On the nature of literacy (with a nod to Spinoza)


In my last post, I suggested (following a lead inspired by Neil Postman) that we’re waging war on illiteracy. But this is wrong. We’re battling ignorance. Our enemy (at whatever level we teach and in whatever discipline we teach it) is lack of knowledge: knowledge of subject matter, knowledge of perspectives and knowledge of skills. At the end of a school year, we want each one of our students to know more: to know more about the world and to know more about how to operate effectively and ethically in it. It sounds uncomfortable to put it this way, perhaps, but we want our students to be less ignorant.

This distinction – enemy as illiteracy, enemy as ignorance – is not a trivial one, given the context in which I’m trying to think clearly about all of this. Next month I’m teaching a course called ‘Literacy across the curriculum’ to 90 postgraduate preservice teachers. They come from all disciplines. If I try to tell the Maths teacher that the enemy is illiteracy, she will tell me that’s the English teacher’s war. If, instead, I tell her our enemy is ignorance, then that’s a battle we can fight together. She will want her students to become more knowledgeable about mathematics. She’ll want them to understand the nature of the discipline, to come to know its ways of knowing the world, to become adept at its methods and ways of communicating its knowledge. All of this will involve reading and writing (both terms defined broadly). All of this will involve taking stuff in (reading) and putting stuff out (writing).


It’s interesting, in retrospect, to see the way my thinking about this was fuzzied by the tendency to confuse ends and means. The end is to reduce ignorance; one important part of that is make our students more literate. The assumption that our primary aim is to teach literacy kept seeping through in my seven maxims. To be literate is to have the key to the door; it’s not the room we seek to enter.

So, in this post, I want to refine my seven maxims. I want my maxims to achieve two things: firstly, to more accurately reflect the true purpose of our teaching (viz to reduce ignorance), and secondly, to indicate the action that follows (for, as my colleague J. D. Wilson Jnr wrote in response to the last post, ” true belief is never passive, it provokes an action”).

I also want to ditch the military analogy (The teacher as Napoleon Bonaparte). It has served its purpose; it’s steered me away from motherhood statements and nudged me towards effective action.

And finally I want to play with the approach adopted by Spinoza in his Ethics, where instead of maxims he wrote definitions, proofs, propositions and notes. I want to do this primarily because I find it fun to appropriate others’ methods, and in the past I’ve found that Spinoza’s particular approach encourages a kind of discipline that’s especially useful to a meandering thinker like me . It has the added advantage of inviting challenges; a maxim implies a truism or a precept, whereas a proposition sounds more like an idea inviting a conversation.


On the nature of literacy


  1. Ignorance: the state of unknowing, where not everything that can be known is known. All people are ignorant, but there are degrees. The amount of ignorance can be reduced.
  2. Knowledge: our possession of adequate and useful ideas about the true, the beautiful, the good, and the just. Knowledge reduces ignorance. All knowledge becomes the foundation of greater knowledge.
  3. Learning: the natural process whereby, through interactions with others, our ideas of the world become more aligned with the true, the beautiful, the good, and the just. Learning produces knowledge.
  4. Natural: I am not using the world natural to mean either ‘easy’ or ‘happens by itself without the interference or involvement of others’. Instead I’m using the word in a more biological or environmental sense, to mean ‘being a part of the natural world’. Learning is the result of an inbuilt natural tendency or urge in the organism to attempt to increase its own being or essence or power. Learning, then, is natural for a student in the same way that growing is natural for a plant. Given favourable conditions (which are always a highly complex web of different factors), learning takes place naturally; given unfavourable conditions, learning (like growing) struggles (and becomes learning of a different type) or stops (the organism dies).
  5. Literacy: the means by which we come to learn about the world, and with which we express our understanding. We learn by becoming more literate. Ignorance is blackness; literacy is the torch and knowledge is what the torch illuminates.
  6. Reading: that part of literacy which is to do with taking in knowledge of the true, the beautiful, the good, and the just. To ‘read’ the world includes not just the taking in of meaning by decoding symbols on a page, but also viewing and listening.
  7. Writing: that part of literacy which is to do with expressing our current understanding of the true, the beautiful, the good, and the just. To ‘write’ about the world includes not just the making of words on a page, but also speaking and representing.


PROP 1. All students by nature desire to know (Aristotle).
Proof: This is self-evident from definition 4.
Action: All teachers need to teach their students to become more literate.

PROP 2. All students by nature desire to belong.
Proof: If it is true that all students desire to know (Prop 1) and that learning necessarily involves interactions with others (Def 3), then it follows that all students by nature desire to belong.
Action: A primary goal for all teachers is to create a sense of community. A sense of belonging is a spur to becoming more literate.

PROP 3. The more my students know about the subject, the more they will want to read, and the more they will understand from their reading. Literacy and knowledge have an iterative rather than a causal relationship.
Proof: This is self-evident from definition 2 (and numerous studies on the effect of prior knowledge on reading comprehension!).
Action: When introducing new material, teachers need to make sure their students have the necessary background knowledge to make sense of it.

PROP 4. The more the class inquiry is centred around clearly identified fertile questions, the more purposeful and effective the gaining of knowledge will be.
Proof: All students desire to know (Prop 1) and desire naturally produces questions.
Action: If a teacher can keep fertile questions at the centre of classroom inquiry, she will be helping her students to read effectively.

PROP 5. The more each student feels he can make a meaningful contribution to the learning of the class as a whole, the more keenly he or she will seek to know.
Proof: Learning is the result of an inbuilt natural tendency or urge in the organism to attempt to increase its own being or essence or power. (Def 4). Being effective in a class is therefore a stimulant to learning.
Action: Teachers need to establish their classrooms as communities of collaborative scholars searching for the true, the beautiful, the good and the just; where opinions are freely expressed and tested, dialogue is privileged and careful listening to each other is mandated.

PROP 6. Learning involves courage, confusion and difficulty.
Proof: To learn is to move from the known of relative ignorance to the unknown of greater knowledge (Def 1 & 3). It is a move from the familiar and secure into the unknown and unpredictable.
Action: A teacher must make the journey easier by tolerating mistakes, encouraging risk-taking and providing necessary directions, structures and scaffolds.

PROP 7. Literacy is about our ability to read and write all kinds of texts, not just written ones.
Proof: This is self-evident from Def 6 & 7.
Action: Particularly (but not only) because people learn in different ways, our pursuit of knowledge should involve not just written texts but a rich variety of other kinds as well.


I said above that I hoped propositions invited conversation, so I look forward to any responses you might have.

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3 Responses to On the nature of literacy (with a nod to Spinoza)

  1. paul bogush says:

    Awesome…just bookmarked it to share with my student teacher in the fall.

  2. Suzanne Rogers says:

    This is really a comment about “Why we write”, I think that we need to keep in mind that not all students write to discover themselves. Some students need to verbalize in order to learn. I’m certainly not arguing about the importance of writing. But, for those highly verbal students who need more of an audience than solitary writing provides, reflection on discussion might be a way to discover. (Of course in addition to writing, writing, writing)

  3. steveshann says:

    So true Suzanne, and a good reminder. Talk, too, really matters. Being the ‘writing type’, I sometimes forget this and need to redress the balance in my classroom. It’s also good, isn’t it, to nudge the talkers into exploring what might happen when writing that doesn’t happen when talking (and vice versa).

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