Considering the Politics of Mass Literacy: Parallels in print and technological literacy.

Assignment 3 (Research Topic)

As an educator a great emphasis in my own recent professional growth and learning has been in the area of technology literacy and preparing the 21st century learner for a 21st century world. There is, of course, a challenge and considerable debate in defining exactly what those glittering terms mean and the knowledge and skills required of the ‘21st century learner.’ Further, at times, getting to the deeper understanding, clarification, and meaning of such terms and concepts are left unquestioned because it is implied, from those who promote and demand such an educational focus, that these essential learnings are the only route to student success in a modern age. For educators who are mindful of the broader implications of the role of technology and technological literacy in their practice with students it is important to question and critically assess whose interests are best served in the development of curriculum to meet 21st century technological literacy standards. That varying interests are being served in this process speaks to the underlying politics that are attached to all technological advancement.  Therefore, considering the politics embedded in the evolution of print technologies and mass literacy, from a historical perspective, can help with critical reflection on the current shift in technological literacy. As well, by examining more closely the promotion and development of mass literacy, parallels can be drawn to how technological literacy is being promoted in current educational environments.

One aspect of mass literacy, through print based and digitally based technologies, that helps to inform educators and others is to consider the position of literacy between perspectives of equality and dominance. Put another way, we must be cognizant of whose interests are best being served by the form, content, and control of the literacies being introduced and promoted. Throughout the literature exploring the political ramifications of mass literacy researchers uncover and draw attention to the power relations that are often attached to the diffusion of literacy within a society (Ong, 1982; Ohmann, 1985; Rockhill, 1987; Collins; 1995; Petrina 2000; & Wingrove, 2005). Ong (1982), for instance, explores the onset of literacy in scribal cultures where written literacy was often restricted to specific sub-groups in a culture.  Evidence emerges positing that, as the printing press appeared and scribal technologies gave way to print technologies, a cultural/social bias emerged from those who had the needs and means to develop the technology and distribute print based texts.

Threading through the research then, are a few dominant cultural perspectives that pervaded early (and late?) mass literacy movements through print based text. Firstly, in their work Rockhill (1987); Wingrove (2005) and Collins (1995) all explore concepts of gender dominance in print based texts. Rockhill (1987) draws the general conclusion that mass literacy, in male dominated public literate worlds, has been central to the gendering of a society and resulted in the oppression and social exclusion of women. In her rhetorical analysis of the writing of Mary Wollstonecroft, Wingrove (2005) explores the complex gender politics of 18th century print culture.  For her part Wingrove acknowledges gender biased identities cultivated in literature, yet suggests that understanding the impact of that literature on the public sphere of women is difficult to determine. Collins (1995), like Rockhill, is more categorical in his position on the social power relations embedded in mass literacy and posits that historically literate discourse has supported traditional idea of males in public power based roles and female in private domestically based roles. Regardless, that power relationships and cultures of dominance have been cultivated through the onset of mass literacy is clearly evident in the literature on the subject.

In addition to gender politics, it is the role that the state or other controlling interests, such as an economic elite, have in the promotion or restriction of mass literacy where the politics of literacy is most evident. Who should and should not be literate?, Who should have access or be denied access to printed text? Who needs to or needs not to be able to read? These are questions that are often directly determined by the state or indirectly answered by controlling power structures in a society. Historically, literacy is situated in dichotomous positions determined by the controlling power structures of the state or culture. For instance access to texts, as the necessary basis for literacy, is often divided like other socio-economic structures into have and have not hierarchies. Ong (1982) discusses pre-print, clergy dominated, societies where the manuscripts and were the sole domain of the religious authority. Similarly, with the advent of print technologies and various forms of state authority through the 18th and 19th centuries cultures of dominance were supported by ruling elites who felt that mass literacy was not desirable.  Indeed, keeping second or underclass citizens (subjects) ignorant was a goal of the powerful ruling classes. Concentrating the literate class and cultivating a state which denied access to literacy among large populations of underclass citizens was a common theme for many states which feared putting knowledge in the hands of those beneath them. That literacy could serve as a mechanism for social disorder and dissent was motivation for autocratic states to concentrate and control access to printed text (Collins, 1995; Ohmann, 1985; & Ruud 1981).

Contrastingly, in her comprehensive work, on the impact of the printing press, Einstein (1968) acknowledges that while power and access did often concentrate in the hands of the ruling religious, monarchical, and despotic elites for a time, eventually with the diffusion of print based texts this power structure was transformed and broken down. Further, she asserts that as mass literacy emerged and entrepreneurs took the lead on printing texts traditional power relations were broken down as the rise of scientific thought and philosophy was diffused to the growing literate classes. Likewise, Ruud (1981) chronicles the role of the printing press in supporting revolutionary change in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century.

The evolution and eventual diffusion, in many societies, of print from written manuscripts to mechanical print, via moveable type, had a profound effect on what is termed ‘literacy.’ Indeed, many would suggest that the innovations in mass print technologies and the growing collection, access, and distribution of mass print based resources has resulted in improved literacy. At the same time, critical reflection on what exactly constitutes literacy sheds light on the pervasive politics and power relations that surround the uses of literacy in maintaining and legitimizing power. Further, state interventions to solve and respond to literacy issues reflect the underpinning politics and social power relations that are at interplay at any given point in time. In his 1985 work exploring Literacy, Technology and Monopoly Capital, Richard Ohmann, articulates how the rates of literacy vs illiteracy are used and manipulated in a political policy context to support social order among the poor and perpetuate the prosperity and stability of the economic elite. Roberts (1995) carries this further and highlights how defining literacy has come to be profoundly a political question where the meaning and measurements of literacy are constantly shifting to meet political agendas. These agendas include efforts by the state to be seen to be improving literacy rates where they are perceived to be lacking, supporting and being in control of policy decisions, developing educational strategies supportive of state goals, and seeking conformity to a desired social order.

