Tuesday, September 8, 2009

critical literacies missing

most students wouldn't even know what critical literacies means. They would, however, know what market value means. Now why is that?

I've been busily preparing a university course on ethnography. Ethnography, of course, is a huge area. It means basically writing about people. There are narrative ethnologies, digital ethnologies, visual ethnologies as well as the conventional academic monographs. In my class, we look at past and present practices of telling stories about people and cultures, about the power relations of telling stories, about the various forms from textual to visual to digital, about how stories and identities are embedded in social, historical and political realities, and about resistances and interventions to dominant (myth-making) story-telling. I teach the students to write or create via visual means if they like, their own ethnographies--autoethnographies. They learn how to write a blog and start constructing a digital identity. I challenge them to think about how they are located in multiple social and historical relations; how they are embedded and construct what they are examining. So, we do a critique of objectivity. For the autoethnography, rather than an outside anthropologist or researcher coming in to write up aspects of you and your culture (but as culture is not singular, so that should be an 's' on the end), you (the student) get to do that.

One of the things I have planned is a field trip with the students to a museum. It'll be an exercise in learning to read a cultural site such as a museum, learning to decode with a critical eye the cultural texts that are found there. What stories do they tell? How are they framed? What is left out? What is the relationship between the (visual) texts? Who tells the stories? Do we just accept the stories or do we intervene or disrupt the telling?

The more classes I teach the more I work hard to get students to think critically about the world that they move through, to look at their subjective positionings in power relations. And believe me, today you need to work hard to jar students into passion and away from complacency, mediocracy and disinterest.

I just finished reading a new online article by one of my favorite critical thinkers on education, Henry A. Giroux. I then took a break to visit one of the blogs I follow, Del sol y de sus lunas, and found a synchronicity: Merche Pallares was thinking about the changing state of universities today, too! While the article MP writes about refers to European universities, and Giroux's article refers to American universities, Canadian universities, too, are increasingly embracing market strategies that diminish the critical holistic capabilities of students. Fewer and fewer students are developing critical literacies to read the world around them. More and more students are fitting into the system and supporting its hierarchies and injustices as normal or inevitable, rather than being aware of complexities and critiquing inequalities and social and environmental destruction and working towards changing them. As market-focused education has become hegemonic, just when we need them the most, fewer students have cultural and political competencies.

Below is an excerpt from Giroux, from his article, "The Corporate Stranglehold on Education". I agree with him that schooling today fails to produce citizens with critical political and civic literacies.

"Education is increasingly reduced to a narrow instrumental logic, only recognizable as a form of training, just as teaching is removed from the language of social and moral responsibility, critical imagination, and civic courage. In the age of increasing specializations, pay for grades schemes, excessive instrumentalism, and an increasing contempt for critical thinking, higher education is producing new forms of political and civic illiteracy, turning out students who have little understanding of the complexities of the larger world, unaware of their power as social agents, and removed from those capacities that combine critique and a yearning for social justice, knowledge and social change, learning and a compassion for others. And the outcome can be seen in a growing generation of young people and adults who are barely literate, live in an utterly privatized world, and are either indifferent or complicit with a growing culture of cruelty.
Addressing education as a democratic endeavour begins with the recognition that higher education is more than an investment opportunity, citizenship is about more than consuming, learning is about more than preparing for a job, and democracy is about more the false choices offered under a rigged corporate state and marketplace.
Education is not only about issues of work and economics–as important as these may be, but also about matters of justice, freedom, and the capacity for democratic agency, action, and change as well as the related issues of power, exclusion, and citizenship. Education at its best is about enabling students to take seriously questions about how they ought to live their lives, uphold the ideals of a just society, learn how to translate personal issues into public considerations, and act upon the promises of a strong democracy. These are educational and political issues and should be addressed as part of a broader concern for renewing the struggle for social justice and democracy. "


Merche Pallarés said...

Thank you Taina for referring to my blog about this very interesting issue. I think in the whole world, the powers-that-be don't want young people to "think" and, thereby, revolt against the injustices committed everywhere. It's better to have them sedated with video-games and all sorts of technological gadgets instead of having access to the great philosophers or wonderful writers of every period of time which have helped SO many to think for themselves and have a critical/analytical mind. For example, I'm thinking right now of the great Bertrand Russell, mathematician and modern philosopher, who was always and, still is, my hero.
I'm glad to see that you also must be a great teacher because you make your students THINK. Congratulations. Hugs, M.

northshorewoman said...

Yes, I agree, the way mainstream education works, both content and methods, causes our youth to desire to enter "the system" not challenge it. Sadly, we are becoming increasingly conservative.

What happened to doing hard work at school...like reading? Lots of students do not read the required readings, they expect the professor to tell them about it. So, I'm always working up strategies to compel students to read -- and to write. And, to think.

Reading on the internet speeds along jumping from place to place without stopping to muse and stay with difficult ideas. Everyone wants to not be bored.

marja-leena said...

An interesting, thoughtful and alarming message that I wish our education administrators and planners would read and heed. As Merche said, I'm glad you are teaching your students to think, which makes you a good teacher. Isn't that what a good education is supposed to do?

northshorewoman said...

ML, it seems that in education institutions, the administrators don't have the grammar of critical literacies to understand the educators or the students or the present and future needs of our society. Why are we continuing to uphold and use a broken, destructive method?