I have here in my hand a book called Literacy in Theory and Practice, written by Brian V. Street. The cover is laminated and crinkled at the edges from excessive use. The glue that holds the pages to the spine has begun to disintegrate so some of the pages float loosely from the book. The colors of the cover are a uniquely loud and hideous combination of orange and salmon, with a seemingly irrelevant, wavelike contraption painted on the cover. On first glance it is not an appealing book, given the mundane and ambiguous title, and also the revolting cover, but nevertheless, this book should undoubtedly be read by people interested in the studies of literacy.
I say this because Dr. Street gives a marvelous synopsis of the history of literacy. Starting with the Great Divide and moving through criticism of the Great Divide, Dr. Street gives a very erudite and sophisticated overview of literacy as it was and as it stands today. Not only is a historically accurate picture of literacy given, but fully detailed with many different studies, each individual theorist’s ideas wonderfully summarized, interpreted, and then applied. In this light, the book gives a great overview of the entire field of literacy to date—but to not deter you, I must say that it does not feel like a history lesson in the least bit. Dr. Street does a wonderful job weaving his own argument into the picture, and really the book becomes a grandiose conversation between literacy theorists of the past and present, and how Dr. Street comes to fit in with the conversation as a whole.
This book extends beyond literacy studies as well. I think if you are interested in literacy it is a must read, but it also must be noted that this book touches upon culture issues of reading writing, political and national elements of literacy, how literacy functions in our daily lives, the various disciplines interested in this conversation, and the list could go on—so what must be mentioned is that Dr. Street does a remarkable job of incorporating all of these elements into one concise picture. The writing is conversational, easy to grasp yet bold and sophisticated in ideology, and Dr. Street keeps you in engaged the entire way.
As said before, this book also has a fundamental discussion in the field of literacy as its main area of inquiry. The Great Divide was a discussion that dominated the field of literacy after the monumental work of Jack Goody (and other following in his vein of thought)—essentially, the argument says that written cultures, what Goody would call “literate” cultures, are dominant over oral cultures.
Okay, so why do I bring up the Great Divide again? I say this because I am heavily influenced by Goody’s ideas. In fact, Jack Goody and Ian Watt wrote an essay entitled “The Consequences of Literacy”—and as a young student of literacy I was initial captivated by these ideas, the ideas of Western society being more efficient and socially/culturally better than other countries. That is why, I thought, we had developed so much since then, and how our knowledge of the world burgeoned and became more sophisticated than oral cultures.
However, Street’s book was a pivotal moment for me in questioning these ideas and looking at them through a different lens. Being impressionable in my early stages of studying literacy, and finding myself staunch in the idea that writing is better!, I came to appreciate Street’s point of view and now view the debate as not so black and white. Although I still think there is so magical about writing, I am more flexible and malleable about this belief, and through Street’s work, have come to more thoroughly understand the other side of the debate.
Some areas I stumbled across that has made me retract and question some of the ideas I so easily accepted as a young student of literacy: Streets says that, “…it is not possible to test Goody’s hypothesis…” (46), and that if we are to accept Goody’s ideas, we are sinking into “…technological determinism” (44). Goody also places a lot of faith in the Greeks, most specifically in Plato, who systematized writing and categorized knowledge—by being the first systematic philosopher, Plato gave us categories of inquiry such as epistemology, ethics, political science, to name a few—but Street combats this, saying that Goody has a severe misinterpretation if the Greeks, mostly Greek historians whose objectivity and agenda must come into question. This is true: although Plato and ancient Greece itself has a profound impact on Western thought and scholarship, I can now see from Street’s work that we should not so easily accept the Greeks or be mesmerized by their achievements and intellect—they, like us, were human and made mistakes. “Goody’s claims that Greek historians have distinguished myth from history is of a kind with the uncritical faith of these classicists. His grander claims for the significance of literacy are based, then, upon assumptions about the ‘objectivity’ of Greek historians that turn out, on closer scrutiny, to be unfounded” (55). And to finalize some of the influence Street has had upon me: “…it is possible to consider both literacy and social change from a perspective which avoids such distinctions and such determinism and which allows us to develop a model from which new and interesting research can emerge” (64).
In the end, Streets arguments have molded me into a more critical observer of literacy studies, which is why you should read the book. At first, when young and impressionable, we are easily persuaded by arguments that appeal to our desires, or are readily convinced by voices we deem more astute—and Street made me realize that arguments in literacy are not always so black and white, that there is always some ambiguity in the discussion. This has an impact not only on my understand of literacy, but also my way of argumentation and assessing my own beliefs about subjects beyond literacy—to always have a keen eye to other possibilities and to not fall so easily into the trap of what may sound nice or logical, because there is always something to counter what I hold to be true.