Literacy watch: Where does literacy come from?

TUESDAY, MAY 17, 2016

As denigrated by the New York Times:
Where does literacy come from? How can we help low-income kids gain access to its advantages?

There's no simple answer to such questions. When Motoko Rich wrote about Professor Reardon's new study, she briefly considered a related question:

What keeps middle-class black kids from doing better in school?

Before the week is done, we'll look at what she said about that. In our view, it was the one constructive part of her strange report.

For today, let's consider two stories about the transmission of literacy to children. As we do, we'll be considering the part of "socioeconomic status" (SES) Rich basically dissed and disappeared in her error-ridden report.

In the new study Rich was describing, Stanford's Professor Reardon explores the connection between "socioeconomic status" and academic success in school. Rich reduced Reardon's SES to wealth and income alone.

In doing so, Rich disappeared two other factors considered by Reardon—the presence of two parents in the home, and the educational attainment of a child's parents. This strikes us as a very unhelpful approach.

For now, let's set income and wealth to the side! Starting in the earliest days of life, educated parents tend to start conveying the culture of literacy to their children. For one example of this cultural gift, consider Ta-Nehisi Coates' widely-praised memoir from last year, Between the World and Me.

Coates grew up in the violence-ridden Baltimore of the 1980s. In his memoir, he describes a wealth of conditions in the neighborhood no child should have to confront.

He also seems to describe one obvious path to his advanced state of literacy. In this passage, Coates is speaking to his son about his own mother, a public school teacher as well as a parent:
COATES (page 29): I was such a curious boy. I was raised that way. Your grandmother taught me to read when I was only four. She also taught me to write, by which I mean not simply organizing a set of sentences into a series of paragraphs, but organizing them as a means of investigation. When I was in trouble at school (which was quite often) she would make me write about it...She was teaching me how to ruthlessly interrogate the subject that elicited the most sympathy and rationalizing — myself.
In her description of the Chapel Hill schools, Rich seemed to denigrate the practice by which parents extend the culture of literacy to their children within the home. In our view, that was very strange conduct by Rich.

A few pages later, Coates continues to describe this time-honored process. In this passage, Coates is describing his father:
COATES (page 30): Now the questions began burning in me. The materials for research were all around me, in the form of books assembled by your grandfather. He was then working at Howard University as a research librarian in the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, one of the largest collections of Africana in the world. Your grandfather loved books and loves them to this day, and they were all over the house, books about black people, by black people, for black people spilling off shelves and out of the living room, boxed up in the basement. Dad had been a local captain in the Black Panther Party. I read through all of Dad's books about the Panthers and his stash of old Party newspapers.
Coates' father was in love with books; the son explored them too. Later, he describes the way his parents encouraged him to answer the questions which arose in his mind concerning American society:
COATES (page 34): An unceasing interrogation of the stories told to us by the schools now felt essential. It felt wrong not to ask why, and then to ask it again. I took these questions to my father, who very often refused to offer an answer, and instead referred me to more books. My mother and father were always pushing me away from secondhand answers—even the answers they themselves believed...I devoured the books because they were the rays of light peeking out from the doorframe, and perhaps past that door there was another world, one beyond the gripping fear that undergirded the Dream.
Ta-Nehisi Coates grew up in a highly literate home. When he went to Lemmel Junior High, most of his classmates didn't have that advantage.

Presumably, this advantage, conveyed by his parents, helps explain Coates' high state of literacy today. Rich's jaundiced portrait of this process was a peculiar, unfortunate part of her Times report.

Coates grew up in a highly literate home. We grew up in a highly literate neighborhood. Such an environment may help inculcate the culture of literacy too.

Coates grew up in 1980s Baltimore; through the seventh grade, we grew up in a 1950s Boston suburb. We didn't come from a bookish home. As far as we know, our father, who was 65 when we were born, left school after the sixth grade to help his father, a traveling showman.

No one my mother's side of the family had gone to college. Our mother wasn't oriented to books or ideas.

Our neighborhood, though, was different. The culture of literacy was in the air.

The town in which we grew up was geared toward academic attainment. Three infielders on our little league team ended up going to Harvard. Of the seven kids who played together on our block, five ended up going to Harvard, MIT or Wellesley, which may or may not have been a good idea.

(Even today, the town where we grew up seems to have one of the ten highest scoring school districts in the nation, according to the New York Times' first interactive graphic. Culture hangs around.)

There wasn't much bookishness in our home. That said, down the street was Mrs. Name Withheld.

You might say that Mrs. Name Withheld was a Yankee meliorist. Her only child became the only two-time president of the Harvard literary magazine, surpassing even Learned Hand. But we all were subjected to her interest in vast gigantic improvement.

Two examples:

Walking down to the town library was a regular thing on our block. At one point, Mrs. Name Withheld apparently decided that wasn't good enough. She set up a lending library inside her home for us, the seven kids on the block. Now, we could walk down to the main branch, or get our books "in a heated rush."

On another occasion, Mrs. Name Withheld made a stirring declaration. An exciting new TV station would be starting, we seven children were told. It was going to be an educational station! We children would learn an amazing amount from its wonderful programs!

Mrs. Davis was talking about the arrival of PBS. Filled with fervor, we rushed home to share the good news with our mother.

