Revisiting Literacy and the Discourse of Crisis in the Era of Neoliberalism

John Trimbur
Emerson College

When Literacy and the Discourse of Crisis appeared in 1991 as a chapter in The Politics of Writing Instruction, it looked to the past—to chart the history of literacy crises in the United States by examining recent events, such as the Newsweek Why Johnny Can’t Write cover story in 1975, as well as earlier versions of literacy crises dating back to the emergence of progressive education at the turn of the twentieth century and the common school movement of the mid-nineteenth century. The aim was retrospective, a line of inquiry that sought to identify patterns in how literacy has been invested with meaning over time and to understand the historical development of a discourse of crisis in which the American middle classes represented literacy as a contradictory source of hope and anxiety.

In the early 1990s, this project seemed worth undertaking for at least two reasons. First, it promised to expose connections between literacy, the cultural turmoil of class formation, and the volatility of middle-class consciousness as it veered back and forth between its ascendant sense of moral hegemony and its cyclic fears of downward mobility. From this angle, Literacy and the Discourse of Crisis grew out of a particular conjuncture when New Literacy Studies had just redefined literacy as ideologically charged events and practices (rather than a neutral set of skills), a cultural left was forming in U.S. college composition, and across the academy more generally political desire was returning after a hiatus during the Reagan years. The collection in which Literacy and the Discourse of Crisis appeared was part of a revitalized effort to take up the mode of critical investigation Richard Ohmann had started in English in America, to imagine that there actually is a politics to writing instruction and that, accordingly, the history of composition teaching must be read not as sequence of better or worse, more or less effective pedagogical techniques but instead in terms of how this history enacts ideologies of literacy in the classroom.

Second, representing literacy crises as ideological events within a historical framework seemed to offer a way to contain the sensationalistic newness of the crisis Newsweek thought it had discovered in the 1970s. At the time, I wanted to say, quite simply, this has happened before, if differently. The literacy crisis of the 1970s was, to be sure, accented by a post-Vietnam sense of national decline and the backlash against the Sixties that started during the Carter presidency. But there was also something familiar in its discourse of crisis, something that was not exactly new or unique. I thought I could hear in Newsweek’s cover story Why Johnny Can’t Write echoes of earlier jeremiads, such as E.L. Godkin’s The Illiteracy of American Boys, published in the Nation nearly a century before in 1897. In short, I wanted to look at literacy crises past and present not in terms of the empirical evidence Hill or Newsweek thought they were presenting to tighten standards and get back to basics but instead comparatively, across time, to make sense of the ideological work they were doing.

Revisiting Literacy and the Discourse of Crisis, I must admit that the backward-looking historical bent of the essay, for all its usefulness at the time, also made it difficult to see how events that were just then unfolding would shape the future that U.S. college composition and writing studies now inhabit. An obvious development, as the chapters in Strategic Discourse show, is the rise of new digital media, new information economies, new means of knowledge production, and new technologies of surveillance. The whole digital revolution was clearly in the works, but it was hard to foresee in 1991 the magnitude and pervasiveness of its effects.

So, to update the discourse of literacy crises, I want at the outset to recognize the inescapability of these newly wired states of being and how their ubiquity have set off various moral panics—typically articulated in the highest register of crisis discourse—about diminished attention spans, antisocial geeks, online bullying, first-person shooter games, the incivility of cyber-discourses, virtuality’s erasure of the real world, and the shallowness of life that is continuously connected and on display through social networking. There is no doubt that digital culture has reinvigorated the discourse of literacy crises, opening up all kinds of new opportunities for mass media pundits, scolds, killjoys, and death of the book curmudgeons. Here, however, I want to take a somewhat different angle—one that revisits and updates the central focus in Literacy and the Discourse of Crisis on literacy and the dynamics of class formation.

On the face of it, one could start by saying that the middle class fears about downward mobility that played such a prominent role in my analysis of literacy crises in 1991 have come true, materialized in what I vaguely anticipated as a double-peaked society of rich and poor in the era of Reaganomics, or what the Occupy movement later called the social and economic inequality that divides the mass of Americans—the 99%—from the privileged 1%. At the time, such a polarization of wealth seemed to me more of a theoretical possibility than a live threat, a trend I naively imagined would be controlled in some lukewarm way by Keynesian economic policies. In other words, I did not foresee three interrelated developments—the fall of Soviet Union, the loss of the traditional left’s credibility, and the rise of neoliberalism—that would have telling consequences for the future of literacy and its crises.

