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Polkhovska_Olena Коммуникативные стратегии.doc
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Print and power

Institutional power has traditionally ensured cultural continuity by providing a safeguard against the unbounded interpretation of text. In medieval times, monks, scribes, and commentators served as the gate-keepers and interpreters of tradition against cultural change. With the advent of print culture, the need to hand copy texts disappeared, and so did the caste of scribes. At the same time ecclesiastical authority itself was on the wane. The combination of Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press around 1440 and the translation of the Bible into vernacular German by Martin Luther in 1552, made the sacred truth accessible to all, and not only to the Church-educated elite. It opened the door to the unlimited and uncontrolled proliferation of meanings. Soon, the Church monopoly on meaning was replaced by the interpretive authority and censorship of secular powers, i.e. academy, the press and the political institutions. Whereas oral culture has been seen as exerting a “prophylactic”, or invisible, censorship on its members through the conservative pressure of the social group; textual culture because it is more able to express the particular meanings of individual writers, has usually been censored by external powers, like The Church or the State. Thus, while the written medium has been viewed as potentially more subversive than the spoken medium, in reality it has also been constrained by institutions like the academy, the law, the publishing industry, that have always been in control of new technologies.

The academic monopoly over the meaning of written texts has manifested itself up to recently by its definition of literacy as merely the ability to read and write. The importance given to the formal linguistic aspects of texts, to the etymology of words and literal meanings, to correct grammar and accurate spelling, ensured attention to, and compliance with, the letter of texts, but not necessarily with their spirit. Traditional academic practice, that emphasized form over meaning and had students interpret texts as if they were autonomous units, independent of reader’s response, implicitly imposed its own context of interpretation on all, claiming that its norms of interpretation were universal and accessible to anybody’s intuition.

Social construction of literacy

Recent years have witnessed a rejection of what is now perceived to be an elitist and colonialist kind of literacy. The “primitive” vs. “civilized” dichotomy implied by the theory of the Great Divide between oral cultures and literate cultures is now put in question. This theory was advanced by humanist Eric Havelock, according to it the invention of writing created an irreducible difference between oral and literate cultures and their way of thinking.

Individual literacy has given way to the notion of multiple literacies as a plural set of social practices within social contexts of use. Thus, besides the traditional belletristic literacy, scholars now recognize other sorts of literacies linked to various genres (for example, literary literacy, press literacy, instructional manuals literacy, scientific literacy) that all have to do with the mastery of, or fluent control over, social uses of print language. In this regard, to be literate means not only to be able to encode and decode the written word, or to do exquisite text analyses; it is the capacity to understand and manipulate the social and cultural meanings of print language in thoughts, feelings and actions.

Literacy is not acquired naturally like orality. It is usually learned in school, and has long been confused with schooling. The general educational requirements:

  • to narrate events in clearly organized, analytical fashion;

  • to construct an argument according to the logic of thesis-antithesis-synthesis, or problem-evidence-solution;

  • to respond to “what” and “why” questions on texts;

  • to convey information clearly and succinctly.

In occupations like the service or the marketing industries, or in the writing of novels and poems, other types of literacies required.

Children from different social backgrounds bring to school different types of literacies, not all of which are validated by school literacy practices. For example, in the United States, children from African-American families might display a highly context-embedded, analogic, associative way of telling and writing stories that the school does not recognize as acceptable literate practice, whereas middle-class Anglos might have from home more context-reduced, analytic, hierarchical narrative style that they find reinforced in the way schools teach texts.

The acquisition of literacy is more than a matter of learning a new technology, it is linked to the values, social practices, ways of knowing promoted in educational institutions. It may become the source of cultural conflict when the values of the school do not match those of the home. Such is the case in Alaska and Northern Canada, for example, where the Athabaskans’ ways of learning and knowing are radically different from those of mainstream of Anglo-Canadian and Anglo-American society. Even if they learn to read and write in English, Athabaskan children resist adopting Anglo-Saxon schooling practices that expect them to state their opinion about the text, take a point of view and defend it, display their abilities in front of the class, and speculate about future events – all verbal behaviours that are considered inappropriate in their own culture.

The two perspectives on literacy – as mastery of the written medium and as social practice – correspond to two different ways of viewing a stretch of written language: as text or discourse.

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