Apart from and connected to the idea of literacy vs illiteracy is the consideration of types of literacy. Since the onset of mass distribution of print technologies defining who is literate has centered on being print literate in the vernacular of the majority culture. Thus, policy decisions, have often neglected to address the issues of multiple literacies where, for example, being literate in spoken word and public spheres is as necessary for economic security as being literate in written language.  Collins (1995) frames this as the cognitive cultural Great Divide and points to how such gaps enter the political sphere as governmental and non-governmental organizations attempt to bridge these such divides through public policy.

Another consideration that deserves attention when exploring the politics associated with mass literacy comes back to the idea of whose interests are best being served in the production, distribution and internalization the printed texts that support ‘mass literacy.’ As mentioned previously, those who had the means and needs to further the development of print technologies did so for their own purposes and manufactured products that reflected their particular world-view (Collins, 1995; Einstein, 1969, Ohmann, 1985; Rockhill, 1987).  Einstein (1968) draws attention to the loss of specific vernaculars as printers standardized text that supported the vernacular of the elite. More recently, in her work, Rockhill (1987) argues how the state attempts to detach literacy from embedded ethnocentric power relations when policy is made to deal with issues of illiteracy. By highlighting the fact that the majority of those classified as illiterate are linguistic minorities and women she makes the fundamental argument that illiteracy continues to be supported by neglect of the dominant culture who controls the means of production. Considering these brief examples of whose interests are being brought forward through mass literacy and the preceding discussion of dominant cultural perspectives, and power relations embedded in print based technologies we now return to how this can be used to inform educational philosophy in the area of technological literacy.

Great divide theories have been touched on above as many researchers frame issues of literacy in this context.  Divide theories are also explored in the area of technological literacy where it is suggested that technologies developed from a dominant cultural perspective perpetuate an environment where some experience political and economic power while others are left out (Chandler, 1994; Postman, 1992; & Petrina 2000). Chandler (1994) and Postman (1992) make convincing arguments that refute neutrality and confront embedded power relations inherent in technology design and production. Thus, support the ideas that being technologically literate in such an environment cultivates the values of some perspectives over others. Cautioning educators to be critical in their use interactions with technology and the potential interests that are being served by that use, Petrina (2002), challenges educators to ask themselves crucial questions as they infuse technology and attempt to meet the needs of 21st century learners:

Are you prepared to teach both the ‘applications’ and ‘implications’ of this technology? Can you demystify it and resensitise your students to its political implications? Are you familiar with the politics of this technology? How will you prepare resources that deal with the politics of these specific small ‘t’ technologies as well as big ‘T’ Technology? (Petrina, 2002: 36)

At the very least being mindful of the underlying political interests that have threaded their way through the evolution of print culture and the push toward mass literacy help to inform educators as they seek to assist all their students in acquiring an equitable 21st century digital literacy that will not leave some marginalized while others flourish.


Chandler, D. (2000). Technological or media determinism. Retrieved from

Collins, J. (1995). Literacy and literacies. Annual Review of Anthropology. AnnualReviews. (24). 75-93. Retrieved October 12, 2010 from JSTOR database:

Einstein, E. (1968). Some conjectures about the impact of printing on westernsociety and thought: a preliminary report. The Journal of Modern History, (40)1. 1-56. Retrieved October 12, 2010 JSTOR database.

Ohmann, R. Literacy, technology, and monopoly capital. College English. (47) 7. 675-689. National Council of Teachers English. Retrieved October 12, 2010 JSTOR database:

Ong, Walter. (1982.) Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.

Petrina, Stephen. (2002) 2020 vision – on the politics of technology. Design &     Technology – for the next generation. ETEC 511 Course materials. From

Petrina, Stephen. (2000) The politics of technological literacy. International Journal of Technology and Design Education. Kluwer Academic Publishers (10)2. Retrieved October 10, 2010 from

Postman, N. (n.d.). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York, NY: Vintage Books

Roberts, P. (1995). Defining literacy: paradise, nightmare or red herring? British Journal of Educational Studies. Blackwell Publishing. (43)4. 412-432. Retrieved October 28, 2010 from JSTOR database:

Rockhill, K. (1987). Gender, language and the politics of literacy. British Journal of Sociological Education. (8)2. Taylor & Francis, Ltd. Retrieved October 4, 2010from

Ruud, C. (1981). The printing press as agent of political change in early twentieth-century Russia. Russian Review. Blackwell Publishing. (40)4. 378-395. Retrieved October 26, 2010 from JSTOR database:

Wingrove, E. Getting intimate with wollstonecroft: in the republic of letters. Political Theory. Sage Publications, Ltd. (33) 3. 344-369. Retrieved October 12, 2010 from JSTOR database:

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1 Response to Considering the Politics of Mass Literacy: Parallels in print and technological literacy.

  1. Cindy Leach says:

    You make some very interesting points Al. I was very much reminded of discussion in another MET course around the serious affluent English slant when it comes to the world wide web and the effect that is having on literacy. Your comment “Great divide theories have been touched on above as many researchers frame issues of literacy in this context. Divide theories are also explored in the area of technological literacy where it is suggested that technologies developed from a dominant cultural perspective perpetuate an environment where some experience political and economic power while others are left out” rang very true. Especially when you consider the countries and areas that represent the digital divide and those areas most affected – the poor and the rural.

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