At first glance, the fall of the Soviet Union may seem remote from U.S. college composition and writing studies. Still, it is important to note, at least in passing, how this historic event cleared the ground for the unprecedented expansion of free markets and free trade as neoliberalism took hold worldwide in the 1990s. Certainly, no one can be sorry to see the moribund bureaucracies of the Soviet Union and its client states behind the Iron Curtain collapse, after the longstanding horrors of the Stalinized police state—the unfreedom, the psychiatric prisons, the corruption of the one-party state, the betrayals of the working class. But the problem is that the crumbling of this monstrous totalitarian edifice removed the Cold War era buffer between the poor nations of the world and the capitalist powers in the U.S. and western Europe, ended Soviet military aid to armed revolutionary movements in the Third World, and thereby accelerated the political, economic, social, and cultural processes of globalizing capital.

In the 1950s, in the Bandung era of neutral nations and mixed economies, when the presence of the Soviet Union (and China to a lesser degree) acted as a counterbalance to the West, recently decolonized countries such as India and Indonesia could maintain a degree of autonomy from capitalist markets. In the 1960s, the Cuban revolution, along with national liberation movements in Asia and Africa, imagined the possibility of non-capitalist futures across significant portions of the globe. Within a decade, however, the revolutionary internationalism that inspired the Tricontinental slogan Two, three, many Vietnams! had become a relic of the past, replaced in the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher’s slogan of capitalist triumphalism There is no alternative.

Even before the fall of Soviet Union, the market was already starting to figure as the measure of all value—the negation in the global north of the welfare state’s role in promoting the well-being of its citizens through such social schemes as the National Health Service and council housing in the UK or the New Deal and the War on Poverty in the US. After the fall, there was no stopping the onrush of privatization and deregulation, the extension of credit and exotic financial instruments, the dismantling of barriers to the global circulation of capital and trade—all resulting in the increase in social and economic inequality worldwide that we know as neoliberalism.

The fall of the Soviet Union, moreover, devastated the moral authority of the traditional left, appearing as history’s verdict on socialism as a failed emancipatory project. Despite periodic outbursts such as anti-globalization demonstrations in Seattle, Genoa, and elsewhere or the short-lived Occupy movement, there has been little effective resistance to neoliberalism in the global north. At the same time, leftist parties and progressive trade unions have been wiped out in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, leaving only Latin American countries such as Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, Lula da Silva’s Brazil, and Evo Morales’ Bolivia with a degree of maneuverability in the post-1989 world order. This dismantling of the left through demoralization and repression created a political vacuum, allowing such reactionary forces as the Islamists, the Tea Party, and neo-Nazi parties in Europe to pose themselves as tribunes of the people, giving expression to popular discontents. Meanwhile, the bankers, hedge fund managers, real estate developers, venture capitalists, and techie entrepreneurs pretty much had their way throughout the 1990s and into the new century.

The result—or what David Harvey calls the main substantive achievement of neoliberalism—has not been the generation of new wealth for the majority of the population but rather its redistribution to a small minority, a transfer of assets from the public and popular realms to the private and class-privileged domains (159, 161). Such accumulation through dispossession, started by Thatcher and Reagan in the 1980s and then carried forward in a more genial mode by their successors Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, has enabled the system to weather its periodic crises, as was so evident in the too big to fail bank bailouts in 2008, by posing the market as the only viable way of organizing economic and social life.

This conjuncture of events—the fall of the Soviet Union, the discrediting of the traditional left in the global north, and the apparently unstoppable rise of neoliberalism—defines today’s political landscape and the current sense of political possibility. Thatcher’s neoliberal dictum There is no alternative seems not only to have been confirmed by history. The triumph of the market has in effect been internalized within the culture as a marketization of consciousness, turning citizens from participants in the rhetorical exchange of public life into economic atoms in the market: consumers, investors, entrepreneurs, taxpayers. The grounds of deliberation have shifted, from the moral economy of the commons and the public good to a privatized discourse of individual interest and advantage. By the same token, the market has been personified and invested with agency once reserved for humans—the capacity to think for itself and to act on its own behalf. The media are persistently worrying about how the market feels about world events, how it assesses crises like the U.S. government shutdown in October 2013, and how it will react.

To update Literacy and the Discourse of Crisis, I want to examine how this marketization of consciousness recast literacy along neoliberal lines, producing an epoch-defining representation suited to a new world order. In 1991, I was able to trace how the meaning of literacy changed from a moral virtue during the common school movement to a measurable cognitive skill under progressive education. Today, while these older meanings continue to play a residual role in popular understandings of literacy, a new and highly active sense has emerged, namely that of literacy as monetized value.

