This article by Jim Heckman is the most important, depressing, and possibly hopeful piece I have read in some time. It won't come as a big surprise to those who follow Heckman's work, but it is a fantastic summary of his current thinking as well as a ton of other work. It is rich in its empirical savvy, theoretical clarity, and interdisciplinary creativity.After reading the article, I'm inclined to agree. Very powerful summary.
Important because it is a compelling explanation of the increasingly polarized economic prospects of Americans; depressing because the causes are deeply rooted in social trends that we cannot, and probably would not want to, reverse. Hopeful, because we actually know cost-effective ways to address the problems. Doubly depressing because there's little indication of the political interest, let alone will, to do anything.
Recently in Reflections on Literacy Category
Cet article repose sur une ethnographie des pratiques de l'écrit menée dans un village de la zone cotonnière du Mali. Dans cette région, l'alphabétisation, très inégale, est diverse dans ses formes et dans les langues utilisées à l'écrit (bambara, français, arabe). L'article porte sur une pratique commune qui consiste à recueillir sur un cahier un ensemble de notations personnelles. Son propos est d'éclairer la signification anthropologique de cette pratique par l'examen attentif du support d'écriture. Le cahier est à la fois un objet à soi, le lieu d'une appropriation de modèles scripturaux, et un espace graphique dont les scripteurs se saisissent de manières diverses, d'une mise en ordre de différentes figures de soi à des formes moins organisées de recueil. Ces différentes dimensions en font un lieu d'expérimentation de nouveaux rapports à soi.
This paper is based on an ethnographic research on literacy practices in a village located in the cotton- growing region of Mali. The area is partially literate, with Bambara, French, and Arabic used as written languages. The paper focuses on notebook-writing, a common practice meant to keep personal records. It investigates the anthropological meanings of this practice, by paying specific attention to its materiality. The notebook, as an object, is a personal belonging. It also represents the site where the writer takes hold of written models for his own purposes. As a "graphic space", it is handled in different ways: some writers cautiously reorganise the outlines of their self by following a specific order in writing, whereas others use it to mere collection. Through these different dimensions, notebook- writing offers a space to explore new forms of subjectivity.
I wasn't quite prepared to have a full blown argument about the importance of books in fostering a culture of reading and when I attempted to list the possible/obvious downfalls of bringing Kindle's instead of books to a rural library, I started receiving responses such as "Well, if there is no electricity, why aren't you getting electricity to these places instead? Building roads? Minimizing corruption?" Essentially, instead of using my current "expertise" and intense interest in the importance and effectiveness of community libraries, I should just try to save the world entirely? Now, how effective is that? A bit flustered at the full on attack of what little I am trying to contribute using what experience I have, I couldn't help but mull on his comments regarding the effectiveness of populating a library with books.
If you wanted to read something, would you open up your computer and browse through PDFs on your hard drive or would you rather browse through pages you could actually flip through with your hands? I know that I would much rather engage with what I am reading. Even more useful in this argument, what if you were a child, just learning how to read, would you rather pick up a colorful book with a vibrant cover, or browse through files on a Kindle that appears to be much like a toy since you haven't really learned how to read yet. I think of the primary school students I met in the Mapaki Community Library in Sierra Leone, flipping through pages, pointing to pictures and words and showing, their friends what they saw on the page, tossing one book in a pile only to dive into another. Can that be done on an electronic screen? Perhaps, but is that really the way to engage a child to become curious about wanting to understand the words in a children's book? I think not.
Here is a video of Wolff introducing the book.
Daniel Wolff explores how twelve influential Americans from a range of backgrounds were educated both inside and outside of the classroom. From Benjamin Franklin and W.E.B. Du Bois to Henry Ford and Elvis Presley, Mr. Wolff present his thoughts on the different ways that people learn and the elusive definition of a "good education." This event was hosted by R.J. Julia Booksellers in Maidson, Connecticut.
Mendenhall E, Muzizi L, Stephenson R, Chomba E, Haworth A, Allen S. 2007. "Property Grabbing and Will Writing in Lusaka, Zambia: An Examination of Wills of HIV Infected Cohabiting Couples." AIDS Care 19(3): 369-74.
High rates of HIV and poverty place women in a precarious economic situation in Lusaka, Zambia. Mortality from HIV infection is high, leaving many households single headed and creating almost a half a million orphans. One of the most prevalent forms of gender violence that creates poverty in women is when the male's family claims the property of the deceased from the widow and the children. The Zambia-Emory HIV Research Project collected 184 wills from individuals in monogamous unions where one or both of the individuals were HIV-positive. Despite the fact that many wills specifically stated that their extended family was not allowed to tamper with their possessions in the event of death, property grabbing proved to be a prevalent and difficult issue in Lusaka. In order to improve the lives of widowed women in Lusaka, the government and other civic and non-governmental organisations must inform women of their rights to own and protect their land and other assets in the event of their husbands' death, an issue of increasing importance in the area of HIV/AIDS.
Anyways, odd that the two premier development blogs (Blattman and Easterly) apparently have never mentioned Mortenson (at least a search of the blogs was empty on both sites). Too bad, because it's a good book, with lots to discuss, and more importantly, is probably the single most widely read "tract" about development aid in the last decade, and so what it says, or does not say, is probably shaping the perceptions of millions of persons around the globe, far more than the development studies academics' wishy-washy "we don't know the answers" style.
