Interpreting Across the Abyss: A Hermeneutic Exploration of Initial Literacy Development by High School English Language Learners with Limited Formal Schooling Presentation at 2009 LESLLA Conference: Low Educated Second Language and Literacy Acquisition Banff, Alberta, Canada Sept. 28, 2009 Jill Watson Department of Curriculum & Instruction, Second Languages & Cultures Education University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, USA [email protected] I. II. III. On Interpreting A. Antecedents of modern hermeneutics The Abyss A. Four Dimensions B. Interpreting Orality C. The New World of Literacy, Hyperliteracy & Digitacy D. Political & Epistemological Considerations: The gift of orality An existential portrait of oral L2 learners making the leap to literacy & digitacy in US high schools I. Interpreting: A Brief History of Hermeneutics – Derives its name from Hermes, a god of the Greek pantheon, who was charged with delivering messages from the gods of Mt. Olympus for human beings. Associated with eternal youthfulness, volubility, creativity, trickery, duality, diplomacy, fertility, prophetic power. – Aristotle’s Peri hermenia: a treatise on what we do when we are interpreting – Ancient Alexandria had a school of hermeneutics, 1st century BCE A. Antecedents of modern hermeneutics Schleiermacher, early 1800’s: – Interpretation is a form of divination: a “feminine art”. – The point is not to document and record, but to engage the text (a book, an experience) in profoundly creative ways that allow new meanings to emerge and permit new understanding of the relationships between things and between people. – Knowledge is never fixed, but is emergent and evolving; it takes a diviner, not a scientist, to be able to “read” it. Dilthey, late 1800’s: First to make the distinction between: Geisteswissenschaften (Human Sciences) and Naturwissenschaften (Natural Sciences), and to propose that study of each must be distinctly appropriate to each. Dilthey’s argument: because human lives are constructed historically, with unique and evolving human consciousness, we cannot understand the meaning of human experience using scientific methods. “Nature we can explain, but humans we must understand.” – Understand: verstehen. Contains the notion of standing for, standing in proximity, intimacy of experience as prerequisite for understanding human experience. Husserl, early 1900’s – Refuted the new positivist movements in human science research. – His doctrine of “intentionality” describes the way in which the world is always already present in our thinking, and we are always present in the world, so, given this intersubjectivity, we can’t be objective about world—there is no world as utterly separate from us. Heidegger, mid 1900’s – Since Aristotle, Being has been the focus of philosophy, but what is Being? Heidegger: people can only talk about being in time, in the world as historical beings (Dasein). As such, knowledge about humans, like human being itself, is always finite and contingent, subject to disclosure and concealment. Gadamer, pre-eminent scholar of hermeneutics of the 20th century – Wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewusstsein “effective historical consciousness”: the essential openness of history and interpretation – On method: It is impossible to decide on a method of inquiry in advance, since what is being investigated always holds part of the answer to how it needs to be investigated. Gadamer, continued • Prejudice: acknowledging our forestructures of understanding • Fusion of horizons: an essential openness to understanding the other with his/her own forestructures, and to seeing how my identity is in fact a function of relationships in history and culture that always pre-exist me. As a hermeneutic project, this study aims to: 1. unpack some of the epistemological and teleological orientations inherent in an encounter between primarily oral students and the world of hyperliteracy, already itself in transition to a world of digitacy. 2. Speak divinitively, intersubjectively, from a position of long and embedded proximal intimacy. As a teacher in a high school for language learners without literacy or prior schooling, I am a participant hermeneut. 3. Inspire new ways of seeing and understanding the experience of older students with limited formal schooling, learning language and literacy at the same time, in a US high school context. 