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November 11, 2008

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The Impact of the Social Environment on Literacy

An individual’s various uses for reading and writing are impacted by his/her social environment and his/her interaction with it. These various uses of literacy may be casual and include reading for entertainment or escape, reading for information, and reading for self-improvement. Other uses may be momentous and include reading for critical thinking and reading for cultural maintenance. It is an individual’s social environment that shapes his/her purposes for literacy.
In “Autobiographies and the History of Reading: The Meaning of Literacy in Individual Lives,” Katherine Tinsley and Carl F. Kaestle write about their research on female autobiographers and what their research uncovered about the women’s uses of literacy. Tinsley and Kaestle note that some of the women read for entertainment and as a means to escape their environment.
Tinsley and Kaestle explore the casual purpose of reading for entertainment and escape in the autobiography of Anne Ellis, a widow and working mother from the Progressive era of 1910. Anne wrote in her autobiography that she read “to escape exhaustion and loneliness” and that at night, she was “so tired that I never read for instruction – only for amusement and to relax” (677). Reading in such a manner, for entertainment and escape, was shaped by Anne’s social environment which left her little time for other reading purposes.
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Sometimes an individual’s social environment shapes an individual’s literacy with dramatic consequences. Contrary to reading for casual purposes are momentous reading purposes. While casual reading purposes typically do not have dramatic consequences, momentous reading is distinguished by the importance of its consequences. Which category self-improvement falls under – casual or momentous – depends on its use or whether “conversions occur; relationships are altered” (Tinsley and Kaestle, 683).
Momentous purposes include reading for cultural maintenance and reading
for critical perspective. Both types of reading are potentially transforming. Tinsley and Kaestle write about several women whose autobiographies show that the women gained a critical perspective in contrast to the values taught in their family

environment. Reading for critical thinking allowed these women to “gain critical perspective, often in contrast to received family tradition, but always involving a set of principles about justice and social relations that allow one to step back and evaluate custom and the status quo” (683-684).
Emma Goldman, a Russian immigrant, gained a perspective on socialism contrary to that within her family environment when she started to work in a factory. It was at the factory that she was introduced to the socialist newspaper Der Freiheit. Emma wrote in her autobiography that she “devoured every line on anarchism I could get, every word about the men, their lives, their work” (688). Her family’s view was that she should have married at the age of 15, that she didn’t need to learn a foreign language, and that she only needed to learn how to cook well and bear many children for her husband. The family could not prevent Emma from reading about socialism in her work environment. The family could not prevent Emma from being dramatically influenced by what she read.
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While reading for critical thinking skills can go against family/group traditions and values, the opposite can be said of reading for cultural maintenance. Critical reading and analysis are absent in the reading materials of the Old Order Amish. Instead, the Amish choose reading materials that help the group conform to generations of Amish standards. This is how the Amish maintain their way of life and their culture.
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Individuals read and write for a variety of purposes, some casual and others
momentous – entertainment, information, self-improvement, critical thinking and
cultural maintenance. Literacy is impacted by an individual’s social environment, whether the environment is a factory where a worker is organizing a union or an Amish family preserving its cultural identity. The social environment shapes the individual’s purposes for reading and writing.

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