History (part 1/3) >> Trimbur and Historicizing Literacy Crisis Rhetoric

<< In the previous paragraphs, I argue that distraction becomes a keyword connecting to literacy in at least two senses. Trimbur’s theory of crisis discourse can offer a lens for further analyzing distraction and the distracted student body as rhetorical symbols connected to complex cultural negotiations. In "Literacy and the Discourse of Crisis," which is reviewed in the introduction to this volume, Trimbur explores how the words “literacy crisis” can behave performatively—constituting crisis—as they also release underlying anxieties. Rather than arguing that crisis rhetoric stems from the status of literacy as a material process in either linear decline or progression, Trimbur maps the discourse that creates literacy crisis in cycles motivated by ongoing class re-organization. When literacy crisis discourse is performed, it means that cultural understandings of literacy are being negotiated, and hierarchies potentially shifted—or shored up. Trimbur builds a framework for this Marxist historicizing of literacy crisis discourse on Gramsci’s notion of cultural hegemony. Gramsci’s theory provides language for what Trimbur identifies as two related processes that call literacy crisis rhetoric into being: “the consolidation of political authority by the state through consent rather than coercion, and the establishment of the leadership of one particular class or political group in relation to other classes and political groups” (280). Within this dual dynamic, literacy becomes a tool for ordering and arranging people, particularly with respect to class.

How Did Literacy Become an Instrument of Order?

However, in order for literacy to play this role in recent US history, Trimbur argues that the idea of literacy needed to be radically transformed into a practicable tool. It is within this framework of the maintenance and negotiation of cultural hegemony that Trimbur tells a convincing story about the history of literacy’s transformation from participatory practices embedded in “the everyday life of ordinary people” to schooled cognitive skills imparted by experts that can be measured in order to rank and order individuals (288). For Trimbur, “schooling transformed literacy from a tool of participation in public life into an instrument of social control” (289). I take up this aspect of Trimbur’s argument in my analysis because, as he suggests, grafting literacy to schooling means that crisis discourse has often justified the presence and careers of literacy educators. >>