4. Acknowledge the fore-structures of my understanding in attempting to interpret across the abyss… “A highly educated, extremely literate person engaging in scholarly work, reading madly and referencing the work of other scholars, presenting the fruits of my scholarly work to other extremely literate, academically proficient people, in a conference context whose purpose and structure is completely foreign to oral culture, in order to understand and articulate what it is like to live orally, without print, without words that outlast their utterance, and to make the transition from orality, to academic literacy, to digitacy, all in one lifetime.” II. The Abyss: How great is it? “Fully literate persons can only with great difficulty imagine what a primary oral culture is like. Try to imagine a culture where no one has ever ‘looked up’ anything—this is an empty phrase, with no conceivable meaning. Without writing, words as such have no visual presence. They are sound. You might ‘call them back’, recall them. But there is nowhere to look for them. They are occurrences, events.” -Walter Ong (1982). Orality and Literacy: The technologizing of the word, p. 31. B. Interpreting orality Ong, Walter. (1982). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London & New York: Routledge. Three stages of orality 1. Primary: the orality of cultures untouched by literacy 2. Residual: traces and practices of orality that remain even as literacy becomes more meaningful and important 3. Secondary: the kind of orality that arises in highly literate, technologized cultures, for instance: telephone, radio, television, recorded music. Orality that depends on writing and technology. A long distance to “travel” While most areas of the earth have by now had some exposure to writing, still we must face the reality that in industrialized societies many of our older L2 students come to us directly from cultures characterized by a very high degree of residual orality. Minneapolis, MN, USA: Somali, Oromo, Hmong, Karen, Liberian, Indigenous people of the Americas Ong’s Characteristics of Oral Mind It’s all about memory: “The residual orality of a chirographic culture can be calculated to a degree from the mnemonic load it leaves on the mind, that is, from the amount of memorization the culture’s educational procedures require.” Contrastive interpretation with examples • A look at Ong’s 8 psychodynamic characteristics of oral mind • Contrasting tasks required of successful high school student in US. 1. Additive rather than subordinative The oral mind strongly favors additive constructions (and…and, rather than: thus, while-- subordinating structures). Oral structures look to pragmatics (in the context of speaking), while written structures turn to syntactics, elaborate and fixed grammars which rely heavily on subordination. (p. 39) US high school context • Standards of good writing required for academic success specifically reward subordinative writing and punish additive, run-on constructions. 2. Aggregative rather than Analytic • Clumps of fixed expressions, “not so much simple integers as clusters of integers.” The sturdy oak, the brave soldier, the beautiful princess, the glorious revolution of October. • Need to be kept in tact, it has taken a long time to establish them, and there is nowhere outside the mind to store them. Without a writing system, breaking up thought—that is, analysis— is a high-risk procedure. (p. 38) US High School contrast • Repeating expressions others have used may be plagiarism, at the very least it is not good, inventive writing • Coining phrases denotes a good writer. • Analytic thought is the hallmark of the successfully educated person. 3. Redundant or ‘copious’ • Repetitiveness aids in comprehension, allows audience to remember, allows speaker to collect next thought. • Rhetoricians called this ‘copia’: fluency, fulsomeness, volubility. Sparsely linear thought as occasioned by writing is an artificial construction. Redundancy is much more natural to human thought. (p. 39) US High School context • Repetitiveness is to be avoided in tight academic writing. • Focus of key academic standards: being able to condense large amounts of information to the basic “main idea” • Emphasis on summaries, economy of expression. • Bullet-point mentality 4. Conservative, Traditionalist • In the absence of writing, knowledge must be repeated or it will be lost. Great energy is expended in oral cultures in saying over and over again what has been arduously learned over the centuries. • Hence, the figure of the wise elder has great importance—imparter of sayings which constitute the core knowledge of the culture. Eg. It is often said that every time an elder dies in Oromo society, a “library is lost” • • This mindset discourages intellectual experimentation. In typographic cultures, storing knowledge outside the mind downgrades the importance of the wise elder; repeater of the past, in favor of a younger discoverers of something new. Oromsis, iRep Oromia, Being Oromo in the States. Downloaded Sept. 20, 2009 from opride.com/oromsis. US High School contrast • New discoveries: scholarship, inquiry • New technologies: elders are behind the times • The individual reader is said to be “constructing meaning from the text” • Thematic experimentation is encouraged and rewarded • Anecdote: “My best day as a teacher is when the students take over the class.” 