Literacy in American Lives

Book cover for Literacy in American Lives. A pile of stacked red books with a navy blue background.
Literacy in American lives

In Literacy in American Lives, Deb Brandt offers an understanding of how literacy is positioned beyond the economic and cultural control of the literate learner. The aim of this book is “to look closely at the sources of the changing conditions of literacy learning and especially at the ways that Americans have faced the escalating pressure to provide for themselves and their children the kinds of literate skill demanded by life in these times” (2). To do so, Brandt positions literacy as a kind of property, a commodity that is often rewarded and more often exploited.

Her study focuses on “the perspectives of 80 American born between 1895 and 1985” whose ages range from 10-98, and all of whom lived in south central Wisconsin (3). Here is where Brandt tends to get a lot of flack. The book is called Literacy in American Lives, but she focuses on 80 people living in the same geographic region of the U.S., which is fairly misleading. Though her methodologies are not as explicitly stated as desired (and with any research, there are questions as to how the researcher chooses to highlight particular participants), it’s important to also highlight the research methods that Brandt does explain.

In particular, I’m drawn to her explanation of life-story research, which includes autobiographical monologues, structured interviews, and surveys (10). She describes this methodology as an opportunity where participants “reflect on—indeed, refashion—a memory in terms of its significance for how things have turned out, whether in terms of personal circumstances of shared culture” (12). This is an interesting way to think about how research can be a mutual exchange that positively impacts both researcher and participant(s).

Here it also seems useful to offer a few definitions that she outlines in the introduction:

  • Literacy learning principally will refer to specific occasions when people take on new understandings or capacities (6).
  • Literacy development refers to the accumulating project of literacy learning across a lifetime, the interrelated effects and potentials of learning over time (7).
  • Literacy opportunity refers to people’s relationships to social and economic structures that condition chances for learning and development (7).

The last term to define and an integral component of this project (and maybe this book’s best known aspect) is the concept of literacy sponsorship. Brandt defines sponsors as “any agents, local or distant, concrete or abstract, who enable, support, teach, model, as well as recruit, regulate, suppress, or withhold literacy—and gain advantage by it in some way” (19). That is, sponsors are authorial figures who have power regardless of whether they benefit others—by enabling or teaching literacy—or benefit themselves—by regulating or withholding literacy. Tied to the economies of literacy, Brandt argues that sponsors are physical and consistent reminders that “literary learning throughout history has always required permission, sanction, assistance, coercion, or, at minimum, contact with existing trade routes” (19). What does this mean, though, for people without access to these “trade routes”?

Brandt explores this question throughout the book by incorporating material from her interviews with background about the changing economic relations in which literacy learning exists.

Chapter Breakdown

Chapter 1, “Literacy, Opportunity, and Economic Change” begins with a discussion of the commodification of literacy at the start of the twenty-first century. The goal of this first chapter is to “look at the effects of rapid economic change and regional restructuring on opportunities for literacy learning as they manifest themselves in local ways of life” (26). Specifically, Brandt is interested in exploring the shifts in literacy as they’re shaped by the developing interests of corporate capitalism, the shift from consumption to production, and the pull/push dynamic that occurs within these shifts. Brandt defines the “pull” of literacy as “the various economic, political, and social factors that induced literacy use or denied it” (27); whereas the “push” for literacy is “the motivation, aspirations, and struggles by which common people gained access to reading and writing” (27). In some ways, this seems like a distinction between macro- and micro-levels of literacy or global (societal, cultural) contexts and local (individual) contexts of literacy.

The focus on this first chapter, then, is the impact of our economic system on literacy sponsorship. Brandt shows that “[e]conomic changes devalue once-accepted standards of literacy achievement” (42), which we see today with the shifting values of different degree levels—e.g. the decreasing value of a high school diploma vs. the saturated market of people holding doctorate degrees—which signals a shift in how we value and measure these different levels of education. Though this itself is a serious issue, Brandt argues that a larger concern here is the way these economic changes “destabilize the social and cultural trade routes over which families and communities once learned to preserve and pass on literate know-how” (42), which is where Brandt’s own research of different families comes into play.

While the first chapter focuses predominantly on the economic systems tied to literacy learning, chapter 2—“Literacy and Illiteracy in Documentary America”—focuses on the political injustices tied to literacy. Specifically, Brandt focuses on the unequal access to computer technology, which creates a new form of inequality within “the processes of staying informed, exercising free speech, and enjoying economic benefits and choices” (48). This inequality amplifies the rights of those that have this technology, further erasing those who do not. Further, because we expect literacy, this inequality positions the “illiterate” as irresponsible violators of the contract of literacy (47). And because we are a documentary society—that is, a society that translates this contract ideology to print documents and forms in order to produce facts and knowledge—those who are denied access to these documents are rendered ill informed, illiterate (151).

