Traditional Academic Feuds in Literacy Studies Part 5: Integration and Proliferation

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

In my last four 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 Feature 5 that I outlined in my first post.

In the table in my second 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.

5. “Integration and subsumption of past ideas [occurs] within each language. However, the capacity for such development across languages is limited.”

This feature is critical to understanding the overall goal of horizontal knowledge structures, but it also serves as a primary mechanism in creating the theoretical divide of the Reading Wars. As I explained in my first post, the counterpart to horizontal knowledge structures are vertical, or hierarchical, knowledge structures. A vertical knowledge structure subsumes knowledge from the past, developing new knowledge–even new theories–based on the existing knowledge. The ultimate goal of this integration is the ability to produce abstract knowledge that can explain and predict a wide variety of phenomena within the scope of inquiry in the discipline. Bernstein’s (1999) explanation reveals this goal of producing abstract “propositions:”

“This form of knowledge attempts to create very general propositions and theories, which integrate knowledge at lower levels, and in this way shows underlying uniformities across an expanding of apparently different phenomena. Hierarchical knowledge structures appear, by their users, to be motivated towards greater and greater integrating propositions, operating at more and more abstract levels. Thus, it could be said that hierarchical knowledge structures are produced by an ‘integrating’ code” (as cited in Wignell, 2007)

This goal of Integration of knowledge is what we mean by scientific progress. Muller (2007) defines this progress from a positivist perspective: “The piled-up structure of laws related to one another by strict definition, in strict order of explanatory integratedness, that is, in strict order of their approximation to the truth” (“Kinds of Verticality”). Thus, integration is not a goal unto itself in vertical knowledge structures; it is a means by which we approximate the truth about the nature of a phenomenon–in the case of the Reading Wars, knowledge about the nature of reading.

Muller (2007) contends that constructivism, to which Edelsky and Whole Language proponents subscribe, is a critique of the progress concept in science. Constructivism’s critique of progress, according to Muller (actually Muller, 2007 citing Berlin, 2000 citing Vico, 1708–let’s see what APA style has to say about THAT monstrosity of a citation), included the claim that the divide between truth and knowledge was false; in Muller’s words, “we only know what we create” (“Progress: the very idea, and its sceptics”). It is unclear from the M-E discourse to what form of social constructivism Edelsky espouses; certainly there are strong and weak forms–Muller’s assertion seems to be a strong form. Regardless, the principle of integration in vertical knowledge structures–and its corresponding progress and positivist corollaries–stands opposed to the alternative knowledge development method utilized by horizontal knowledge structures, which is proliferation. Proliferation means that, rather than more levels of abstraction being added to a particular language, more distinct languages instead are produced. Language proliferation can occur during a language-internal theoretical conflict, which can sometimes force a schism and thus a new language (Muller, 2007). But the Reading Wars do not represent a schism of language-internal conflict; both languages have, by the time of the M-E discourse (1990), developed a grammar (which will be explained in the next post) and, as was demonstrated in my first post, are separate languages. How can Bernstein’s feature dichotomy of integration/proliferation account for the Reading Wars?

Wignell (2007) argues that:

“The stronger the boundaries around a discipline and the stronger the concord within that discipline, then the easier it will be for that discipline to prevent outside voices from intruding and for it to expel or re-educate internal dissenting voices…. Conversely, the weaker the boundaries around a discipline (the more it overlaps with other disciplines), the more it listens to other voices, and the more dissenting voices there are within that discipline, then the more likely it is that it will evolve as… a horizontal knowledge structure” (“Summary and conclusions”).

O’Halloran (2007), in summarizing Wignell’s (2007) conclusion, describes the effort to suppress dissenting voices as being “quietened” (“Bernstein’s grammaticality and knowledge structures”). Similarly, Edelsky suggests that McKenna et al. is “silencing,” (p. 8) Whole Language. McKenna et al. (1990b) protests this claim (p. 13), arguing that they seek to collaborate with Whole Language. Citing Stanovich, they suggest a “peaceful coexistence” (p. 12) and even go as far to suggest that Whole Language and Traditional Literacy are not paradigmatically “incommensurable” (p. 13). This notion of epistemological compatibility was seriously challenged in my third post. McKenna et al.’s (1990b) then make a case for Integration, deputizing a Whole Language proponent, Harste, into their argument:

“Harste expressed the optimistic view that researchers from a variety of perspectives are moving toward a single model of literacy. He cautioned that we are not yet there and that it would be premature to describe such a model. He harbored healthy, scientific doubts, as do we” (p. 13).

