Term Paper: Frederick Douglass Literacy Studies

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Sociology and Academia in Frederick Douglass's "Learning to Read and Write"

An American hero, epitome of the evils of slavery, and true embodiment of the American dream, former slave Frederick Douglass rose from the bowels of society to become one of the United States' most learned scholars. The sheer beauty and elegance of his essay "Learning to Read and Write," is proof that the institution of slavery oppressed some of the most brilliant and creative minds of the plantation era. Despite the fluid language and artful prose, however, the facts of the article are enough to confirm Douglass' station as one of the most capable and ambitious academician of his time. Douglass' description of his own struggle to attain literacy is useful for far more than proving his merit in history. On the contrary, Douglass' essay allows readers to gain insight into different methods of acquiring literacy and ways those without formal education might go about educating themselves in order to attain literacy. From a literacy studies standpoint, the article confirms the importance of both aspects of learning or academia and aspects of society on the pursuit of literacy. In addition, Douglass's use of a variety of literacy teaching theories long accepted by students of literacy theory to teach himself to read and write confirms those theories and their practical use among those with no formal teaching. But Douglass's use of literacy theories, resourcefulness, and academic intelligence were not the only factors responsible for his success in attaining literacy. The former slave's motivation to escape the pressures of society, in addition to his determination that literacy would allow him success, were similarly important to his success. In Douglass' "Learning to Read and Write," therefore, one can interpret his success in attaining literacy as a result of constructivism, sociolinguistics and the psychology of literacy, and motivation or desire to succeed, three factors that remain relevant to minorities in pursuit of literacy today.

Douglass's description of learning to read is riddled with constructivist self-teaching methods. By using his cultural situation, overhearing the conversations of others, and deciphering the meanings of unfamiliar by context clues, or identifying other familiar words that were mentioned with the unfamiliar word, Douglass was eventually able to construct a simple platform of literacy from which he could jump off into deeper and more complex facets of literacy. The best example of Douglass's use of these constructivist self-teaching methods is his pursuit to learn the meaning of the word "abolitionist." Because of the social climate, Douglass is automatically drawn to the word "abolitionist." The word is "interesting" to him because it was used in "connotations" that piqued his curiosity -- a slave running away, killing his master, or doing "anything wrong in the mind of a slaveholder." After beginning to understand that the word must have important connotations for his position in life, he keeps his ears alert for every mentioning of the word. Though a dictionary did not help, and Douglass was not free to inquire into its meaning, a city newspaper eventually set the former slave straight. By reading in the paper that people were "praying for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, and the slave trade between the states," Douglass concludes through prior knowledge that the world "abolition" means to end.

By using prior social and contextual knowledge to discover the meaning of a new word, Douglass proves that constructivism is an adequate theory for literacy self-teachers. In fact, a debate exists today over the merit of this type of teaching in linguistic classrooms. In her article "Social Constructivism and the School Literacy Learning of Students of Diverse Backgrounds," Kathryn Au remarks that a narrowing learning gap was reported between students of European ethnicity and their minority counterparts. Au goes on to remark that one way of closing the gap may be to incorporate social constructivist theories into learning. Because each student comes to the classroom with a certain frame of reference, and frames or reference are obviously impacted by social situations, literacy learning may not be as easy for a minority group of students trying to learn from a majority standpoint. The situation is worsened when minority students do not speak standard American English in the home (298). For this reason, social constructivist solutions, such as teaching standard English using African-American Vernacular English, have been implemented into classrooms as of late, and are, in some cases, being proven successful (Perez 34).

While teaching himself to read, or applying himself to young, white boys for lessons, Douglass was in the same position as many of the minority students in today's schools, with the exception that he did not even have the luxury of a poorly performing classroom. By incorporating his frame of reference as a slave, and using that frame of reference to understand unfamiliar words and concepts, like the meaning of the world "abolition," Douglass was able to attain not only literacy, but a beautiful writing style and the scholarly ability to question and contemplate over written material. Because Douglass's successful use of constructivism, especially social constructivism, one can argue that constructive methods may be useful of teaching the minority children of today.

Closely associated to Douglass' successful use of constructivism, especially social constructivism, is his use of sociolinguistics and the psychology of linguistics to teach himself to read and write. Schribner and Cole define the psychology of literacy as "how different social situations affect, shape, or change human thought;" and the University of Oregon describes Sociolinguistics as "the aspects of linguistics applied toward the connections between language and society, and the way we use it in different social situations." In addition to using his frame of reference to deduce unfamiliar words and concepts, Douglass' uses both the psychology of literacy and sociolinguistics to apply his own social situation to his literacy acquisition.

As a slave, Douglass's social situation is intimately tied with his attempt to become literate. This is articulated in the very first paragraphs of his article, as he writes about his mistress' dictation over whether or not he learns to read or write. Though he describes the woman as, at first, being "kind and tender-hearted," lacking "the depravity indispensable to shutting me up in mental darkness," with a word from her husband she becomes "more violent opposition than her husband himself." This notion that "education and slavery were incompatible with each other" most definitely had an impact on Douglass's literacy pursuit, both physically and psychologically. In the physical sense, from the moment Douglass' mistress abandoned and began to heartily oppose her attempt to teach him to read as "it is almost an unpardonable offense to teach slaves to read in this Christian Country," Douglass recounts being watched and immediately called if his owners thought he might be perusing a book (Douglass). Psychologically, at twelve-years-old, this taste of authoritarian dictation caused Douglass to realize that he was a "slave for life," unlike the young white boys whom he enlisted to help him achieve literacy (Douglass). This psychological impact had a definite impact on Douglass' ability to attain literacy. Though it may have discouraged others in a similar situation, Douglass was "console[d]...with the hope that something would occur by which I might be free." That something was the ability to learn. Douglass's next book, the Columbian Orator took up the same subject as it gave a dialogue of a slave's conversation with a master that convinced the salve to be set free. Because of the psychological affects of the book, his mistress' refusal to teach him, and the realization that he was "a slave for life" (Douglass), the young slave became more determined in his pursuit of literacy; he "gained from the dialogue was the power of truth over the conscience of a slaveholder." The readings also "enabled [him] to utter [his] thoughts," becoming more and more agitated with the condition of slavery based solely on his literary ability and the words he was reading (Douglass).

Douglass's attempts to read and write were also heavily evaluated by members of his own society, not only his mistress, but also his young teachers and others he encounters. Douglass uses his social skills to convince the young boys to teach him to read either by bribery or coercion, though his treatment of the boys seems to suggest that they felt a degree of sorrow for him and believed that literacy was his right. Douglass also describes a meeting with an Irishman who attempted to persuade him to run away. Though Douglass appears to brush of the suggestion to protect himself, the thought of running away enters his mind, not with a sense of urgency, but as connected with learning to read and write. After hearing the proposition, Douglass "resolved to run away," but desired first to "learn how to write, as [he] might write [his] own pass" (Douglass). These social encounters are intimately tied with Douglass's attempt to attain literacy. Szwed argues that "we step back from the question of instruction," when discussing literacy… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Frederick Douglass Literacy Studies.  (2008, May 8).  Retrieved May 23, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/frederick-douglass-literacy-studies/97256

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