History (part 2/3) >> From Community Practice to Schooled Cognitive Competency

<< As Trimbur explores how literacy shifted in recent American history, several actors and narratives emerge. The marriage of literacy and schooling happened, in Trimbur’s telling, through the common-school crusade and the rise of progressive education. This could be seen first in the role of literacy in “nineteenth-century schools, in which teachers assumed managerial rather than pedagogical roles, taught not only grammar and mechanical correctness but also how to accept supervision, follow directions, and concentrate on tedious and repetitive tasks” (289). This instruction not only imparted a habitus necessary for individuals functioning in a changing American economy, but also removed literacy from its place as a changing collection of community practices and made it a tool measuring and marking moral acceptability—a marker of status that middle class citizens craved to separate themselves from the uneducated masses. Alongside the shift toward the literacy of school becoming a form of personal credentialing, Trimbur describes the professionalization of literacy experts responsible for distinguishing between acceptable and non-acceptable reading material, which developed as a result of the late nineteenth century publishing boom and broader access to a range of texts. This rise of a professional class associated with defining and measuring appropriate reading and writing further shifted literacy toward an individualistic form of credentialing. Increasingly, Trimbur argues, literacy was furthermore understood as measurable cognitively, a line against which students could become sorted and ranked. This increased with the advent of psychometric testing, which Trimbur says “added scientific authority” to the ranking systems of progressive education. Within this paradigm, again, schooled literacy served a meritocratic function as cultural capital: it marked and distinguished the upwardly mobile middle classes from the working class.

How Does Trimbur Suggest We Respond?

After developing this impressive historical narrative, Trimbur’s final call to action positions literacy educators to intervene in the relationship between literacy and cultural hegemony by addressing their own roles as gatekeepers of educational access. Situated within the context of the early nineties’ shifts in higher education, Trimbur reminds us that literacy educators are implicated in using education to maintain hegemonic divisions of labor and cults of expertise. His call to action, then, is a call to fight for open access to higher learning and better student conditions. Educators should intervene in the use of literacy as tool for maintaining meritocracy by working to “democratize higher education through open admissions to all colleges and universities, free tuition, and a livable student stipend” (294). Within the framework of cultural hegemony Trimbur outlines in his particular historical moment, this call to increase educational access provided a relevant and timely means of intervention. What is left less clear in Trimbur’s call to action is the degree to which he would argue that academics should similarly intervene in the recent historical phenomenon of intertwining of literacy and schooling. While Trimbur calls for a return to literacy as “intellectual resource against injustice, a means to ensure democratic participation in public life,” this shift appears to retain a sense of literacy as a schooled, cognitive skill set (294). Indeed, the connections between literacy and schooling remain intact within Trimbur’s call for educator action, even as his argument calls these relationships into question by exposing their constructedness—the extent to which they could be and have been otherwise. It was perhaps outside the scope of Trimbur’s argument to advocate more strongly for valuing vernacular or self-sponsored literacies (and for helping students learn how to value them). I suggest that his argument about the nature of crisis in his historical moment leaves room for contemporary literacy educators to practice an alternative form of advocacy that enacts more active support for vernacular and community literacies. >>