"Tuh!" she said, employing the term of derision which could have formed the motto on her family coat of arms. "Tuh," she derisively said. "You won't like that."

As it turned out, Mother was perhaps less wrong than right. Our point, of course, is somewhat different. Children respond to the culture around them, whether it's found in the home or in the neighborhood. This transmission of literacy predates the effect of the school.

Most kids from low-income homes aren't surrounded by the culture of literacy, whether in the home or in the neighborhood. It isn't because their parents don't love them, but people won't magically extend a culture which isn't theirs.

Sensible people want to find ways to spread the culture of literacy to more of these good decent children. Rich made it sound like the spread of literacy was an unpleasant pressurized imposition, a scam conducted by higher SES folk against those of lower standing. The Times is extremely odd.

Tomorrow, we'll return to some of the peculiar presentations Rich made in her report. Truthfully, the New York Times doesn't seem to care a great deal about the interests of low-income kids. In our view, this prejudice is obvious is every framework the glorious paper adopts.

True story: How great was the culture of literacy in our neighborhood? So great that the older brother of our grade school pal, Charlotte Dennett, turned out to be Professor Dennett, author of Consciousness Explained.

(As you may recall, Charlotte ran for attorney general of Vermont on the Progressive Party ticket.)

We've never been able to stamp out a certain viral story about that brush with greatness. Where did Professor Dennett get his ideas about consciousness? It's sometimes said that little Charlotte may have taken some of our ideas home from school, presumably in badly garbled form. From there, her older brother only confused them more.

Frankly, that silly old story strikes us as pure bunk. That said, we've never quite been able to stamp it out.


  1. How many of us are perfectly satisfied with secondhand answers? Especially when they support something close to what we already believe.

    Beware of the person who is supremely confidant of their explanation of what is right. Usually, the most wise will allow room for error, most importantly, their own.

    1. F'in spellcheck! -confident-

  2. It's racist to believe the western cultural ideal of literacy should be shoved down the throats of others in a multicultural society. If blacks don't care enough that their kids are literate to work toward that goal, it is racist to suggest they are somehow falling short. That's White Man's culture. Making children with the intent of allowing the state to worry about feeding, clothing, housing, and educating them and you is just another lifestyle choice that should be respected.

    Black Lives Matter, full-throatedly endorsed by Hillary Clinton, seeks to destroy and replace the White Man's "nuclear family"

    We are committed to disrupting the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and “villages” that collectively care for one another, and especially “our” children to the degree that mothers, parents and children are comfortable. Black Lives Matter

    1. Dave the Guitar PlayerMay 18, 2016 at 12:39 PM

      What exactly are you trying to imply here? You appear to be saying that because some communities want to share responsibility for raising children that somehow that means they don't want them to succeed and that everyone should be on welfare. And who has ever said that literacy is a bad idea? The "nuclear family" is a problem for all races and cultures, not just for blacks. You appear to be angry about something (welfare spending?) and are looking for someone to blame.

    2. The nuclear family is not a problem for anyone who grew up in one with responsible, caring parents. It's only a problem for those and who seek to justify anti social behavior like producing children they do not wish to live with or otherwise take responsibility for.

  3. "Rich made it sound like the spread of literacy was an unpleasant pressurized imposition, a scam conducted by higher SES folk against those of lower standing." 17

    "In her description of the Chapel Hill schools, Rich seemed to denigrate the practice by which parents extend the culture of literacy to their children within the home. In our view, that was very strange conduct by Rich." 17

    "Rich paints a jaundiced portrait of the ways in which high-SES parents introduce their children to the culture of literacy. She portrays this time-honored culture in a highly derogatory way....Rich prefers to denigrate this culture. She creates the sense that higher-SES families are pulling a fast one on the lower-SES parents and kids." 16

    "What a jaundiced account of the way children gain access to the culture of literacy! Sometimes children are "pressured," of course. But in the portrait Rich composed, nothing else was allowed to intrude on the jaundiced account.

    Why did Rich compose such a jaundiced portrait of this important process?" 13

  4. That quote from BLM is appalling. What we should be doing is somehow encouraging more parents to be like Sonya Carson.

    Sonya Carson, mother of Ben, put her total self into making sure her sons did their best in school. Oftentimes, she worked long hours and two to three jobs to keep the Carson family afloat. Her relationship and dependence on the Lord provided her with the wisdom to raise her boys to graduate from high school, college, and become successful men. She did this while living as a single mom in the inner cities of Boston and Detroit.

    Sonya Carson's life motto is: "Learn to do your best and God will do the rest." She put this motto in practice for herself to motivate her while raising her sons. And, she used her philosophy of life to motivate her children to succeed in life.

    A woman with only a third grade education, and who was raised in various foster homes, Carson needed to learn how to work hard to survive in a life that was surrounded by poverty, despair, and single-motherhood...

    Clarence Thomas's grandparents are also role models that could well be emulated.

    1. Dave the Guitar PlayerMay 18, 2016 at 12:47 PM

      I don't see the conflict between Sonya Carson's words and the BLM statement quoted above. She probably would have appreciated the help from the neighbors (instead of their disdain for her lack of a husband).

    2. If there were more disdain for lack of a husband there would be fewer lack of husbands and black lives would improve. Fortunately that won't happen and blacks will continue to be abandoned by their fathers and dependent on government, just like progs like it.