Review of Margaret Meek, On Being Literate
Anne Hunt and Russell A. Hunt

[as published in English Quarterly 24:3-4 (1992), 42-43]

NOT LONG AGO, Margaret Meek paid a visit to the University of New Brunswick / St.Thomas University campus in Fredericton. She talked with teachers and kids, gave a memorable lecture on forms of literacy, and left us all an echo of her voice -- tough, gentle, inspiring, demanding. In her talk, among other things, she described the poetry "advertisements" which riders on the London Underground regularly find above the windows in the tube cars, along with the Guinness ads and the route maps.

Within a few days of her departure, some students in the St. Thomas education faculty who had heard her began talking about buying space on Fredericton buses and putting poetry there. Student poetry, in this case, rather than the Thom Gunn and Dylan Thomas and Thomas Hardy in the tube. They secured some minor funding from the university, approached the transit company, arranged the writing project with their supervising teachers, found a way to laminate the student poetry onto cards to fit the advertising racks, and within a few weeks Fredericton Transit patrons were reading the poetry of the junior high school students as part of what was called the "Ride the Bus -- Read with Us" program.

That's hardly an epoch making event, but for us it's typical of the sort of impact Margaret Meek has had in the lives of teachers and learners around the world. When you've heard her, you tend to think about changing things. Her new book, On Being Literate, is one way in which that sort of influence can be spread beyond the relatively small number of people she can actually have immediate, personal contact with.

One of the differences that reading a book like this can make for a teacher -- or for anyone who cares about literacy and how it grows -- is that it can help you become more conscious than most of us are of the fact that literacy is not something peculiar to schooling, something restricted to the kinds of traditional "academic" uses and contexts which most of us who teach tend to think it's appropriate to. Even more, it can help you remember at important moments that literacy isn't something we get we don't "become literate," say at some point in early adolescence, and then remain literate, as though we'd acquired a new limb or a bus pass, the rest of our lives. It's something that we're all learning, all the time.

What is most striking in Meek's work is the continual hooking together of two disparate kinds of experience. On the one hand, there's our school-based literacy and all the connected assumptions about how we learn it and what it's for, and on the other, the exigencies of a larger world which is often bracketed out of school altogether. "The consequences of literacy were never very clear to me before my last school years, except that most of my contemporaries became typists," she says (pp. 129-130).

Some of this book has to do with what might be assumed to be purely British concerns. The apparition of the National Curriculum lurched over the horizon into England's green and pleasant land in 1988, and virtually all educational thought and action there since has been a response to the unprecedented move to convert British education from, as Meek says, "a localized to a nationalized system" (p. 134). But this does not mean that Meek's concerns are parochial or of little interest to North Americans. The onslaught in this hemisphere of the systematizers, the measurers, the demanders of "accountability" and national standards, is as strong as, and only a few years behind, the movement in the Britain of Thatcher and Major. We can expect that soon in North America we'll see an equivalent of the process by which what Meek calls "schooled literacy"  -- defined as the abilities to know how to take and pass tests, to perform specific designated benchmark tasks, "to fulfill the requirements of the attainment targets set out for Standard English" (p. 135) -- has been privileged in Britain.

It is important, incidentally, to recognize that Meek is not simply opposed to the sort of change implicit in the National Curriculum. In fact, many of the changes which she sees as accompanying these movements are, she suggests, perhaps to be welcomed. For instance, the drafters of the national curriculum propose that we pay more attention to workplace consequences of literacy. Meek argues that it is not a total loss that we may lose some of the traditional school literacy focus on "bookishness" and "literacy texts" -- reading as recreation and social climbing, one might say -- and turn toward the literacies of oil platforms, Channel ferries, and airplanes.

What, then, is the problem? In Meek's view, the immediate danger -- one which is as immediate in Canada as in Britain -- is that, for all its apparent reasonableness, "the National Curriculum . . . [has to] be read in the context of what kinds of literacy-as-results are expected from it. As always, these will depend on measurements used and what counts as evidence" (pp. 141-42). Meek is passionate on the subject of measurement.

Literacy development, she reminds us insistently, is recursive and spasmodic and disorderly. Literacy is a ripening, she says; it is never final fruit whose size or weight can be calculated. In one sort of context a student might deal very well with a text, and in another she might be baffled by it; we can all read and write better in some areas or domains than others. "The great divide in literacy," she says, "is not between those who can read and write and those who can not . . . it is between those who have discovered what kind of literacy society values and learned how to dramatize their competences in ways that earn recognition" and those who haven't (p. 9). It's not, she insists, a simple matter.

Nonetheless, the demands do not subside for clear national standards, for simple benchmarks of progress, for straightforward markers of achievement or attainment levels, for numbers: numbers that kids can be assigned so that the next stranger down the line knows how literate they can be expected to be. We may agree with her that these demands are based on a set of ludicrous assumptions: that literacy develops in a step-by-step, accumulative, linear process, and that we know what the steps are, and what the relations between the steps are, and what it is that accumulates, and how accumulation occurs -- and on the assumption that it happens, or should happen, the same way for all kids. But agreeing on this doesn't lessen the vociferousness of the demands, or make it any less likely that national standards and national curricula will be visited on teachers and learners in Canada

Meek's visit to Fredericton came as the first year of public kindergarten in New Brunswick was nearing completion. The curriculum adopted by the province addresses many of the issues she is concerned with; it is an activity based program which recognizes the importance of play to the development of literacy, and uncompromisingly addresses the issue of entitlement. Its whole point is to democratize access to kindergarten, so that it's no longer a privilege of the middle classes. For kindergarten teachers struggling against a strong current of traditional "school literacy," Meek's visit (and this book) offered support. She explained to us, quoting Paulo Freire -- she discusses it in the book as well (p. 69) -- how literacy begins as "reading the world" She reminded us that "children construct the world by sorting it out in mental imagery and language, and representing it to themselves by naming and remembering." She talked about the power of the smell, feel, rhythm and tone of a story to a young child. She reminded us that in symbolic play young children are engaged in naming the world beyond what is local and present, in dealing with the idea "what if," and in developing narrative as a way of representing and structuring the world. Storytelling, she reminded us, is a game with rules.

Unfortunately, most kindergarten teachers found that it wasn't possible for them to attend her talk. There was no released time granted to them. No professional concession was held out. It's easier, and cheaper, to demand standards and uniformity than to support teachers' learning.

At least those teachers will be able to read her book. We hope they do.