Reading as Privilege


I grew up in a working class suburb east of Los Angeles in a two-bedroom apartment complex. It was the mid-seventies, and it was a time when door-to-door salesman frequented our complex. I remember one day the salesman introduced us to a set of encyclopedias that my parents eagerly bought. My mother was particularly proud that her children would be informed and educated members of society. The set added to our humble collection of books, which also included a few Readers Digest issues, the Bible and some children picture books. I state this because it is such a contrary position to Ira James Allen’s narrative which he articulates in his article, “Reprivileging Reading: The Negotiation of Uncertainty.” His childhood included a plethora of books that promoted and encouraged reading. In his article, he states he “…didn’t have to think about the structure of [his] reading experience…” because he had the privilege of focusing “on the content” of whatever he was reading. In short, Allen’s childhood was the beginning of acquiring a culture capital that would contribute to his success as a prolific and intellectual writer.

So I begin from the other end of the spectrum – a child who didn’t have access to books, parents who didn’t understand how to use the local library, and children that loved to learn. I state the latter because my brothers and I were eager and excited about school. My mother, a Mexican immigrant with an eight-grade education, had strong instincts about how to raise us. She noticed my brothers enjoyed music, so she went to the local second had store and let them select instruments. Then they joined the music ensemble and played music from first through twelfth grade. I preferred books to music, but my mother didn’t know how to use a library, and she worked a night shift so she was often exhausted and limited in time and energy. When I began elementary school, my teachers would take me on trips to the school library, but I didn’t know how to select books. In middle school, friends would share their books with me and my older brothers would always recommend books for me to read as well. Thus, it was how I learned to read.

What captivated me most about Allen’s narrative was his revelatory stance on how his economic class status earned him a seat at the “academic reading habitus” table. His exposure to an upper middle class white environment influenced his love of reading. But it also allowed him a direct route to knowledge, “I did not have to think of myself as a reader; I got to be a thinker instead.” He is keenly aware of his privilege; how and where we learn to read is rooted in economic class standing and in his place as a white man in society. To explain his privilege of reading, Allen explores two fundamental sociological terms – habitus and cultural capital. He understands the habitus of privileged readers, and he says it contributes to “a deeper negotiation… in reading and classroom practices.” He further states, “Privilege is, almost by definition, something one acquires without thinking; it is a set of practices and experience of reality encoding and encoded by cultural capital.” His neighborhood, his mother’s deep understanding of education, her knowledge of civic engagement (she used the library), and growing up in a household that commonly used Standard English, provided access to education and to progress. His opportunities granted by birth providing him to read “with privilege, to enjoy ‘real reading’ as a ‘difficult pleasure.”

He insightfully approaches the issue of skilled reading with his lens of privilege, as he clearly understands that not everyone has access to knowledge and learning. He proceeds to explain the necessity of the heuristics of learning by building upon Bartholomaen concepts of reading and writing, as well as other scholars of English. Allen’s piece leads him to conclude that he needs to adhere to a “deeper negotiation of what privilege means in reading and classroom practices.” He further insists that we must examine this “conservation of privilege.” Those who have this privilege and this “cultural capital” must understand that many others, including this writer, did not have this access to learning how to read. Allen then offers the perspective of contemporary intellectuals such as Gayatri Spivak and Paulo Freire, as both educators positioned themselves as a voice for the poor, the unprivileged sect, the proletarian. Reading, he states, must be a translucent “habit” that demands high value for “institutional viability.” Reading is intimate bedrock of social justice.

Allen understands that reading “get to be private,” so he ask his readers to become “socially aware” to create a “pedagogy [recognizing] that reading is not naturally private and that people can develop secure places from which to read in conversations with others about reading’s ends.” His bottom up approach, entering into a conversation with students and faculty, is sorely needed given that California’s newest legislation AB705 was a top down regulation based on shifty data. This new AB705 bill did not include a conversation with students and faculty across the state, yet it could place the teaching of reading in great jeopardy. At a time when poverty and homeless are at an all time high, we have a national housing crisis, and in California reading rates remain far behind other states, we need to focus on how we can work with our poorest and least skilled students of Standard English. This charge must involve acts of empathy and compassion, and we must begin the work now.




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