So just so you know the book's main message: heroes are taking care of the problems, just like they always did. Sure, things were smelly in the Augean stables, but Hercules was ready! So here comes Mortenson, ready to tackle world poverty (one girl at a timeTM).
So I'll say up front that while I obviously find Mortenson's work and devotion and success very inspirational and fantastic and laudable, I find the book raises all kinds of interesting questions, and raising those questions will inevitably make me appear less laudable than Mortenson. But hell, I'm an academic and the whole schtick is to raise questions.
And questions to be raised, there are. Only two paragraphs in the 330 page book are "questioning," in the sense that they diverge from the standard 40-something-American "it's all good" refrain, and these deal with an important issue, non-profit governance. Otherwise there is nary a questioning attitude to be seen. Weird, cause the guy writing it is a journalist (David Oliver Relin, who keeps himself completely out of the text, but must have insisted on inserting two photos of himself that make no sense at all... the captions just use his last name, and for 2/3 of the book I thought the guy in the pictures was some Pakistani dude who would be introduced later on).
So we have a book about a hero. It's a thrilling book, but it brings to mind the Brecht line (yes, Michael Watts did influence my reading habits...) from his play Galileo: “ANDREA: Unhappy the land that has no heroes! . . . GALILEO: No, unhappy the land that needs heroes.”
I could go into literary analysis- what is a hero and all that... but since this blog is about development and literacy, better to focus on that. Mortenson is basically doing what FAVL would have been doing if someone had given *us* a million dollars! So of course one can't help the sour grapes. But I do feel that gives me a rather unique perspective. Most people reading the book probably feel unqualified to be critical. They have never slept with a yak, nor befriended an authentic representative of "The Other"... Haji Ali. Of course, Haji Ali turns out to be Yoda, a very nice, reasonably wise uncle figure prone to platitudes about listening to the wind. Anecdotes and trials and tribulations are played to maximum effect... and some are downright bizarre- Mortenson's "bodyguard" beats up someone leering at his wife breastfeeding. A Pakistani general cowboying around with Mortenson in a helicopter buzzes "like an angry bee" the compound of some local chief who's fallen afoul of Mortenson. These anecdotes, and much of the book, serve to make clear to the reader that there are good guys (hero allies) and bad guys (hero enemies) and the hero can tell the difference (loyalty... everyone is ready to "give their life for Mortenson") except when the hero is tricked. Oops, no more literary analysis!
One more aside. My overall impression is that Relin was more interested in name-dropping mountaineers killed here and there than Pakistanis or Afghans killed during the various stages of the wars in the region. The brand-name turn in American literature is there, instead of riding around in an "old helicopter" it has to be an Alouettte. Instead of wearing an "old parka," he has to give the brand name. I confess I never understood the reader interest inknowing the brands of their book-characters, but then again, I wear a cheap watch, cheap pants, and cheap shoes.
As you can see, I am meandering around my thoughts, and it is now late, so I'll come back to the development and literacy stuff tomorrow.
The Non-Literate Other. Readings of Illiteracy in Twentieth-Century
Novels in English
506 pp, 2007, $140 USD (Hardcover)
Rodopi, Amsterdam-New York
At the beginning of David Malouf’s novel, Remembering Babylon
(1993), two children from a family of colonial settlers happen to meet
a strange guy who tells them “Do not shoot. I am a b-b-British object”
(3). This is the impressive start of a narrative in which an adolescent
who escapes from England in mid-nineteenth century, arrives in
Australia, the land of “convicts,” and lives among the Aborigines for
sixteen years. After that period, his language sounds like a mixture of a
few aboriginal words and very poor English, and he represents a threat
to community life in the settler’s eyes. Malouf’s is a dazzling story
about racial hostility, newcomer fear and the impossibility of
acknowledging the “otherness” of Aboriginal culture, something that
certainly involves the problematic question of language.
Thus, it is not surprising to discover that the novel gave Helga
Ramsey-Kurz the inspiration for her illuminating and rich volume The
Non-Literate Other. Readings of Illiteracy in Twentieth-Century
Novels in English.
Read the full book review in Postcolonial Text, Vol 4, No 2 (2008)
Of course, it wasn’t the encyclopedia itself, or the encyclopedia alone, that may made the difference in Sonia Sotomayor’s life. More important was the value placed on learning that led her family to shell out nearly $400 for the Britannica in the first place. And, as Judge Sotomayor has made clear, credit must be given to the Nancy Drew mysteries, which inspired her, she has said, to become a lawyer, so it wasn’t only the Britannica that inspired her.
The story of the little girl reading the Britannica in her Bronx housing project is a perfect example of America’s most treasured narrative of success, treasured, precisely because, for many people, it was true.
It’s Abe Lincoln reading everything he could get his hands on, in part to compensate for his lack of formal schooling. Now it’s Sonia Sotomayor, being raised by a determined, hard-working widow (for whom a $400 encyclopedia must have represented a tremendous financial sacrifice) reading the Britannica in a neighborhood where few if any other people valued it as much as her mother did.
“The Britannica was a physical embodiment of the existence of a serious world where there was a lot to be learned beyond one’s own experience,” Randall Stross, author of the books “The Microsoft Way” and “Planet Google” (and an occasional contributor to The New York Times), said in a telephone conversation. “Just having it on the shelf was a way to remind kids of the importance of education, and it was a counterweight to all the trivial and even dangerous pursuits that surrounded them.”