2.2.2 Literacy and cultural capital

Where there is significant debate, however, centres on the presumed benefits accrued to individuals because of their literacy skills. This debate is illustrated by Vicki Carrington and Allan Luke (1997), who argue that, contrary to the claims made by many literacy campaigns, strategies and policy statements, literacy of itself does not guarantee social, educational or social success.

Carrington and Luke suggest that ‘Literacy has become one of the enduring myths of the Western world’ linked, as they see it, to some popular ideas or ‘folk theories’ about the value of literacy development for the economic and personal advancement of individuals and societies. Rejecting those ideas, they instead propose the adoption of ‘broader social understandings of literacy’ of the kind developed by the New Literacy Studies. The essence of their argument is that literate abilities do not bring to an individual any intrinsic social or cognitive advantages. Instead, they propose that it is only when literacy is accompanied by gains in other kinds of ‘cultural capital’, such as involvement with ‘educated’ ways of thinking, and economic opportunities for self advancement, that ‘becoming literate’ is the key to personal and social progress. Their argument that having literacy skills does not guarantee access and success in society indicates the powerful way in which the two levels of discourse, discussed in section 1.2, are interrelated; that is, that particular instances of language use are bound up with particular ways of representing and being (habitus) in the world.

That ways of using language or doing particular kinds of literacy are intimately bound up with ways of being in the world can be exemplified by the accounts of so-called ‘non-traditional’ students in higher education as they engage in academic writing, described by Lillis (2001). By ‘non-traditional’, Lillis means students from social groups who have historically been excluded from higher education (Lillis, 2001, p. 1).

Consider what one student, Mary, says about the struggles she faces in using particular words in her academic essay writing at university. Here, Mary is talking about how she feels about using certain words. She is explaining why she would not use the word ‘prerequisite’:

A sort of stereotype I would have would be people who would use words like that are real academics and people sit down and talk about ‘prerequisite’ [speaking in an exaggerated RP, ‘posh’, accent: laughs] over coffee and tea [laughs]. And I just don’t experience those kinds of things so why should I ... I could be left out from my own community, why am I talking like that for?
And you don’t want to be part of that community?
No, ’cause I don’t fit in ’cause I’m Black. How can I fit in there? No way, no matter how qualified, how much qualifications, they’ll still see me as Black and that’s it. And I don’t relate to those people anyway, no, no.

Mary says she feels like that about a lot of words. She has particular concerns about how others around her who have not studied after leaving school will see her:

They’ll see me differently and I don’t want them to, at all. At all. [laughs] – Oh they’ll probably say something like erm, what’s she using that word to me for? They probably do know what it means but they think there’s no need for that. It’s unnecessary. It’s like putting on airs and graces in a way.

She also has concerns about how she will feel about herself writing in academia:

I mean, if I write like that, if I use certain words that are just unnecessary, I’m just going to feel out of it.
Out of what? [they laugh]
Sort of like I’m not me, you know? It’s too much of a big stride.
Lillis, 2001, p. 95

Mary’s comments illustrate that engaging in a high status literacy practice, academic writing in higher education, is not straightforward: it is not just a question of learning new ways with words but rather learning and taking on new ways of being. This theme of identity and discourse is explored more fully in section 3.

The dilemma surrounding Mary’s use of particular types of language raises the question about what kind of language, and literacy, should be valued in formal education and why. Writing at university, for example, typically involves a formal and impersonal kind of language as well as a distant relationship between writer and reader. Questions about the nature of academic writing and reading in higher education and students’ experiences of these have been taken up in recent times by researchers working in an area of New Literacy Studies referred to as ‘academic literacy/ies’.

Much work in New Literacy Studies is critical of the emphasis on school literacy only – that is, the kinds of literacy that are required in institutions of formal education – and argue that there is a need for greater recognition of everyday literacy practices in which children and adults engage. Some of the more informal language and literacy practices, for example, children’s talk outside of lessons and children and adults’ growing use of information technology, are discussed in sections 3 and 4.

2.2.1 Autonomous and ideological models of literacy

2.2.3 Literacy or literacies?