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Nabeel Shums
Professor Julie Cook
English 1103
29 October 2013
“Alright, you each need to organize yourselves into groups of no more than three. Read
the directions and complete numbers 1-8 and remember to show your work. To avoid any
unnecessary talking, I will choose the groups.” A long and steady release of disappointment
diffused throughout the classroom. My heart began to tremble; it was days like this which I
absolutely dreaded, group work. You may be asking yourself as to why an 8 year-old child in
Mrs. Buford’s third grade class would be so startled at the thought of working with other
students? The answer is quite simple. “What if I have to work with the ‘dumb’ kids?” I thought
to myself. Thus, intelligent students became “the shiny new toy.”
Merriam-Webster defines literacy as “the ability to read and write.” On the other hand,
within the same context, literacy refers to “knowledge that relates to a specified subject.” Despite
the fact that the latter description of the word is more modern, literacy is a much more complex
phenomenon which cannot be simplified into latent terms. According to Sylvia Scribner, literacy
can be interpreted through three specific metaphors of which Literacy as power is the most
significant. As seen in both American and European cultures, societies tend to endow those who
are considered as the “literate” population with a sense of authority. This pattern can be seen in
either the concept of a student adhering to the demands of a teacher, or our most treasured
leaders having been the most highly educated. Yet, rather than authority, literacy provides a
means of influence. This sense of influence is conveyed predominantly through the increased use
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of communications technology. As a result, this newfound phase of globalization, presents a
great and rapid change in culture both domestically and across borders internationally.
Literacy and Culture are two interdependent concepts which have primarily impacted the
fundamental ideals of the Western region. In a sense, literacy serves as a vessel for advancing
one’s social and economic opportunity within society. Undoubtedly, not only in the United
States, but throughout the globe, communities display a common practice of providing an equal
access to literacy for both children and adults. The overall objective is to nurture the basic skills
necessary for productivity in school, the workforce, or even the household. However, within
each society there are those who represent a small minority due to their unique ethnicity,
language, and cultural heritage. This group faces certain barriers which restricts their access to
literacy. How then is our society providing an “equal” opportunity? Are we not further restricting
its range of application? According to both Bernardo M. Ferdman and Rose-Marie Weber in
their publication titled Literacy Across Languages and Cultures, “literacy has far too often been
portrayed primarily in functional terms and from a monolingual framework (pg. 4).” Literacy is
often reformatted into literacy which is based on the English language. Depending on one’s
perspective, cultural superiority can be viewed through literacy as a Power in terms of linguistics
and the transfer of information. Ferdman and Weber’s ideas are seen within our schools. Some
feel that the most desirable way to educate our youth should be derived from a common language
and culture. This theory overlaps with Weber’s statement of literacy use in a functional context.
In other words it makes the educational process simpler and ultimately easier which exemplifies
its effectiveness. However, having a uniform method of acquiring literacy can restrict creativity
and ultimately increase chances of error. Instead, if students were able to relay certain cultural
concepts between their peers, students would gain a sense of individual growth which greatly
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fosters literacy, creativity, and social awareness. Thus, literacy no longer becomes such a narrow
and concerted practice but rather one that requires much more than pen and paper.
When understanding Literacy and Culture it is important to note that “culture” does not
necessarily imply foreign entities. When we think of culture we tend to imagine one who has
recently arrived from a foreign country who has not yet adjusted to the typical behavior of that
particular region. In a sociological sense, culture is simply a biological evolution/adaptation
which affects our way of life. Literacy serves as a way of socialization in the way that it allows
individuals to develop a better understanding of the world around them which in turn affects the
way in which we interpret information. This is also known as the use of your “sociological
imagination.” The media, for instance, has a great deal of influence on the way society’s
members choose to speak, behave, dress, etc. I had the opportunity to experience this particular
dimension of literacy as a rising high school freshman. As I became acclimated to a new
environment, I realized how students’ interactions affected my interpretation of this particular
social setting. As I walked to my class, I was encountered by numerous advertisements posted
along the hallways; I noticed that clothing brands were explicitly displayed; use of language
lacked conservation. Such observances made me “literate” of a new “culture” of which I was not
quite familiar with. These observances are later manifested into common practices, which are
adopted by those who interpret them. The conclusion I was able to draw was that literacy can
also be equated to awareness. Understanding one’s environment as well as how its individual
parts collaborate as a whole, produces a certain set of values.
The correlation between Literacy and Culture can be further explored through diversity.
More specifically, in a multi-ethnic environment, the relationship between literacy and various
cultural identities becomes a situation of causality. Literacy is essentially an idea that is
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culturally oriented. Numerous backgrounds differ in what is viewed as literate behavior. These
differentials are what can influence how individuals engage in literacy acquisition and activity.
The key component for universal literacy, in a cultural sense, is to be able to recognize each
culture as its own separate identity rather than attempting to assimilate its ideals within the
norms of society. Through this process literacy becomes a culmination of many viewpoints
rather than a specific culture gaining authority and steering one’s way of thought in a particular
direction.
Since 1957, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have represented the epitome of cultural
integration when both African-American and white students were able to share classrooms. Over
the years, a bi-racial learning environment has transformed into a melting pot of various social
backgrounds and heritages. As a product of CMS schools for 13 years, I have a hands-on
experience with these ideas. For most of my rudimentary education I attended Tuckaseegee
Elementary. Each school year, the school would host an annual International Festival for both
students and parents to take part in. One particular year, both me and my parents assembled a
booth during the festival and served our traditional Indian food and we also dressed in our
traditional clothes. My mother also took the time to create a PowerPoint to inform other students
and faculty of our customs. Throughout the entire event I was bombarded with questions such as:
What is that made out of? ; Why do you not eat pork? ; Are you allowed to be friends with other
ethnicities? In my opinion such questions seemed rather rhetorical. “How do they not already
know these things,” I thought to myself. It then occurred to me that a lack of intelligence was
not responsible for “illiteracy” but rather ignorance was. By having little knowledge of another’s
way of life, we sometimes tend to be both more cautious, yet inquisitive of a particular group of
people. Cultural minorities are not seeking for others to adopt their lifestyles but rather learn
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more about them. These particular groups tend to be more receptive to a sense of similarity. In
order for this to occur, we do not need to necessarily practice a certain culture, yet through
cultural awareness we can eliminate concepts such as alienation of certain groups. As a result,
Fredman and Weber’s view on providing an equal acquisition of literacy for all becomes much
more easily definable.
As one can see, Literacy and Culture share a unique relationship. Referring back to
Sylvia Scribner’s metaphor of Literacy as a Power we gain the understanding of how “literacy”
based on the English language has influenced a great deal of cultural practices throughout the
world. However, by recognizing the role of diversity, cultural awareness, and individual
identities the narrow-minded view of literacy begins to indulge in far greater applications beyond
that of the Western hemisphere.
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Works Cited:
1. Ferdman, Bernardo M., Rose-Marie Weber, and Arnulfo G. Ramirez. Literacy across
Languages and Cultures. Albany: State University of New York, 1994. Print.
2. Street, Brian V. Social Literacies: Critical Approaches to Literacy in Development,
Ethnography, and Education. London: Longman, 1995. Print.
3. Hall, Nigel. The Emergence of Literacy. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1987. Print.
4. "Literacy." Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.