Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Means of Production

            Deborah Brandt’s book, Literacy in American Lives, portrays the changes of literacy and learning for Americans over the course of almost one hundred years. Chapter six, “The Means of Production,” stakes the claim that literacy causes separation in social classes along economic lines in America, and as “the rich get richer, the literate get more literate.” Brandt argues that literacy has transformed into a raw material, labor power, instrument of production, and a product, which is accountable for the “intensifying pressure for literacy achievement at the start of the twenty-first century.”
            Brandt utilizes two individuals’ accounts of how their literacy changed and developed over their lifetimes. Raymond Branch, whose father was a professor, was surrounded by computers his entire life. Those around him did not only encourage his study of the literacy of computers, but computers themselves were easily accessible throughout the course of his life. Brandt attributes this to his demographic status as a white male, and that it provided “essential stimulation” in the consumer market. The second individual that Brandt interviews, Dora Lopez, pursued the study of the Spanish language throughout her life. Unlike Branch, she had to drive over 70 miles to find a Spanish grocery store, and although her parents were fluent in Spanish, they did not teach her how to read or write in this language.  In addition, Lopez’s status as a Hispanic female disenfranchised her learning.
            By using the accounts of Branch and Lopez’s pursuit of a second kind of literacy, Brandt comes to the conclusion that Branch’s literacy was “actualized to a full capacity; it enjoyed a broad legitimacy,” while Lopez’s fluency in Spanish had “no equivalent market to amplify her learning.” Branch’s fluency in computer literacy was applicable to jobs and therefore helped him to earn more money, while Spanish did not help Lopez nearly as much economically. In the Midwestern city that Branch and Lopez lived, Spanish-English biliteracy was confined to nonprofit social serve agencies and government programs. Brandt concludes that although Lopez was literate in a second language, she was not able to use this literacy as an instrument of production. Brandt calls for schools to make special efforts to teach minorities the kinds of literacies that are relevant in the consumer market.

           Brandt’s call to action is supported by her extensive research in the field of literacy. She is a professor of English here at UW-Madison, and has taught undergraduate and graduate courses for almost thirty years. The classes she teaches include literacy studies, contemporary writing theory, and research methodology. In addition to the award winning Literacy in American Lives, Brandt has written countless articles for other publications and has most recently had a fellowship with the Guggenheim Foundation. Her claims written in “The Means of Production” are legitimized by not only the evidence she provides, but her immense background on the impact of literacy.

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