5. Close to human lifeworld • All knowledge is conceptualized and verbalized in reference to the lifeworld, even the objective, alien world is reinterpreted according to the known lifeworld. • Oral mind includes no statistics or abstract lists. Note: genealogies (the begats) are lists but entirely concerned with lived history. No such thing as trade manuals or how-to books: skills are transmitted by apprenticeship (even in textual cultures, this is common), relying on observation and practice and very little verbalization. (p. 42) US high school contrast Anecdote: In a classifying exercise in science class, students are asked to sort pictures of sporting goods with a capital letter attached to each one according to whether it is done indoors, outdoors, or both. The science teacher goes through the exercise, giving the “correct” answers. • Ice skating is classified as outdoors, despite the account of a newcomer student that he has ice skated indoors. • Tennis is classified as outdoors, despite an adult describing the work of her husband tennis pro indoors all winter. The point: Arbitrariness, unreality of definition. Teacher: “I know you can do that one outdoors, but we’ll just call it indoors.” Also note: the teacher has and claims the authority to override the truth of experience, and newcomer LFS ELL students accept it. 6. Agonistically toned • Oral or residually oral cultures strike literates as highly agonistic in their verbal performance and their lifestyles. • Writing allows abstractions that disengage knowledge from the arena of human struggle, separating knower from known. In orality, knowledge is embedded in the lifeworld, keeping it within the context of struggle. Thus it is common to engage others in verbal debate, also bragging, parading one’s exploits, flyting (reciprocal name calling), the dozens, joining, sounding (insulting another’s mother), celebrating physical behavior, descriptions of violence. • On the other side of the same coin: fulsome praise, celebrating glory of a hero or community. What strikes the literate as “insincere, flatulent, and comically pretentious” is the natural product of “highly polarized, agonistic, oral world of good and evil, virtue and vice, villains and heroes.” US high school contrast • Classrooms and hallways in newcomer high school settings often drive teachers crazy because of the verbal noise, volume, volubility, many people speaking at once, even when the teacher is speaking • Even the level of volubility in the British parliament is considered inappropriate in US political and school settings • Increasing medication of students, especially boys, whose behavior needs to be modulated in order for them to fit into school culture • Goal is to maintain an atmosphere of quiet work and purpose, without passion or disruption 7. Empathetic & participatory rather than objectively distanced • Learning or knowing means achieving close, communal identification with the known. • Writing sets up the condition for objectivity in the sense of personal disengagement or distancing. Communal ‘soul’ in oral culture as opposed to ‘individual soul’ in literate culture. (p. 45) • Einstein: What does a fish know about the water in which he spends his life? (literate scientist perspective.) Who knows more about water than a fish? (oral perspective) US High School contrast • Rugged Individualism vs. communal soul: In literature classes, strong emphasis on individual reflection, making your own meaning • Scientific Stance vs. participatory understanding: Objectivity is required in science and math 8. Homeostatic • Oral societies live in a present whose equilibrium is maintained by sloughing off memories no longer relevant to the present conditions. • Eg.: Oral historians and W. African griots leave out parts of genealogies and histories that don’t support the communal order of today (as opposed to written records which show the situation of the past). British vs. oral records in Ghana, of land ownership. • Oral cultures uninterested in definitions such as provided by dictionaries, elucidating layers of old meanings. What matters is the functionality of expressions and meanings today—do they enhance the social order we are living in now, which is preferred to a factual account which might damage or stir things up. • This principle strongly favors the winner, oral culture encourages triumphalism. US high school contrast • Fantastically heavy emphasis on defining words and concepts, the act of definition – – – – Examples and non-examples, True and False Distilling essential characteristics Copying vocabulary and definitions of terms Dictionary entries—multiple and confusing • History: claims of legitimate grievance model • The coin story: why save money? To learn history. 