Deborah Brandt’s recent research helps establish a framework to understand how writing has been monetized in contemporary markets, creating new forms of information-wealth in the knowledge economy, adding sign value to products, managing just-in-time production processes, and localizing technologies and business practices across languages and national borders. According to Brandt, as the number of people involved in making and managing information increased in the late twentieth century, there was a shift from the mass reading literacy of earlier eras to mass writing literacy. Most of the writing that gets done in this society, Brandt says, occurs at work. People rent out their literacy in exchange for pay according, in general, to the value and scarcity of their skills or credentials or the market value that can be had from the products they produce (770).

The problem for the writing classes is how to maintain the value of their labor when the linguistic markets are increasingly saturated. The old-time middle-class fear of falling has been given new life in the struggle to avoid being redundant and expendable, caught in the descending spirals of late capitalism, where downsizing, temporary contracts, and shifting employment define the careers and life chances of white-collar workers. The only hope appears to be the same today as it has been since the professional-managerial classes emerged along with corporate capitalism in the early twentieth century, namely to invest faith and family resources in the acquisition of credentials, training, and social connections—the marketable values derived from a college education. The difference, however, is that today the very value of a college education is itself being called into question, threatening its traditional status as a source of cultural capital and exacerbating middle class fears of falling. Once again we turn to a Newsweek cover story to see how this is taking shape.

The first thing to notice is how the terms have changed, from Why Johnny Can’t Write in Merrill Sheils’ 1975 cover story to Is College a Lousy Investment? as Megan McArdle puts it in the September 9, 2012 Newsweek cover story. At a moment when student loan debt in the U.S. has reached $1 trillion dollars, now surpassing credit card debt, it has become a common trope in the popular media to worry whether a college education is worth it—or whether average Americans can afford it. The evidence offered to ponder these questions is typically anecdotal, relying on two now familiar narratives. The first portrays recent college graduates who work as parking lot attendants, waiters, cashiers, or retail salespersons, living in their old bedrooms at home, holding jobs that do not require a college degree. The second operates the other way around by recounting how many successful mega-entrepreneurs—Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are usually offered as telling examples—did not complete college, with the implication loud and clear that there was no reason they should have gone in the first place.

To make things worse, these caricatures are sometimes accompanied by tales of party hearty college students who barely study, plagiarize their papers, spend their time on Facebook, and gain no measurable skills to speak of over four years. In any case, the aim and the effect are to devalue higher education, to replace the image of a college degree as an icon of mature literacy with a problematic appraisal of its market value. It is not surprising, then, that the answer Megan McArdle gives to the question is college worth it? has taken on a certain ritual predictability: The answer, I fear, is that it’s not. For an increasing number of kids, the extra time and money spent pursuing a college diploma will leave them worse off than they were before they set foot on campus.

Now it should be easy to see that posing the problem this way—to ask whether or not a college education is a good investment—loads the question in advance with market assessments and cost-benefit calculations. Even more troubling is the fact that this discourse of worth and affordability amounts to a stealth operation on behalf of austerity by promoting a popular consensus that not everyone needs to go college or has the resources to do so. At work here is the necessary recognition that access to higher education has already been thoroughly privatized, with the burden of financing higher education shifting from the state, which once acted for the public good, to students and their families, who are now isolated and thrust back on their own resources. But the danger is that this emergent discourse threatens to make the promise of a college education for everyone a matter of living beyond society’s means, something that neither families nor taxpayers can afford. Austerity is a way to lower expectations—to explain and justify unequal access to higher education and to adjust students with limited resources to the plight of doing without college.

Although it seems to McArdle that the only hope for prudent Americans who want a little financial security is to invest . . . in ourselves, she also recognizes that we’re not such a good bet. In Newsweek, a college education appears to be on the verge of joining lifetime employment and pensions as things that have simply become obsolete in the era of neoliberalism, like outhouses, hitching posts, and rotary-dial telephones . . . something that wide-eyed children may hear about from their grandparents but will never see for themselves.

There is great urgency in understanding that the argument we can’t afford higher education for everyone anymore is only true so long as the transfer of wealth to the privileged continues to go unchallenged while people consent to the proposition that accumulation through dispossession is the implacable governing law of the economy. There is nothing inevitable about austerity for the 99%—why the majority should do without so the rich can have more. The nation’s wealth and resources could be distributed quite differently, deployed to produce more just and egalitarian social futures. That is why I want to end by revisiting the final lines of Literacy and the Discourse of Crisis, where I called for reviv[ing] the movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s to democratize higher education through open admissions to all college and universities, free tuition, and a livable student stipend (294). By way of an update, the one thing I would add is to forgive student loan debt. Otherwise, I think this call for a single payer system of higher education is just as sensible as it was over twenty years ago, as a response to the felt needs of poor, working-class, and middle-class students to gain access to affordable college education.

Works Cited