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Ali Valerio
Dr. Marinara
ENC 1102
18 April 2014
Language and Culture: The Future of American Literacy
In their essays, David Foster Wallace and Richard E. Miller both question the role that
literacy will play in the future. In his essay, "Authority and American Usage," Wallace
explores the use of standard written English in his long but quirky review of Bryan A.
Garner's A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. Wallace defends the side of the
SNOOTS, the elitist "Grammar Nazis" who actively speak out against mistakes and
misconceptions in language that occur in society. In his essay "The Dark Night of the Soul,"
Miller questions the purpose of learning reading and writing in an ever-changing,
increasingly violent world.
Wallace and Miller may have distinct definitions of literacy. Wallace may associate
literacy more with the literal conventions of language; spelling and grammar, words and
phrases and their correct usage, and so on. Meanwhile Miller's ideas of literacy may focus
more on the application of those conventions, specifically how it makes them better readers
and writers. Though their definitions may be slightly different, I think the basic concepts are
the same. Both have an understanding of literacy at its core.
I believe that Wallace and Miller are not out of line when they make statements about
the questionable future of American literacy. Indeed, its future may not be something we can
entirely understand in the present. But to get a good idea of what literacy may be like in the
future, it helps to see what literacy means right now to society. Further, we can see how it has
already changed from what it once was.

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Language is an important aspect of literacy, and literacy is an important part of
culture. Students seldom realize how the words we use are deeply rooted in the way we live.
In other words, we don't realize that our language is at the root of our culture. We often don't
understand this until we hear a word or phrase used in everyday life that goes slightly against
the grain, and is used in a way that's different than what we are used to. I had an experience
like this several weeks ago. I saw something online that was written by a friend of mine, a
typical college freshman. My friend expressed her mild amusement at already almost
finishing her first year of college. Nothing about her intended message was unclear. However,
the words she used to express her message ended up fascinating me. In fact, there was one
word in particular she used that actually made me stop and think. Instead of using the word
"college," my friend wrote "university." According to her words, she was excited about being
"almost done with her first year of university." At first, I didn't know why I thought this was
strange. Then I realized that I never usually heard Americans talk this way. And in fact, my
friend is from Canada.
The simple idea that Americans call it "college" instead of "university" was very
interesting to me. Students from America, as well as from all around the world, attend
universities. These universities are made up of different colleges. Some institutions contain
the word "university" in the name (such as the University of Central Florida), and some use
the world "college" (such as Eastern Florida State College). But Americans do not refer to
this higher education as "university." There is no real difference between saying "college" and
"university" in this context. But depending on where you are, you may here the terms be used
quite differently. As you can see, my friend left quite a stronger impression on me than I'm
sure she intended.
This idea is an illustration of how our language connects with our culture. There are

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some things about language that are not explicitly taught. Ironically enough, I learned a great
deal about this in my high school Spanish class several years ago. Learning about Spanish
language and culture helped give me a deeper understanding of my own language and
culture. My teacher discussed how English has certain rules that are not formerly taught to
English-speakers. Some rules people learn to understand from when they are young, purely
from listening and speaking themselves. One example my Spanish teacher used was when a
child goes to his mother and says that his sister "hitted" him. The child is young and doesn't
understand that "hitted" is not the correct past tense form of the word "hit," but understands
the basic concept that when an English word is changed from present to past tense, the letters
"ed" are usually added on at the end of the word. The child will most likely be corrected for
his mistake, or someday he will realize it on his own. But even when we don't truly
understand our language, we understand basic rules that can be applied to expand our
vocabulary.
Just as culture changes, literacy changes as well to reflect that culture. The language
habits of my generation are changing quite dramatically. Each year more and more words are
added to dictionaries that were once used as slang. This may be attributed to the fact that
internet and social media allow for quick and widespread use of these words. As technology
rapidly improves, our culture adapts to fit the new technology, and the language adapts along
with it. One acronym that spread through my generation was the word "Y.O.L.O.," which
sparked a surprising amount of controversy. "Y.O.L.O." stands for "You Only Live Once,"
which is similar to the latin phrase "carpe diem," or "sieze the day."
While this may be what the new term was intended to reflect, it is now something that
my generation often says in order to encourage some brave or bold act or behavior. It reflects
the rebelliousness and edginess of my generation, because the young adults want to go out

