English Literacy?


“Literacy is the path to communism”
(click the link to view the image in its original context)


I have long understood that the study (scholastic) of English in contemporary American society is likely one of the most erroneously named. What constitutes the study of English is actually an exploration of not merely the form of language we use (as opposed to a foreign language), nor only the disciplines of reading and writing, but of history, humanity, technology, politics, psychology, religion, anthropology, etc. What other fields of study encompass so many other disciplines and is also encompassed by those other fields? Pattison writes:

…language, like God, is that in which ‘we live, and move, and have our being’. It is not a separate and specialized attainment of human culture, like mathematics or architecture. Neither these nor any other branch of human intelligence could exist in the absence of language. (On Literacy, p. 21)

Our very modes of communication, and as some scholars suggest, psychological transformation, has its bases in literacy, and which discipline is most widely recognized as addressing literacy? I concede that in large part, we are currently using the English language in the United States to communicate and that when we survey our cultural, social, biological histories, we use the English word as the unit of meaning that conveys these histories. But isn’t what we term the study of English actually a study of literacy and how it has been explained, practiced, developed, criticized, etc? Pattison offers:

Literacy is a combination of variables – individual and cultural awareness of language and the interplay of this awareness with the means of expression…Many people use the word literacy to denote a state of mental enlightenment, an ideal realization of human intelligence, that either existed in the past…or toward which the world is evolving, albeit slowly. (p. 7)

So then what place does literacy have in our universities and colleges? What is the role of these institutions in the teaching of literacy? If by “literacy” we think of reading and writing (as abilities that can be learned and mastered), then the function of our university becomes the development, examination and instruction of these. If we define literacy as a historical or psychological phenomenon, our university may attempt to introduce literacy in relation to specific disciplines. For example, language development in infants or the effects of literacy on religious thought during the rise of Christianity. If we focus on literacy as a tool for communication, our university may emphasize the study of languages other than English. While ostensibly the question of literacy is approached and addressed by a university’s department of English, could not every department and thereby every course in the university be in some way a teaching of literacy? Pattison, perhaps unknowingly, offers both advice and challenges (as in the phrase ‘rise to the challenge’) to the university concerning the teaching of literacy: “The welter of neurological data and speculation confirms that literacy must not be treated as a constant in human affairs but as an evolving and adaptable attribute of the species” (p. 18); “If language is the prime mover of human intelligence, speech is its first form. Before he has mastered any skill or technology, the literate person, unless physically impaired, must have become aware of himself as a speaker and have begun to examine the relation between the words he utters and the world in which he utters them” (p. 26); “The difficulty with rhetoric, reading, and writing is to discover what about them is so absolute and unchanging from one culture to another and what about them is conditioned by social factors” (p. 29).

When approaching the study of literacy, it’s notable how the disciplines of writing, history, psychology, biology, and many more all enter the picture. What is the role of the university in the teaching of literacy? The answer inevitably lies embedded in how literacy is defined and moreover, the importance placed on such a phenomenon within each institution. Arguably, every university teaches literacy by the very nature of being an institution of learning. Perhaps the more important question is “In what ways do universities have a responsibility to emphasize the importance of exploring literacy (and encouraging its students to follow suit) both on the personal level and as a recognizable and formal discipline?”



1) Pattison, R. (1982). On literacy: The politics of the word from Homer to the Age of Rock. New York: Oxford.


About Marlen Harrison

Dr. Marlen Elliot Harrison has been teaching language, communication, composition, literature and gender/sexuality studies at universities in Asia, Europe and North America since 1997.
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