Theorising the Ethical Grounds for Critical Literacy and Transformative Social Practice

On Critical Literacy and Transformative Social Practice

In Critical Literacy and Transformative Social Practice: An Ethical Grounding, Hearfield and Boughton (2019) highlight the shortcomings of several historical attempts to establish an ethical foundation to undergird the theoretical relationship between “critical literacy” and “transformative social practice” (477) before proposing their own.

For their purposes, the authors appear to adopt a deliberately broad definition of “critical literacy”, admitting various kinds of intellectual and social competencies that one may acquire “in early childhood or as an adult” (ibid., 479). They also understand “transformative social practice” (hereafter “TSP”) in terms of “a particular individual or group changing their relations to others in their immediate social setting and changing their relations to social institutions more broadly” (ibid.). Based on their subsequent discussion, they seem to be taking TSP to refer to shifts in power dynamics and structures as a result of recognition and revolt on the part of the oppressed.

I preempt my reflection with two caveats.

  1. Hearfield and Boughton situate their discussion in contemporary Australian society, where the need for affirmative action towards indigenous communities underscores the importance of theorising and applying critical literacy as it relates to TSP.
  2. I bear in mind the dangers of cross-cultural comparisons of concepts (such as TSP, “White privilege/Chinese privilege”, etc.) across incommensurate social scales and contexts.

Even so, several ideas raised by the authors prompted me to reflect on my teaching philosophy and the realities of our education system in Singapore.

Substantive Freedoms

First, the discussion of Sen’s (2000) idea of “substantial freedoms” (qtd in Hearfield and Boughton, 484) reinforces — in my mind — the social responsibility that teachers have towards our students. In this instance, "substantive freedoms" refer to

“...the capability to survive through adequate nutrition and medical care, the capability for literacy and numeracy, and the capability to engage communicatively in political discussion and decision making. These substantive freedoms have both constitutive and instrumental roles; that is to say, they are both ends and means in the development of human well being or quality of life.” (ibid.)

Taking the example of literacy as one of the substantive freedoms, then, the authors note Sen’s argument that teachers (i.e., those who already have this freedom associated with, say, being literate) have a duty to “assist others still lacking essential capabilities… that will enable them to become free” (ibid., 485). This articulation of a teacher’s duty dovetails with my own conception of the role of a General Paper teacher: to elevate social discourse by moulding my students into well-informed and critically autonomous citizens. To do so, I first have to impart both traditional and critical literacies to my students so that they may be equipped with the requisite literacies to engage in social discourse meaningfully in the first place.

Fanon on the Impossibility of Critical Literacy

Next, I found myself thinking of my international students whose first language is not English when the authors discussed the potential impossibility of critical literacy. In particular, they consider Fanon’s suggestion that critical literacy may be impossible for the historically oppressed because “the language of the colonizers, through which some form of critical literacy might be developed, is always already saturated with the racial prejudices of the colonizers” (ibid., 480).

This, of course, is a critically imperfect analogue for the lived experiences of most of the students I am considering. (See, again, caveat 2.) However, it remains that these students, whose L1 may be Mandarin Chinese or Bahasa, are evaluated and assessed in a language that is not their own. For instance, what may be phonotactic constraints for some of my PRC students retaking their O Level nevertheless count as errors in their English oral examinations. They may also find trouble mapping concepts in critical literacy like “power structures”, “hegemony”, “information asymmetry”, etc. onto ideas in their native language when we are having discussions in the General Paper classroom.

Thus, in the absence of pluralist examination standards (which may be quixotic), I am compelled to spend more time with these students to make it less likely that they are unfairly disadvantaged.

Moral Commitments, Portability, and Pragmatism

To end on a theoretical note, however, the authors’ work assumes moral realism (insofar as they presuppose the possibility of providing ethical grounding for critical literacy and TSP), which may be an unnecessary ideal. I am not suggesting that they adopt some versions of moral anti-realism, for that may be unnecessary for a pragmatic pedagogical approach. Instead, if we assumed a non-commital, agnostic metaethical stance, then a functionalist analysis of critical literacy and TSP that the authors attribute to Sen may be a perfectly tenable theoretical conception of the two concepts that could be more easily ported cross-culturally. Pedagogues with clear metaethical sympathies and who are committed to a systematic and unifying theory of education may be unmoved by my suggestion.

Featured image by Lou Levit on Unsplash.

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