Traditional Academic Feuds in Literacy Studies Part 3: The Reading Wars Cont.

Note: This is the third part of a multi-part series which (eventually) will become a term paper for a class seminar on literacy.

In my last two posts, I discussed the classification of Literacy Studies as a horizontal knowledge structure (proposed by Bernstein) and provided evidence of the same with samples from the McKenna et al. and Edelsky discourse during the Reading Wars. I argue that the Reading Wars are a traditional academic feud in a horizontal knowledge structure, and an analysis of the Reading Wars from a Bernsteinian perspective can reveal how and why the feud occurred. In this post, I will analyze Features 2-3 that I outlined in my first post.

In the table in my last post, I provided representative examples from the M-E discourse that illustrate the features of a horizontal knowledge structure. I have numbered each feature for ease of explanation. For the sake of clarity, I refer to McKenna’s first article as “McKenna et al., 1990a” and their rejoinder “McKenna et al., 1990b.” Citations from quotes in the M-E discourse are not linked. They can be found at McKenna et al., 1990a; Edelsky, and McKenna et al, 1990b.

2. Theories are “characterized by short-term obsolescence, only to reappear again some time in the future in a new guise.”
This feature is, perhaps, the most difficult to demonstrate in the M-E discourse. The difficulty exists despite the fact that Whole Language in education policy is in relative decline (Stahl, 1999). The institution of NCLB was an instantiation of Skills-Based assessment and corresponding “teaching-to-the-test” Skills-Based instruction. Whole Language still exists as a part of NCTE, but in terms of national education policy, its influence appears diminished.

The difficulty in demonstrating this feature of horizontal knowledge structure in the M-E discourse lies not in a claim to obsolescence but in suggesting that either Whole Language or Skills-Based Literacy are “new guises” for older theories. Stahl (1999) traces some of the origins of Whole Language to earlier theories than the canonical Goodman origin–including Language Experience. He cites Y. Goodman (1989) for the conceptual tie to Language Experience. But it would be erroneous to conflate them as the same theory in different “guise.” Edelsky critiques Stahl & Miller (1989) for equating Whole Language and Language Experience. To suggest there are similarities does not seem uncontroversial, but to say that Whole Language is merely Language Experience in a “new guise” is more difficult to determine. The Skills-Based approach may find its intellectual precursors in Tylerism. But it would be difficult to argue that Skills-Based is a “new guise” of Tylerism as well.

The “new guise” feature may be understood if we consider the Integration feature of horizontal knowledge structures (Feature 5). Bernstein argued that Integration may happen within a language, but not across languages. Therefore, it is appropriate to interpret both Whole Language and Skills-Based theories as “new guises” in the sense that they integrate models from their intellectual predecessors. Certainly it is unnecessary to require all theories to be old; some may be novel. But there does seem to be evidence that both of these theories are part of existing theoretical traditions, and that they develop their knowledge vertically within those traditions.

3. Specialized languages used for theoretical discourse are “based on different, often opposing assumptions, making it less clear that one is indeed speaking or writing” in a given language.

That there are opposing assumptions, both McKenna et al. and Edelsky agree on. McKenna et al. (1990b) states: “A view of how one comes to know is crucial to the credibility accorded evidence, and Edelsky is partially correct in pointing to paradigmatic differences as a source of problems” (p. 12). The opposing assumptions are epistemological, with the Skills-Based Literacy aligning with (post?)positivist epistemology and Whole Language aligning with social constructivist epistemology. This categorization contrasts with both McKenna et al.’s (1990b) and Edelsky’s claims that the other theory is “essentially aparadigmatic” (McKenna et al., 1990b, p. 12). Edelsky is rather explicit on defining their epistemology, locating the Whole Language epistemology within social constructivism: “More recently, whole language has come to see reading as a social practice (Bloome & Solsken, 1988) entailing historically and culturally shared social activity and socially shaped psychological and linguistic processes” (p. 9). This statement is consistent with a social constructivist epistemology, as it defines a phenomenon as a “social practice,” thus implying that knowledge of the phenomenon is socially constructed.

Edelsky’s accusation of aparadigmaticity of McKenna et al. (p. 7) is more difficult to disprove. McKenna et al. never mention positivism or explicitly state their epistemological paradigm other than using the “skills-based” or “traditional” nomenclature. This does not mean they are being aparadigmatic if such silence on epistemology is a convention of positivist discourse. In this case, McKenna et al.’s objectivity, a feature of positivism (Creswell, 2012), seems to be constructed through the absence of language identifying with a particular paradigm. In other words, by NOT mentioning their epistemological paradigm, they may be engaging in positivist discourse strategies devised to avoid bias.

In short, both the Theory Reoccurance and Opposing Assumptions features seem to be present in the M-E discourse, further developing the classification of the horizontal knowledge structure of Literacy Studies. The Opposing Assumptions feature certainly may be seen as contributing to the Reading Wars feud, as both McKenna et al. and Edelsky acknowledge. It remains to be seen whether general knowledge Integration is possible in Literacy Studies if fundamental assumptions of epistemology cannot be reconciled.

In the next post, I will examine other features of the horizontal knowledge structure of Literacy Studies.

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