The ridiculous proliferation of subject ‘literacies’ is harming education

Universities must refocus on the basics of reading, writing and numeracy across subjects and fields, says Harvey Graff

October 3, 2022
A doctor holding a "health literacy" sign
Source: iStock

“Literacy” was once thought of as the preserve of elementary schools charged with teaching children to read and write. Yet these days the term has been co-opted by numerous areas of knowledge, many of them taught at universities and some of them marketed furiously.

The supposed modern range of literacies include “financial”, “racial”, “game” and “health” literacies. Libraries advertise “information literacy” or “research literacy” when they mean reading and writing applied to accessing and understanding information and conducting research. Economics departments, business colleges and high schools all sell “financial literacy” as a form of insurance or protection. American banks, credit cards and online “educators” market FL4ALL (“financial literacy for all”, pronounced falafel) with full-page ads in the New York Times.

I have compiled lists of hundreds of presumed literacies, each more ridiculous than the last. These days, every discipline – no, every sub-discipline – ignorantly claims its own unique “literacy”. Just look at the promotion campaigns of both traditional and online universities.

I have researched, written and taught about literacy and its history across disciplines since the 1970s. My first book, The Literacy Myth: Literacy and Social Structure in the Nineteenth-Century City (1979), was part of the emerging field of “new social history”. It was inseparably connected with a cross-disciplinary moment and movement that came to be called the “new literacy studies”.

With its bases in anthropology, history, cognitive psychology, and rhetoric and composition, new literacy studies strongly influenced conceptualisation, instruction and practice in many fields for the next few decades. It argued against viewing literacy – the basic ability to read, write and do arithmetic – as an all-powerful, independent variable and shaping influence, irrespective of time, place, circumstances, means of learning, needs and so on. Rather, it demonstrated that literacy’s effects always reflect – shape and are shaped by – specific social, cultural, political and economic contexts.

Equally, that interdisciplinary underpinning was testament to new literacy studies’ insight that “literacies” had many more similarities than differences across disciplines.

One culmination was the university-wide interdisciplinary initiative called "LiteracyStudies at OSU" that I founded at Ohio State University in 2004. We influenced discourse and action in a number of departments and student research through working groups of faculty, staff and students; a graduate student seminar chaired by students; regular cross-disciplinary guest lecturers; and an interdisciplinary graduate minor.

Together, we explored the surprisingly powerful commonalities that exist across disciplines in terms of modes of learning and use that students’ previous education – coloured by overflowing rhetoric (indeed, ideology) that promoted difference – had obscured from them. We were all impressed with the quantity and quality of interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinarity conversation and exchange. Especially compelling was the 13-year duration of the GradSem, a student-led, cross-campus monthly graduate student seminar that we organised, and the 2009 international graduate students’ Expanding Literacy Conference, which attracted more than 300 participants from scores of universities and six nations.

Yet our funding was cut in 2016, a symptom of the global academy’s turn away from the search for common conceptions and practices and its reinforcement of separate disciplinary clusters. That trend is marked by the narrowing and reduction of general education requirements and diminution of arts, humanities, social sciences and basic sciences. The extent of change and then loss, I strongly suspect, was greater in elementary and secondary education than in higher education.

It is not true that each subject area is a distinct literacy. Fundamental literacies are few, shared and used on varying levels of sophistication to read – access information and make meaning across sources, text, communicative systems and the like – and to write, or express and communicate those understandings and messages. The small number of defined and specified “literacies” that do exist (such as what Johanna Drucker calls “visual knowledge”) cross and unite fields of study and communication even as they are applied and practiced differently. They do not differentiate them. They do not compete with each.

All this points to the need to refocus on the basics of reading, writing and numeracy across subjects and fields. The loss of both fundamental literacy and defined literacies contradicts the historical and contemporary missions of universities, and results both directly and indirectly in weakening of our students’ abilities to shape their own and our larger futures.

Literacy is simultaneously higher, secondary and elementary education’s missing link. Basic alphabetic literacy begins for many at home and in primary school, but it should expand in scope and sophistication throughout life, including in higher education.

Harvey J. Graff is professor emeritus of English and history at The Ohio State University. He was inaugural Ohio eminent scholar in literacy studies and founded the university-wide interdisciplinary initiative LiteracyStudies@OSU. He has written many books on literacy, the latest being Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022).

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