Chapter 6 of Deborah Brandt’s Literacy in American Lives is certainly the epitome of the book, the conclusion that the readers felt was coming all along. The first few pages seem to point to the statement without ever quite saying it - Literacy is about power - and because of that is highly susceptible to the grimmer tendencies of modern democracy. As Brandt says, “The advantage of literate skill is helping to aggravate social inequity. Just, as it seems, the rich get richer, the literate get more literate” (169). Unfortunately, this spectacle is a familiar mechanic of capitalism, where people who climbed the ladder are quick to pull that ladder up behind them. There is no shortage of debate as to whether or not this system of ascendance (and repression) is best for society at large, or to be more specific, a democratic society. Though what it does imply is that there is some control at work, some grand powermongering taking place somewhere in the high towers of the castles of democratic society. That said, it would be farfetched to aver that this is a concerted effort by some unified élite. Rather, the combined small efforts of families, corporations, clubs, ideologies (all of these things could be considered Brandt’s sponsors) all serve to repress the tools of literacy, giving to the “already-haves” and neglecting the “have-nots.” Recall that Brandt considers literacy on par with labor. “Literacy is the energy supply of the Information Age” (171). Because labor is something that any healthy human being can provide, regardless of culture, training, education, etc., control could only be achieved through conventional means. Those means mainly included violence, but also hunger and the fear of social exclusion. Eventually though, labor came into self-awareness and conglomerated into unions. These entities sponsored the labor providers and were able to extract better conditions from employers. Where is such a mechanic for literacy? Are the people who lack literacy able to band together in such a way? There doesn’t seem to be much in common in these two such movements, which is why the repression of literacy is more dangerous than industrial labor. For one the power is universal, for the other the power is already skewed heavily to the repressors. For those who might try to fight gravity, so to speak, it is a monumental effort. True change would seem to require social change on par with the labor movement of the early 20th century.
If we can agree that this all is a big problem, then the next question must be, how can it be fixed? Brandt wishes to do so though already established institutions, mainly the school system. She calls for a re-evaluation of the presupposed equal opportunities that are granted by the United States government. “Equal opportunity extends beyond the mere potential for admission or employment and involves all of the systems of value that circulate in institutions” (186). More specifically, “Schools are no longer the major disseminators of literacy. Literacy instructions needs to develop from a sense of a new role for schools, as a place where the ideological complexities… of literacy sponsorship are sorted through and negotiated” (198). This negotiation seems to be some kind of meta-literacy, which involves the student placing themselves in the best position to succeed in life, not just in the classroom. For classrooms are unequal and often subject to the viles of literacy repression. This is a noble goal and certainly seems to be a better system than the one we are currently experiencing. But will that meta-literacy, even if enacted to perfection, be enough? Yes, those students who succeed in Brandt’s new literacy program will be better positioned in the short term. But then, would the literacy standards not rise, as they have risen for the past 100 years? Once everyone is well placed into a modern literacy, then that literacy is no longer modern and the powers-that-be will again dictate what is good enough. I think that along with this change in the schools, there needs to be a social movement to better judge and distribute literacy based on effort and talent (as opposed to formal training, family name, politics, etc.). How best to do this is very much another matter.