9. Situational rather than abstract • Ong on Luria: Oral noesis does not think in purely artificial abstractions: – Syllogisms (self-referential logic) – Purely abstract categories, such as grouping according to type rather than function (eg. hammer, saw, log, hatchet—all are alike say oral folk). – If asked to identify shapes such as a circle or square, oral people say the name of an objects, eg. plate, those with some schooling say circle. Categorical thinking is “uninteresting, trivializing.” (p. 49) US High School Contrast • Largely consists in categorizing information, in preparation for: • Standardized education / assessments • Move to standardize all knowledge: “National Core Standards” • Ability to learn and produce evidence of learning without reference to experience is rewarded Summary: Interpreting Oral Noesis • The mind (heart, spirit) develops distinctly in an oral environment versus a high literate, or digital environment. (Wolf, McCluhan, Ong, Luria) • What it means to be intelligent in orality is different than what it means to be intelligent in literacy, which is different than intelligence in digitacy. C. The New World of Literacy, Hyperliteracy, Digitacy More is going on with literacy than just acquiring a skill… You have to die (lose orality) to attain new life (literacy). “There is hardly an oral culture or predominantly oral culture left in the world today that is not somehow aware of the vast complex of powers that is forever inaccessible without literacy. This awareness is agony for persons rooted in primary orality, who want literacy passionately but who also know very well that moving into the exciting world of literacy means leaving behind much that is exciting and deeply loved in the earlier oral world. We have to die to continue living” (Ong, p. 15). Concerns over the costs of literacy are not unknown in western tradition… In the Phaedrus, Plato describes the inferiority of writing as opposed to speaking, as writing is helpless, cannot defend itself, always gives the same answer when asked a question. A truly intelligent person possesses the nimble wit required for excellent oral discourse. • Plato’s concerns that a new technology will make people less intelligent are echoed in our time.. The Atlantic, July/August, 2008 The Atlantic, Nov. 2008 From Orality to Literacy and Hyperliteracy The journey our students must make from… School in Dadaab refugee camp, Kenya To the palaces of literacy we are accustomed to in the Western academic tradition… The George Peabody Library, Baltimore, MD Gibert Jeune bookstore, Paris Barnes & Noble bookstore, US • So even as, in the U.S., hardly a day goes by without renewed calls to address literacy problems now understood to reach to secondary school levels… Education Week, Sept. 25, 2009 Still, in a high school with at least 25% of students unable to read at a “second grade level”, we find a graveyard in the basement… Obsolete books Roosevelt High School Minneapolis, MN Sept. 2009 • Yet our enormous faith in literacy provides us with the comforting assertion that even if we destroy our environment and none of our digital technology works anymore, we will still have books, and happy reading time, in a post-apocalyptic world… The Myth of Literacy • Social: Literacy is able to solve all manner of societal problems • Actualization: Literacy (leading to literature) represents a unique actualization of full human potentiality • Critical Empowerment: Literacy allows us to name the world and become empowered • Medical: Illiteracy is a disease that must be eradicated. What all of this points to: The “crisis of literacy” in our hyperliterate world is not really a crisis of literacy but a crisis of relationship. – – – – Between humans and nature Between nations Between worldviews Between people Smith, D.G. (1999). Modernism, hyperliteracy and the colonization of the word. In Pedagon: Human sciences, pedagogy and culture. Pp. 61-72. New York: Peter Lang. D. Political & Epistemological Considerations 1. Epistemological crises 2. Logic of Empire 1. Epistemological Crises in the West Postmodern, Feminist, & Systems Studies: Tracing the legacies of Literacy & Scientism (Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, Kristeva, Bourdieu, Polkinghorne) • Phonetic alphabet pre-requisite to scientific method • Reading, writing, & isolation (you talk together, you read and write alone) • S/O split: literacy and scientism as prerequisite for ontological schism of enlightenment age • Facts are determinable if you use the correct method to ascertain them • Facts = truth The Spirit of the Enlightenment Flower in a crannied wall Flower in the crannied wall, I pluck you out of the crannies, I hold you here, root and all, in my hand, Little flower–but if I could understand What you are, root and all, and all in all, I should know what God and man is. -Alfred Lord Tennyson Psychic Profile of Western Cultures Although surrounded by libraries, bookstores, cell phones, Blackberries, & I-Pods, we are plagued by: • Exhaustion & bitterness • Growing sense of futility (depression, suicide, civic violence) • Loss of meaning and sense of purpose • Anomie, alienation from others, traditional bonds An awareness of our own psychoses must temper our eagerness to export this “developed” way of life, underwritten, literally, by a magical belief in the power of literacy, science, free markets, and academic degrees attained by achievement on standardized tests. 