In their entreaty to Integration and collaboration, McKenna et al. (1990b) treat Literacy Studies like a vertical knowledge structure. This element of the M-E discourse may be seen as evidence against my thesis that Literacy Studies is, indeed, a horizontal knowledge structure. Furthermore, McKenna et al. (1990a) advocate specific tests for measuring comprehension, which illustrates a methodological Integration and an subsumption of the knowledge gained from those tests (p. 5). However, McKenna et al. concede: “Perhaps the main lesson from the present interchange is that it occurred. This, surely, is a step in the right direction” (p. 13). Their first sentence recognizes the difference of opinions as represented by the discourse; their second sentence aims to frame such a discourse as “a step in the right direction.” The word “direction” certainly presupposes a goal–and that goal, as suggested earlier, may be Integration. Thus, even as they recognize the feud, they seem to express an implicit belief in progress, as consistent with their positivist epistemology.

Edelsky is describing the discipline as a horizontal knowledge structure. McKenna et al. is recognizing the feud and suggesting the languages can coexist–which implies they see the field as a horizontal knowledge structure. But they also indicate that Integration is a goal of research in the field, which implies they see the field as a vertical knowledge structure. This dissonance must be resolved for the horizontal knowledge structure thesis to hold.

This dissonance is based on the fact that McKenna et al. and Edelsky hold opposing assumptions about epistemology. The debate between the positivists and the constructivists is a historical scientific feud that, in Muller’s (2007) analysis, is reframed thusly by Bernstein:

“The logical positivists (or realists) were right, but only in respect of hierarchical knowledge structures; the non-realists (Kuhn and after) were likewise right, but only in respect of horizontal knowledge structures” (“Knowledge and the dilemma of progress”)

Thus, McKenna et al. and Edelsky can both be said to have an accurate analysis insofar as the object of their description is a vertical knowledge structure or horizontal knowledge structure respectively. I propose that Edelsky is describing Literacy Studies as a whole–which is a horizontal knowledge structure. Each characteristic feature of horizontal knowledge structures, including this one, is represented in the M-E discourse, which is a discourse within Literacy Studies–not just within a single language. Conversely, McKenna et al. is describing Skills-Based Literacy when discussing features of vertical knowledge structures. As Maton & Muller (2007) assert, individual languages within a horizontal knowledge structure may be internally structured vertically. Knowledge within Skills-Based Literacy may be integrated with past iterations of Skills-Based Literacy. But verticality–that is, Integration–does not occur across languages–that is, Integrating knowledge from Skills-Based Literacy and Whole Language is difficult because of the opposing epistemologies. McKenna et al. acknowledge this much by expressing “healthy scientific doubts” (p. 13) about Integration. Yet they do seem to describe a hope for Integration and suggest methodological Integration with the comprehension tests, implying some degree of Integration across languages in Literacy Studies as a discipline. Within my analysis of Literacy Studies as a horizontal knowledge structure, the goal of the discipline cannot be Integration across languages because scientific progress is not the “direction” Literacy Studies as a horizontal knowledge structure is going. Literacy Studies is aiming to Proliferate more languages.

McKenna et al.’s imposing of the progress goal on the horizontal knowledge structure has two possible explanations: either Bernstein’s model is too restrictive–that is, Literacy Studies is some kind of hybrid between a horizontal and vertical knowledge structures; or McKenna et al. are engaging in O’Hollaran’s “quieten[ing]”. Edelsky’s analysis supports the latter conclusion, arguing that Skills-Based Literacy has achieved dominance in the field, which gave them a position to attempt “silencing” Whole Language (p. 8). This silencing may be represented in the imposing of a progress/integration goal on Whole Language, but also in rejecting and replacing Whole Language’s criteria for a problem. Recall that Whole Language, by the Criteria feature, reject comparative effectiveness as a problematic. Yet McKenna et al. (1990b) insist on it: “If comparative effectiveness is not the ideal question, we would suggest that for the vast majority of present-day practitioners it is the question” (p. 13). In this rejoinder to Edelsky’s critique of appropriate questions, McKenna et al. make a bandwagon appeal, suggesting that most teachers favor the comparative effectiveness question over the questions of power that are favored by Whole Language, implying that the Whole Language criteria for question does not align with the majority of the clientele the field serves. It is an interesting move because it invokes, on some level, a conceptualization of knowledge–in this case, knowledge of criteria for problems in the field–by social construction. That is, the comparative effectiveness question is more important because most people think so. In short, there is some evidence to suggest McKenna et al. are attempting to quiet Edelsky and Whole Language by substituting Whole Language questions for their own, imposing methodological integration, and attempting to establish a goal of progress and integration–all characteristics of Skills-Based Literacy and vertical knowledge structures in general. By attempting to quiet the dissenting voice of Whole Language, Skills-Based Literacy can, by virtue of dominance, describe the discipline as a vertical knowledge structure so long as the dissenting voices are quiet. But the reality of the Reading Wars as a theoretical conflict between demonstrably different languages with different assumptions and criteria for questions, texts, and evidence cast doubt on such a description and point towards Literacy Studies being a horizontal knowledge structure.

In my next post, I will  consider the hybrid explanation and examine the weak grammar feature of the Literacy Studies discipline.


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