Poetic Faith 2016: Child Studies & Literacy

The first week of reading was intense, exciting—and random. I set a VERY ambitious goal for myself in trying to keep up my drafting of The Hymnal Before the Notes while doing this reading. Some of the reading needed to be done to inform certain chapters, and other parts of the reading are meant to feed another essay I’m writing on a deadline, so…I bounced all over. Mainly the first two weeks’ worth of readings.

I basically went through most of the poetry readings and the child studies readings, spending a whole day soaking in the glory of Patricia Crain’s Reading Children—more on that book in a bit. Did the poetry and the children’s stuff wind up intersecting? Let’s find out…

As the late E. Jennifer Monaghan points out in her Learning to Read and Write in Colonial Massachusetts (Massachusetts, 2005), there’s something odd about the history of literacy education. While the statistical study of signature literacy (estimating how many people were literate based on whether they could sign legal documents) and other quantitative approaches, curiously little attention has been directed to defining what literacy is, or considering the variations in what might count as literacy. Among the issues she finds neglected in scholarship are “instructional purpose, instructional method, ideology, differential access to literacy instruction mediated by race, gender, ethnicity, and social class”—in other words, the very issues that take center stage in current debates over literacy in society. Even more astonishing, Monaghan finds the typical absence of “instructional texts, books written for or read by children…literacy activities of families,” as well as “schools, children, and teachers” (p. 3). In other words, everything and everyone except for those theorizing education, with or without expertise in the field.

The absence is slightly less glaring for writing instruction, partly because of the interest in penmanship among collectors and aficionados of manuscripts, partly because writing was primarily taught to male students by male teachers, especially before 1800. Reading instruction, by contrast, was women’s work: learned at home, or possibly at a “dame school” (which was a woman doing what amounted to home instruction in her own house for other people’s children for a flat fee), the attainment of reading was largely institutionally and procedurally invisible to history, however much literacy might be celebrated or advocated in a society for civic or salvific reasons. The “mother tongue” had its lettered counterpart, apparently.

Monaghan’s book looks across the spectrum from home instruction to formal schooling in pre-1800 New England, and what I find most fascinating in her study is the role that schoolbook genres play in shaping and reflecting educational practice. A key contribution she makes to our understanding of schoolbooks is demonstrating the importance of the “spelling book” as a new, secularizing genre that offered a new developmental step following the primer and driving a wedge between basic instruction and sacred reading. The traditional sequence at the time of the New England colonies’ founding was hornbook (for the alphabet), primer (for decoding syllables and words), psalter (the Psalms in prose translation), testament (as in New), Bible (as in Old Testament). The Word of God was the culmination as well as the purpose of reading instruction in Protestant New England, and only in the mid-1700s did alternative uses for literacy become part of the thematics of instruction. The spelling book provided extensive lists of sight-words, providing the forerunner of the modern spelling book—before the late 19th century, “spelling” meant being able to decode words successfully, not writing words in correct letter order. The other major component of the spelling book was a collection of brief, level-specific readings, often drawn from the Bible as well as hymns and other religious sources, at least at first. This was the genre in which Noah Webster became such a success, with his “blue-black spellers” becoming available through peddlers and general stores throughout the nation by the time of the Civil War.

If the means of reading instruction have largely been invisible to scholarship, those readers who were in the early stages of literacy have also tended to go un-remarked on, even with the rise of history of reading as a scholarly field. The history of reading tends to highlight highly literate, active users of books who collect and annotate personal libraries and share their thoughts with friends and family. While some children followed this pattern, most did not have the monetary or cultural means to do so, at least until the nineteenth century. Courtney Weikle-Mills in her book Imaginary Citizens turns to children’s reading diaries as evidence of the in-between consciousness of young readers in a young nation. Weikle-Mills focuses on the political implications of what she calls “imaginary citizenship,” a discourse that talked about children as if they were among citizens of the American public—or even stood in for the American public as the nation’s future—and encouraged children to think of themselves as citizens with debts of loyalty to the nation, despite their limited rights to consent to or participate in public life. For Weikle-Mills, the process of teaching children literacy went hand-in-glove with the process of teaching citizenship, such that to read was in some way to be American.

Crain’s Reading Children builds on this insight to make the striking argument that our modern notions of literacy and of childhood developed together, in fact were mutually constitutive. Wrapped up in learning to read was learning the privileges and protocols of book ownership, and perhaps the most fascinating chapter in Crain’s book presents a taxonomy of ways that children marked their books to claim ownership, build ties to each other and the adults in their lives, and to make books a “first space” left to the child’s control—even if what it meant for a minor to own property was ambiguous at best.

Crain periodizes literacy with the Civil War as a dividing point; before the war, reading was a matter of learning self-possession, of controlling and mastering the self so that one became unownable by others (a key reason why slave literacy was so forcefully resisted among slaveholders). After Emancipation, a new emphasis on silent reading replaced the old declamatory style of reading that had put the performing body at the center of what was considered literacy. Now, being able to lose one’s self in a book through imaginative absorption became the ideal, the one we still see promoted in libraries, schools, and bookstores nationwide. Crain points out that this new emphasis on absorption relied on a certain logic of class and race exclusion: the child that late-19th-century educators and artists imagined as “lost in a book” were small, comfortable, and white. (Side note: as time goes on I only become more amazed at how much Levar Burton and Reading Rainbow have been able to accomplish in American reading culture.)

There’s plenty to say about poetry as well, and a promised attempt at synthesizing it with the readings discussed here. But as old letter-writers would say, I have no space left to discuss that now, and will pick up the subject again in my next.

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