2. The Logic of Empire • Post-colonial & post-modern studies provide an account of the effect of epistemological and political empire on subjugated peoples • Said, Bhabha, Nandy, Mazrui, Spivak, Zizek Literacy, Hyperliteracy, Neocolonialism, & Globalization: “The Best of All Possible Worlds” • Kant’s logic of Emancipative Reason: Those who do not choose freedom are living in “perpetual immaturity” • Hegel: European civilization has transcended culture, has created a Universal Culture of Freedom through Reason. Others have quaint, charming, or violent cultures, but they are primitive, not yet developed, as the West is. • Fukayama proclaims the End of History: U.S. democracy buttressed by free-market economy represents the culmination of History, a transcending of the vicissitudes of developmental history. The persistent violence of standardization • Theweleit (Male Fantasies): The holocaust is not an aberration but rather the logical result of the Enlightenment • Dussel: The Myth of sacrifice—the flipside of the Myth of Emancipative Reason. Those who do not accept Western rationalism remain in a primitive state and may be (must be) sacrificed in service of global progress. • Deloria: Although American society in a way accepts the relativity of things as a leveling device between comparative values, white society has, on the whole, acted as if all things should be related to its values only (p. 25). • Habermas (1984), a child of Frankfurt School critical theory, persists in contrasting the unreflective mode of mythical thought, as exemplified by his essentialized portrait of the Azande people of Africa, with “occidental rationalism” that is a prerequisite to his theory of communicative action. The putative message: every one can play, if they play our game by our rules. • Smith (2006): Since the advent of “The 1492 World System” (Amin, 2001), the sacrificing of people, by way of the murder and embalming of their essential values as expressed in forms of community and communication, takes place as a largely unquestioned matter of course in Western education (“The specific challenges of globalization for teaching and vice-versa.” ) Summary: Legacies of Empire • Literacy + Scientism = Objectivity • European Culture is Universal, transcends Culture • New Global Economic order requires uniformly educated students to meet requirements of global markets The tacit message of neo-imperialism: Those who do not or can not comply with the noble gifts of enlightened academic scientism employed in service of global market concerns must be sacrificed, and it’s ok to do so. What’s missing in all of this: a true conversation “You cannot have a conversation if one partner has no desire for it or if his/her worldview does not value it necessarily… What are the implications for a globalizing world of traditions that are exclusive in their selfinterpretation, wherein being in conversation with Others does not imply the possibility of change within one’s own worldview?” (Smith, 1999, p. 108, italics added) The one-sided “conversation” that American education is having with LFS oral L2 learners is an expression of schools as agents of neo-Hegelian empire • Academic English is like medieval Learned Latin: the mother tongue of no one, unrelated to anyone’s life • Standardized Tests: embalmed knowledge • Primary mode of instruction: – – – – Definitional Abstract Factitious Determinate, sealed > like the fate of oral culture trying to acquire these norms III. Existential Portrait of students from strongly oral cultures in their encounter with academic hyperliteracy in US high schools Survival studenting: Placeholders Filled with ug, the younghede Tenderis groped his way along the downsteepy path toward the cosh wherein dwelled the feared spirit-person. Squit-a-pipes that he was, Tenderis found negotiating his way through the eileber and venerated dway-berries very teenful in the nyle. He tripped over zuches spiss with maily malshaves that made him quetch at their touch. (S.K. Sperling, Poplollies and Bellibones: A Celebration of Lost Words, pp.33, 35.) • 1. What was Tenderis’ emotion as approached the cosh? • 2. Why was it difficult to go through the eileber and dway-berries? • Define these terms: younghede, teenful, maily The Point: LFS preliterate L2 learners develop incredible skills at figuring out what might go in what place, without actually understanding the content. The Metapoint: Teachers and systems must not allow the appearance of proficiency to outweigh real proficiency. It is our lack of appropriate preparation and pedagogy that