Traditional Academic Feuds in Literacy Studies Part 8: Knower Code and Conclusions

Note: This is the eighth and final part of an eight-part series which satisfies a term paper requirement for a class seminar on literacy. Note that all citations in quotations can be found in the bibliographies of the linked items.

In this last post, I will demonstrate how Literacy Studies satisfies the final feature of horizontal knowledge structures–that of having a “knower code.” I will also show how this feature contributed to the Reading Wars. In a revision of my thesis, which originally contained a second analysis of the debate I highlighted in post six, I will conclude by reviewing the main features of horizontal knowledge structures and argue that they are the primary mechanisms that facilitated the Reading Wars. I will then offer suggestions based on this analysis on how we might avoid wars and have more productive feuds in Literacy Studies. 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.

9. “Choices between competing claims to insight are based more on a ‘knower code’, that is to say, on who is making knowledge claims rather than on what is being claimed and how.”

Bernstein’s final feature of horizontal knowledge structures has been further developed my Maton (2007), and I will use part of his description of “knower code” to analyze the M-E discourse here (his full model of knowledge-knower structures is beyond the scope of this analysis). To be a legitimate “knower” in a horizontal knowledge structure is to have the “sensibilities, character, and personal attributes of an ideal knower” within the knowledge structure (“Knower structure”). The idea that there is a “knower code” for Literacy Studies in general, and each language in particular, is quite evident in Edelsky’s title: “Whose Agenda Is This Anyway?” (Edelsky, p. 7, emphasis mine). If we consider alternative wh-word possibilities that might be substituted in Edelsky’s title–“What Agenda Is This Anyway?”; “Why This Agenda Anyway?”; “Where Is This Agenda From Anyway?”–it is the choice of the genitive “Whose” that locates the focus of the field, from Edelsky’s perspective, not in objective knowledge, but in the makers of it. Edelsky argument,challenging McKenna et al. highlights not just the other features of horizontal knowledge structures that this series has attempt to elucidate, but also the personal qualities that make McKenna et al. not “ideal knowers” in the Whole Language community: “[McKenna et al.] are ignorant that their presumptuousness in speaking for ‘the other side’ is one example of the kind of silencing within the academy that anthropologists (Clifford & Marcuss, 1986), sociologists (Denzín, 1990), critical educators (Brodkey, 1986; Gitlin, Siegel, & Boru, 1989), and others are now critiquing outside it. Just who gets to speak for whom?” (p. 8, emphasis mine). Edelsky deputizes the personal characteristic of “presumptuousness” of the researchers as a rationale for rejecting their proposals. Thus, rather than the strictly logos appeal of the vertical knowledge structure discourse like physics, the horizontal knowledge structure of Literacy Studies allows appeals to ethos as valid moves in its discourse.

Edelsky is not alone; in one passage, McKenna et al. (1990b), perhaps signalling a horizontal knowledge structure interpretation of the discipline, describe one of the personal characteristics that disqualifies Edelsky from being an “ideal knower” in Skills-Based Literacy: “A divisive, unscientific certitude has been widely observed among whole language proponents…. Unreflective certitude, and the arrogance it fosters, are attributes we can ill afford at present” (p. 13). McKenna et al., despite espousing positivism and its conventions of logos-centric discourse, engage in an ethos appeal, invoking the personal characteristics of arrogance and “unreflective certitude” as antithetical to the sensibility of an “ideal knower” in the discipline. If nothing else, this display of ethical appeals stands as an aberration to normally logos-centric discourse in the sciences; yet Bernstein’s model of horizontal knowledge structures, combined with Maton’s extension, predict that this behavior will happen if knowledge in a discipline is so structured.

Maton also argues that the “ideal knower” may have some “biological/social” basis (“Knower structures”). For example, within the disciplines of divinity–again, a horizontal knowledge structure–there may be a sex basis for “ideal knower,” where only men are permitted or encouraged to participate in knowledge construction and maintenance. Similarly, class may play a role in determining the “ideal knower;” in mid-20th century humanities, Maton argues, the “ideal knower” was an “English gentleman,” suggesting higher social status as a factor (“Knower structures”). It may be that the genders represented in the M-E discourse are not coincidental; however, more evidence than can be presented here would need to be gathered to make any particular gender basis for an “ideal knower” in Whole Language or Skills-Based Literacy. Similarly, Whole Language’s political leanings might suggest there is a social basis for the “ideal knower” in that particular community. In short, aspects of character combined with biological/social features are present in constructing “ideal knowers” in the M-E discourse, supporting the horizontal knowledge structure analysis. However, I have left unexamined the possibility that opposing conceptions of “ideal knowers” contributed to the Reading Wars. Because this feature seeks to define a character, more evidence across multiple discourse would be necessary to begin to construct an outline of the “ideal knower” in these different schools of thought.


I have demonstrated in this series the various features of horizontal knowledge structures, abstracted from Maton & Muller (2007) and based on Bernstein’s theory, that are present in the M-E discourse and that indicate that Literacy Studies is a horizontal knowledge structure. These features included: 1) multiple languages, 2) theory reoccurrence, 3) opposing assumptions, 4) criteria for texts/data/problems, 5) lack of integration, 6) weak grammar, 7) lack of common empirical referents, and 8) knower code. This horizontal knowledge structure model reveals the primary mechanisms that contributed to the Reading Wars, showing what the fundamental disagreements were: the two approaches spoke different discourses; they held opposing epistemological philosophies; they had different criteria for what constitutes a problem; they did not seek equitable integration; and they talked past each other by virtue of imprecise empirical descriptions and non-aligning empirical referents for the same phenomenon–reading. On the whole, the Reading Wars happened because Literacy Studies is a horizontal knowledge structure; many of the disagreements that occurred in the Reading Wars would likely not been possible in a vertical knowledge structure because they lacked the particular theoretical mechanisms to trigger such disagreements.

My final conclusion, as consistent with my revised thesis above, is an admonition based on my analysis of this traditional academic feud so intense it achieved “war” status. What can we do to avoid wars? It seems that we need to work to resolve some of the disciplinary conflicts that Bernstein’s model reveals. If we want to avoid wars, we need to work towards a common discourse, a common epistemology, a common set of criteria for determining problems in the field, and a common and rigorously defined conceptual grammar. But most importantly, we need to establish a way to achieve equitable integration of knowledge. We need to agree on, as McKenna et al. (1990b) and Harste suggested (p. 13), a single model. But we should not seek to integrate inequitably, through consolidating power unilaterally. The Reading Wars are a testament to the power consolidation intention in horizontal knowledge structures. Equitable integration can only happen when we achieve all of the previously stated goals–and when we make both social justice and scientific progress equal goals in the discipline.


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