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Lives on the Boundary: A Moving Account of the Struggles and Achievements of America’s Educationally Underprepared, Mike Rose, Penguin, 1990 (c1989), ISBN 0-14-012403-9, $12.95, 255pp.

What is literacy? It seems such a simple word, yet the view from the classroom is much different than from the person on the street. Mike Rose challenges our assumptions of reading and writing, of how a student is educationally introduced to both concepts, and how so many are being lost by the wayside of this much older “information highway.”

The book is mostly autobiography as Rose describes how he was accidentally put into a remedial class due to a clerical error (shades of Brazil, anyone). The mistake went undetected for over a year, partly due to his parents’ unfamiliarity with the school system and Rose’s own attitude. He was lucky, though, when a teacher noticed a discrepancy between his standardized test scores and those of his incorrect file, and he was moved to the regular classroom. This early experience haunted him throughout his school career, however, and his struggle to enter into the “main- stream” of education becomes a mirror by which he views the process of becoming literate. His experience coupled with his volunteer work with underprepared children, veterans, and college students gives him fresh insight into the question that started this: what is literacy? Rose’s experience is that no one sentence is sufficient to capture the idea, and that literacy is many things to many people.

Well, duh, you say, but stop and think about the “back to basics” arguments you hear from education reformers. What do they say about the process by which students learn to read and write? “All they need is work on the fundamentals,” is a common theme. But Rose’s challenge is that this is too simplistic. Based on his book, we can see that the grammar mistakes are easily correctable–the difficulty that people have with writing is often due to cultural or social differences rather than a difficulty in spelling a word correctly. This is not a popular stand; politicians hate this kind of idea because it takes something that they had a simple solution to and reveals it as a much more complex problem. It is much easier to say, “All they need to do is work on their ABCs” or “We don’t need to mollycoddle these students. In my day, you learned the rules and that was that.” Step back from the class, rethink what the purpose of literacy is, and then let’s return to the problem. Literacy, especially functional literacy as defined by the government, is a moving target. During World War I, the government defined it as a fourth grade education. After World War II, it was an eighth grade education. So, if we say people are less literate today, are we saying the same thing, or has the bar moved? Is it necessary to be “more literate” today? And, if so, how does the phrase “more literate” compare to the idea that there is a standard by which literacy can be judged.

Rose doesn’t have the answers, although his book does make a compelling case for more one-to-one contact between instructors and students. The harried nature of modern classrooms leave teachers with little extra time to find the cultural, social, or developmental problem that holds children from finding their literacy potential. I hate to sound like a democrat, but it frankly sounds like the true solution to the “literacy crises” might indeed be throwing more money at the schools rather than a “back to basics” approach; money to be used to supply more teachers to those students. Hell, it’s got to be more useful than another B1 Bomber.

[Finished August 1998]


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