allows, indeed requires this type of studenting. Survival Studenting: Faking In the absence of true meaning, students adapt by appearing to understand and participate in order to satisfy the teacher and get a grade • Faking accomplishments: Eg: Teacher: who got only one or two wrong? Student who didn’t complete any at all raises his hand proudly. • Faking understanding what is going on Eg: Responding to intonation: raised voice with “right?” Or “don’t you?” Students just say “yes” or “no” to comply. • Copy whatever looks like the activity we are doing. Eg: Copying is perhaps the most pervasive form of “instruction” used by underprepared teachers in sheltered classes, both in lessons, and by having students copy portions of answers in notes to use in tests. • Pretending is the fate of the sacrificial student, ghettoized to receive surface level, tokenistic standardsbased content instruction that looks good only in curriculum guides and to outside evaluators of the content area, but is not meaningfully taught to students whose deficits in language proficiency (L1 and L2), and in cognitive academic preparation present an incredible abyss between their actual state and the subject matter we pretend to teach them and they pretend to learn. • Basic telos underwriting all this: It is the authority of western education underwritten by epistemological supremacy assumptions and the weight of empire that compels teachers and students to participate in the faking. Consequences of Literate Academic Culture in US High Schools for those of Primary Oral Culture • Mnemonic Plague: Only written knowledge counts (eg. citations) leads to devaluing of elders, traditional knowledge • Forced choice between “a better life” encrypted in academic literacy, and a life embedded in authentic relationships • Forced to copy or fail, pretend or admit ignorance • Forced to abandon the relationship between language and meaning • Forced to see others as means to my ends (Western globalization model). Hyperliteracy, Academic Language: Embalming the Living Words and concepts, and the discourse and pedagogy that surround them, are treated like Tennyson’s flower in the crannied wall, like specimens in formaldehyde. American education in its current manifestation as a product of eurocentric scientism requires that ideas and words be immobilized in this way. Standardized tests are the penultimate expression of preserved, embalmed knowledge; the text booklets are their caskets, the vaults where they are locked for security are their vaults, the results are the students’ and schools’ academic epitaphs, published in papers for the public to decry and to mourn. Hermeneutically understoond, people who journey from orality to literacy have to undergo the process of embalming while they are living. Academic Rigor (mortis): where the right questions and answers are predetermined by a state or national board versus Academic Vigor: where learning is embedded in lived life, and life is always considered interpretable The gift of orality Considered against the psychoses of the occidental world, the noesis of orality brings the possibility of a healing gift: much of what we in the academic cultures lack is precisely what oral cultures possess. This thought leads to a recognition of the pragmatic and ethical imperative of deep reciprocity: The command to love your enemy (the other) is not only about “doing the right thing” but also, perhaps mostly, a statement of our own need: the oral other has noetic knowledge that the West is suffering from a lack of, and requires to survive. The hermeneutic path: the middle way • Gadamer: reconciling tradition and the presence of the new • There is no responsible choice other than to teach literacy and academic knowledge to all who come to live in this society. Literacy does make a big difference. Groups like LESSLA are devoted to this goal. • But: we must do it in a way that makes sense. • We learn more about what makes sense for the newcomers by reflecting on the existential nature of oral cultural experience in its encounter with literacy. That is, we learn about the weaknesses and fallacies of our own instructional designs by noticing how they are received by those who are previously untouched by a cynical, distanciated relation with knowledge and experience. A Two-Way Conversation We are not just teaching our older, limited formal schooling, preliterate students-They are teaching us. An intersubjective, valence-structured educational orientation suggests itself: • On the one hand, we have a responsibility to teach in the most effective, humane way, so that HS newcomers have a fair chance at practical survival in a world of hyperliteracy. • On the other hand, we have the opportunity to cultivate our ability to be open and attuned, that we may learn about spontaneous, embedded, orally-toned ways of being, to give our hyperliterate selves a fair chance at our own ontic survival.