a highly ritualized affair with psuedo-prayers like, "Tonight you do well to throw into the fire these obscenities from the past. This is a powerful, huge and symbolic action that will tell the entire world that the old spirit is dead. From these ashes will rise the phoenix of the new spirit," as Goebbels preambled each collectivized act of evil a lifetime ago in that other place.

Interestingly, the gist of colonialism of aboriginal groups follows the same pattern. Truly, evil is incapable of not only variation in word content but is itself the exact self-same one in every generation in every place. The book-burning may change in explicit form but the intent and consequence is exactly the same in negligence by state in mistrust of the governed "other".

I'm not saying that teachers are privy to and culpable in the "mis-education" of aboriginal children. I think being an educator is a noble and virtuous calling. But that under-resourcing and -funding and remuneration of teachers (who tend to be at the lower end of economic status with one of the highest stress jobs and attrition rates) has a logical consequence of oppression of Fanonian and Freire-ian proportions.

I mean teachers' materials and reliable support go from poor to non-existent (some forced to develop their own teaching materials and resources) while government budgets for education (both at the federal and territorial levels) bloat to the gluttonous for their bureaucracies. The aboriginal services industry is like a state within a state that seems hopelessly addicted to the latest, most expensive methods of control and administration forever in policy and program review of this sort or another that lead nowhere but to a voracious blackhole.

What was once Inuktitut literacy restricted only to the bible under strict control of the church has turned into reams and reams of government documents written in vacuous bureaucratese translated into Inuktitut English that almost no one would ever admit having read. I'm not speaking out against interpreter/translators. But the government propaganda and force-fed "policies" and "programs" which make up the only bulk of work is not "Inuktitut language promotion" as federal-territorial transfers would have us believe. Heaven forbid that the Nunavut Teachers' Education Program should ever access unhindered these types of funds (even a small portion thereof) and actually started producing real Inuktitut language material that actually promotes our language and open up the world for Inuit children...

It is not only the Inuit (or aboriginals for that matter) who are kept unconscious and ignorant of the real world and its possibilities; it is the very people who administer the public funds who are kept "innocent" by the compartmentalized, anonymous, complex machine whose unfounded phobia is "the dangerous, revolutionary ideas" inherent in the very idea of literacy and all that it entails. If they fear "another Quebec" or "another Oka" it only speaks more of their lack of confidence in just government than in the consent of the people they govern and their belief in the idea of Canada.

But who and what exactly is this "evil"? This is like the question: "Who and what is the Jay in my person?"

Jay

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