Sharon mentions Kaestle's book, which I think paints a pretty fair portrait
of the complexities of literacy and its study. I find the chapter on
standardization and diversity compelling in particular. Notwithstanding
Steve K's argument that generalizations about mythic pasts are often
inaccurate, as he shows us an example of a literate person whose literacy
doesn't fit the supposed mold (I'd ask: who got to write that myth,
anyway?), Kaestle's meta-analysis offers some generalizations about the
effects of media on a shared literacy.
Here's my paraphrase of that argument: hope it helps.
To whatever extent we share a common culture, it is largely through the
shared exposure to print -- and, more recently -- to electronic media. At
the same time, however, print has functioned as a powerful agent for
maintaining subcultures and asserting alternatives.
The authors discuss these effects through different historical eras. From
the 1920s to the 1950s, for example, the forces for standardization
predominated, portraying a bland, homogenous American culture. The wartime
drive for unity and fear of subversion spawned massive propaganda efforts
and created even harsher pressures for conformity and assimilation. The
number of cities with competing dailies dropped dramatically. Magazines
evolved similarly, driven by the need for advertising revenue, reflecting
pressures for conformity. Books followed this pattern less closely, but
literary guilds and book-of-the-month clubs encouraged standardization, as
did the canonization of literary works taught in schools. More subtly,
censorship or self-censorship prevented publication of radical and
experimental work with little sales potential.
By the 1950s cultural homogenization -- at least insofar as it was reflected
in print -- had been largely achieved through technology, capitalism,
politics, and education. But in the 1960s and 1970s, various factors (these
I'm sure you can imagine) produced a new blend of diversity within a widely
shared media culture.
Anyway, the large picture of standardization and diversity as painted by
Kaestle et. al., tends to debunk one-directional notions of the history of
print culture in America. Those notions, I might add, seem to be at work in
the writing of much of what gets said in generalizing about electronic
J Paul Johnson
~~ Dep't. of English Dep't. of English (on leave 'til F96)
'' U of Minn.--Twin Cities Winona (MN) State University
> Minneapolis, MN 55455 Winona, MN 55987
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