“The Means of Production”, subtitled “Literacy and Stratification in the Twenty First Century” is one chapter in a book called Literacy in American Lives, written by Deb Grant and published in 2001. The book itself, according to the publisher’s website, “traces the changing conditions of literacy learning over the past century as they were felt in the lives of ordinary Americans born between 1895 and 1985”. In this particular chapter, Grant examines the way in which social and economic status affects the level of literacy an individual can achieve, but more importantly to the chapter’s argument, she discusses what kinds of literacy are approved of and supported in our economy and which types of literacy are devalued.
Grant’s primary argument is that our society today – or at least our society in the time of the book’s publishing – places a heavy emphasis on technological literacy. This is the case, she argues, because we are now part of the “Information Age” or a “knowledge economy”. Her claim is that “as profits have come to depend on making or moving information more quickly, more cheaply, more powerfully or more meaningfully, investment in literacy-based instruments has surged” (171). Having literacy – the right literacy – becomes a huge economic and social benefit because it is valued not only as an input into economic production, but also as an output. It is important and valuable at so many points in the production process. Her continuing argument is that because we live in a world where the economic production process is focused on one particular kind of literacy, there is very little socioeconomic support for those who do not learn (or have difficulty learning it) or value that literacy. Additionally, she argues that schools should therefore make an effort to “democratize literacy” (186), both by supporting students’ quests for literacies that do not necessarily mirror the greater economic values, and also by providing them with more equal access to the ones that do.
She makes this argument in a very interesting way, by comparing the self-motivated attempts at literacy of two individuals, one from a middle-class family (Raymond Branch) and one from a lower-class family (Dora Lopez). They were both born in 1969, and both eventually moved with their families to an unnamed university town in Wisconsin. Her comparison of them focuses primarily on what kinds of literacy they pursue, because it is not the same type. Branch sought to teach himself about computers and programming, while Lopez, whose family spoke English at home despite being migrant workers, taught herself Spanish. As Brant illustrates the differences between their quests for literacy, she points out how Branch’s path to literacy was both easier and in the end, more rewarding economically than Lopez. She calls this imbalance “unequal subsidy and unequal reward”. Because the knowledge that Lopez seeks to gain is less valuable to the overall economic machine, not only is her reward for gaining it less, but the avenues by which she can gain it are also less. Branch, in his quest for technological literacy, has many resources – Brant cites computer stores, access to a community of other individuals interested in technology and also the university’s resources, since his father was a part of the faculty. Lopez had far fewer of these things.
The chapter also looks at the already unequal opportunities that Branch and Lopez had in gaining access and knowledge of the kind of literacy supported by the economic machine, such as their parents’ ability to provide them with the necessary tools. Both Branch and Lopez’s fathers worked for the university, and yet Lopez’s father, who worked as a shipping and receiving clerk, was not provided with the technology that Branch’s father was, because his job was less valued, and therefore was not able to pass along those tools to his daughter.
Overall, this is an interesting article because it does not merely argue that those who are poor (in money or in literacy) will remain poor because they do not have access to the appropriate tools. It argues that our concept of “the appropriate tools” ought to be looked at with a little more scrutiny.
Brant, Deb. "Literacy in American Lives." The Means of Production: Literacy and Stratification in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 169-186. Print.