Crisis after Crisis: The Rhetoric of Illiteracy and Its Consequences

Activity: Talk typesOral presentation


In recent decades, numerous public figures as ideologically diverse as Jonathan Kozol and George W. Bush have declared that a "literacy crisis" threatens to shred the nation's social fabric and sap its economic vitality. In response, a multitude of institutions, public and private, have mobilized to wage a "war on illiteracy." Among these institutions, universities have been no exception. But within universities, we who study composition, rhetoric, and literacy have been wary. We question claims of a crisis and dismiss the call to arms. The proposition that literacy is destiny? That's a myth we say, pointing to powerful interests that have a stake in the myth's perpetuation. But in mounting our critique, we share a stake in the myth—a stake worth examining. My examination begins with Robert Connors's assertion that "the first media-driven 'literacy crisis' " in the 1890s "produced the freshman composition course as one of its answers." This assertion is offered as if the media manufactured the crisis, with no basis in lived reality. New studies of macroeconomic trends at the turn of the twentieth century suggest otherwise. I argue for incorporating these studies into our thinking about the recurrence of literacy crises on the American scene, that we might better understand the rhetoric of illiteracy and its consequences.
Event titleWestern States Rhetoric and Literacy Conference
Event typeConference
LocationReno, United States, NevadaShow on map
Degree of RecognitionNational