I recently read Jenny Cook-Gumperz’s historical account of the relationship between schooling and literacy (“Literacy and Schooling” in The Social Construction of Literacy*). Drawing on the work of other historians of literacy, Cook-Gumperz argues that history shows that widespread reading and writing in Europe and the U.S. occurred prior to the advent of schooling and formal institutions to teach them. There are two components to this account that I found particularly surprising and compelling because they directly speak to some of the contemporary debate and discussions–both in academia and in school policy makers’ offices–concerning the role of new media, schooling, and what might be meant by “new literacies.”

The first has to do with the scope of the term “literacy.” There are a number of research traditions concerning literacy, such as information literacy, media literacy, and others. Researchers over the past few decades have started to take note of the emergence of multiple forms of literacy, rather than just one. Furthermore, even outside of research people have started to talk about “visual literacy,” “media literacy,” “math literacy” (or numeracy), “computer literacy,” “web literacy,” and others. So today we have a sense that literacy should be always thought of as literacies, in the plural. There are multiple forms of literacy and depending on local contexts, the skills, knowledge, and tools that people bring to the practice of literacy are also multiple. What Cook-Gumperz shows in her work is that prior to “professional schooling,” almost 200 years ago, there was also a sense that “literacy” meant many things. In other words, it was schooling, or “schooled literacy,” that prior to the last couple of decades that gave us the sense that literacy was just about the abstract ability to read and write, a unitary thing.

So what were people reading and writing in the centuries prior to schooling? This question of form and content of reading and writing practices leads me to the second part of Cook-Gumperz’s overall argument that is key in light of today’s discussion of new media and literacy. Widespread literacy in Europe and America centered around multiple forms of popular culture: “broadsheets, ballads, and political tracts provided a key means for political discussion and recreation…” (p. 24). In fact it was the perceived fear of dangerous effects of popular culture by the elite coupled with the perceived liberating and empowering effects of reading and writing by others that paradoxically came together to fuel the movement towards the establishment of schools that would teach literacy.

In contemporary debate, especially regarding the internet, media production software, and other tools in the hands of public, many have noted the relationship between these new forms of media and popular culture and have hoped to find a way to harness the enthusiasm for popular culture and somehow institutionalize it through schools. The goal: find a way to incorporate what motivates young people outside of the classroom into the classroom, both in terms of the kind of subject matter and the technologies that young people today are interested in.

My point here is not to comment on whether or not this mission can be successful or not, or even if it’s a good approach to thinking about learning. Rather, the point is to raise the question of whether or not we are a semblance of repetition of history. Certainly, many are concerned and afraid of what negative effects new media and technologies are having on today’s youth. And others laud the possibility that new technologies and popular culture can and will unlock their creative imaginations. Finally, there are others that will see the use of these new media as critical to the skills required to compete in the so-called “new economy” workforce. I can’t help read Cook-Gumperz’s account of the Western history of literacy and wonder: if these interests all align and particular uses of new media become validated by society through institutionalization and schooling will we see a return to a more singular view of literacy, one that broadens the acceptable tools of literacy but not the acceptable social practices, that some scholars have been fighting for decades?

*Note, I read the chapter in the first edition. Apparently, she has spent some time re-writing the version for this second edition, but my understanding is that the basic argument is the same.