Chapter 3, “Accumulating Literacy: How Four Generations of One American Family Learned to Write” explores how rapid transformations in literacy learning make this a challenging climate for all literacy learners. Because of this rapid transformation process, Brandt argues that literate ability has expanded to include “a capacity to amalgamate new reading and writing practices in response to rapid social change” (75). She focuses on four generations of the May family to demonstrate the way literacy learning and the values of literacy shifted and impacted the family economy—how the members passed literacy values and victims to new generations. This creates an interesting ecology (Brandt doesn’t name it that) that is at play within literacy learning—indicated by the role of the family economy, regional economy, and value of individual literacy.

Chapter 4, “‘The Power of It’: Sponsors of Literacy in African American Lives,” looks at the developing reading and writing skills of African Americans—skills that Brandt shows have not historically been factored into national needs except for in times of crisis (105). Because of this difference in institutionalized sponsorship, Brandt argues that African American sponsors shared literate resources and skills in the form of a “core set of cultural values” (107). The purpose of this chapter, then, is to explore through 16 accounts how “long-standing forms of African American self-help provided avenues for literacy learning, especially when other ways were closed off” (108-9). One place where this happened was in the black church, which functioned as a place to encourage reading (of the Good book) and to cultivate political passions, a place where the pastor acted as both preacher and teacher. This contributed to a “communal nature of learning,” where literate resources were shared among family and community members (129).

Chapter 5, “The Sacred and the Profane: Reading versus Writing in Popular Memory,” picks up this theme of the church’s role in literacy learning, exploring the historical tensions between reading and writing and the difficulties of passing on both equally in order to show how historical ideologies of literacy have manifested in our current understandings of reading and writing practices.

First, Brandt offers some historical context of 19th century literacy movement in Europe that prioritized reading over writing, which was seen as more divine, more defined as a curricular activity, and easier to assess (147). Writing became more favorable with changes in economic and social conditions which demanded a shift from simply deciphering text to critically interpreting and reasoning (148). But as she points out, these skills that are in high demand by U.S. capitalism are the same skills that “historically have been used for resistance, rebellion, the claiming of voice, and the development of critical consciousness” (148). This chapter is interesting for the way that Brandt attempts to address all 80 life-history accounts where participants recounted any memories of learning to read and write.

Interestingly, memories of reading differed from those of writing. Brandt suggests that reading was remembered more positively because it was integral to family intimacy (150); that is, reading was a common practice for young children in the household to do and to be taught. The actual process of buying books also communicated the value (socially and economically) of reading (152). On the other side, early memories of writing were implicated in contexts of humiliation, anxiety, loneliness, or rebellion:

Whereas people tended to remember reading for the sensual and emotional pleasure that it gave, they tended to remember writing for the pain or isolation it was meant to assuage. People’s descriptions of the settings of childhood and adolescent writing—a hospital bed, the front steps of a house, and, in other cases, a garage, a treehouse, and a highway overpass—were scenes of exile, hiding, or at least degraded versions of domesticity in marked contrast to the memories of pillowed, well-lit family reading circles. 154-5

Perhaps this is unsurprising for writing teachers who frequently hear students self-proclaim that they are “bad writers” and have been told that they are “terrible at writing” because of their grammar mishaps. In fact, Brandt herself acknowledges, “It is not surprising, given the ambivalence and vagueness that surround writing as an activity, that developing an identity as a writer is rather difficult” (158). Despite this tension, it is interesting to note here that writing as a skill was highly regarded (159):

What gives writing is particular value for people—its usefulness in maintaining material life, withholding experience for private reflection, venting feeling, and resisting conformity and control—are the very qualities that make writing a problematic practice for adults to pass on to children or for children to share easily with adults. 163

Chapter 6, “The Means of Production: Literacy and Stratification at the 21st Century,” makes an interesting argument for the social inequity tied to literacy. Brandt argues, “Just, as it seems, the rich get richer, the literate get more literate” (169), an issue entangled with sponsorship, family and larger economic systems, and resources. Here she also notes that while literacy is an input in our information economy (a form of labor), it is also an output (a product with use and exchange value).

Final Thoughts

In her conclusion, Brandt reminds us that literacy in the U.S. has often held value within social and political contexts but emphasizes the importance of thinking about literacy in terms of economies (and particularly capitalism). In particular, she makes a call here at the end for better and more equal resources within our school systems to help adjust some of these economic inequalities. She writes:

As democratic institutions, schools are supposed to exist to offset imbalances that market philosophy helps to create—including, especially, imbalances in the worth of people’s literacy. The more that the school organizes literacy teaching and learning to serve the needs of the economic system, the more it betrays its democratic possibilities. The more that private interests take over the educational development of our young citizens, the less of a democracy we will have. 205

Brandt highlights the tensions surrounding whether we, as composition instructors, can develop students’ literacies for social change. If educational missions are co-opted by economies of power, then we have little opportunity to develop either our own or our students’ critical literacies.


Brandt, Deborah. Literacy in American Lives. New York: Cambridge UP, 2001. Print.

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