Literacy is, and isn’t, a Tool

I recently picked up Clear and Simple as the Truth by Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner. I’m only through the introduction, but the authors clearly make the case that writing should not be conceptualized as a passive set of applied verbal skills; instead, they see writing as an intellectual activity. In a grad seminar last semester, we had conversations about the risks  of articulating writing as a set of skills, and how such conversations limit the understanding of complex processes.

Wysocki and Johnson-Eilola put forth a similar line of thought in “Blinded by the Letter: Why Are We Using Literacy as a Metaphor for Everything Else?”writing that, “literacy alone—some set of basic skills—is not what improves people’s lives” (353).

What all of these conversations revolve around, it seems to me, is how we metaphorically construct an understanding of literacy/writing/reading/speaking/listening.  All of those slashed words could have the suffix “skills” tacked onto them, so it seems to me worthwhile to explore more deeply that word as a metaphorical concept.

I don’t remember Wysocki and Johnson-Eilola unpacking that term (skills) like they did with literacy, but it seems to me that it may be at least be partially grounded in, perhaps, the conceptual metaphor  of (in Lakoff and Johnson style) Literacy is a Tool. The more abstract domain—literacy—is grounded in a more concrete domain—tool. We build skills as we utilize tools. The first time I picked up a chef’s knife, for instance, I tried slicing like Emeril Lagasse and almost lost a couple of fingertips. Over time, though, as I have learned techniques and practiced using the tool, I became more and more skilled with the tool—I gained skills, I might say. The same could be said for all sorts of things we conceive of (rightly or wrongly) as tools, from hammers and screwdrivers to computers and cars.

As Lakoff and Johnson point out, we use metaphors to bring about a way of seeing (itself a metaphor) or understanding more abstract domains better, but we do so at a cost, for metaphors veil at the same time that they reveal. And I think that’s, ultimately, what Wysocki and Johnson-Eilola are getting at here in this piece. Their attention seems to be less about fully unpacking the conceptual metaphor and more about recognizing it’s dimensions and limitations, and they seem to be focused on where the conversations may begin anew within alternative metaphors, and I’m with them all the way.

But I think there’s much more that can be mined by digging in even deeper to the Literacy is a Tool conceptual metaphor to examine and map out as many of the implications of such a metaphor as possible. Such an exercise would also, and perhaps more importantly, it seems to me, further delineate the limitations of such a metaphor. It’s an exercise, after all, that seems like it would be in good order regardless of the metaphor being employed. It’s an exercise in mindfulness, I suppose, a building of awareness  of the language and concepts we invent and their potentials to both reveal and limit.

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One thought on “Literacy is, and isn’t, a Tool

  1. I like this, Joe. It reminds me faintly of Walter Ong’s “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought,” in which he discusses the ways our habits of mind are shaped through literate practices (e.g., reading and writing). It’s interesting, too, to think of literacy as a metaphor in some of the places it turns up. We read Lakoff and Johnson in ENGL505 last semester (I think I mentioned this to you before), and I am always returning to the idea of dead metaphor or, as I.A. Richards called it, “adequated metaphor” to refer to metaphors that have ascended into some elevated status, almost as a given or a “truth.” Literacy, in this regard, does seem to have ascended into a given or a truth such that we have an unusually easy time tacking words in front of it to account for facility in some domain of knowledge or practice (_____ literacy).

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