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and engage in behavior that can sometimes be foolish or even dangerous. This is why some
peope don't approve of the word, because it appears to encourage such behavior. Indeed,
sometimes young people of my generation use the word to make excuses for behaviors that
would normally be deemed unnecessary or unwise. The word "Y.O.L.O." is an important part
of my generation, regardless of whether it should be or not. It's not used so often anymore,
but it still serves as a reminder than even simple words can have lasting repercussions.
Since we've seen how literacy is a part of our society, we can now observe how
American literacy has already been undergoing changes. It's no surprise that these days
people are reading books less and less, instead watching T.V. and using the computer more
and more. This is particularly true among teens and young adults, which is also no surprise.
However, this doesn't necessarily mean that people are reading less. Literacy is not
necessarily disappearing from our culture, but perhaps it is merely changing form. People
may be reading books less, but that doesn't mean they're not reading. In fact, with the amount
of time that people spend on the computer everyday, which contains lots of things for them to
read, it wouldn't be remarkably suprising if people are reading even more today than they
were before.
We are definitely not reading the same way, that much is true. Instead of going for
hard-copy books, we elect to use E-readers and other electronic devices. And true, some
people don't read books at all, no matter how they are published. And instead of reading long,
flowing narratives, we find snippets of stories here and there, scattered across the web. But
electronic readers shouldn't be counted out just yet. With technology evolving to fit in with
our fast-paced society, electronic readers allow for people to read practically anywhere at
anytime, and they don't need to bring a heavy, hardbound book with them. There is definitely
power in the new tools that technology allows us to have.

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The twenty-first century has been a time of great transition into a digital age, and a
worldwide revolution is slowly but steadily taking place. While I believe that Wallace and
Miller are responding somewhat appropriately to a drastically changing culture, I don't think
they need to be worried about the fate of reading and writing. Like I said before, the internet
is full of stories and narratives that show literacy in a different way, but it's still a form of
literacy. And as the people read those stories, there are more people turning to the internet yet
again, the online canvas, to write more stories. Literacy is most certainly not dying. It is
simply changing.
One result in this change in literacy is a change in authority. This is explored by Paulo
Freire in his essay, "The Banking Concept of Education." Freire discusses two systems of
education, and there is clearly one he favors and one he does not. In the banking concept of
education, the system Freire does not favor, students lose all authority over what they are
learning in the classroom. Information is deposited into their heads like a banking system,
and the students have no authority to be teachers, just like the teachers have no authority to be
students. Literacy falls under education, as something to be taught, so literacy is affected by
these systems. The problem-posing method of education is the system of choice for Freire, in
which students can be teachers and teachers can be students as well. Everyone learns from
each other.
This shifting in authority as described by Freire can be applied to the new age of
literacy. It seems that a great deal of the literacy in which people take part nowadays happens
outside the classroom. Therefore, the learning is out of the teachers' sphere of influence and
control. The teachers are no longer commanding the literacy, holding authority over the
reading and writing that happens in the world. They still play an important role in helping us
to understand literacy and its applications, but literacy exceeds far beyong a school or

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educational system. Perhaps this is the chance for the problem-posing method of education to
truly take place after all. With new technology that is more familiar to the younger
generations than the older ones, perhaps students now have a chance to teach their professors
about this new world of evolving literacy, and teachers can learn a thing or two from them. If
we stop criticizing society for allowing literacy to diminish, and instead embrace the
opportunities that come with the literacy that has merely changed to a different form, than we
will begin to see the true value of reading and writing in a country that's moving forward to
bigger and better things.

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Works Cited

Freire, Paulo. "The Banking Concept of Education."Ways of Reading: An Anthology for


Writers. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky, eds. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins:
2011. 318-328. Print.
Miller, Richard E. The Dark Night of the Soul. Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers.
David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky, eds. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins: 2011.
420-444. Print.
Wallace, David Foster. Authority and American Usage. Ways of Reading: An Anthology for
Writers. David `Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky, eds. Boston: Bedford/St.
Martins: 2011. 622-649. Print.