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Published on April 17th, 2012 | by Thompson


Critical Literacy, Sustainability, and Personal Power: Using Hilary Janks as a Model for Change in American Education and Environmentalism

If a society of empowered citizens is to be realized, it’s imperative that an education system adopt Janks’s critical literacy doctrine and apply it in a sustainable environment.  What better way to empower citizens and overcome a hegemonic order than to adopt truly sustainable practices and become self-sufficient?

In reading Literacy and Power by Hilary Janks, I was impressed with her ability to apply critical theory practically and effectively, but what most impressed me was her ability to establish a successful education system in South Africa without the resources so many of us in American private and public schools take for granted, and I think that’s one thing missing from American education – a struggle.

This paper will provide a model for what I’m calling Critical Literacy and Sustainability Camps.  It will outline a learning curriculum and adopt many of Hilary Janks’s critical literacy activities to equip campers with an arsenal of critical reading and writing skills and sustainable living practices.

The word sustainability gets thrown around a lot and is generally misunderstood, much like Marxism and socialism.  Merriam-Webster defines sustainable as:

adj : of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.

Sustainability isn’t about driving high mileage cars, using more efficient light bulbs, or turning your thermostat down.  Sustainability is about walking, not using light bulbs, and disconnecting your thermostat, and until this fact is realized by every American they will continue to be slaves to a hegemonic order consisting of high fuel prices and the ever-increasing utility bill.

The sustainable home is a farse.  The idea that construction companies are building homes out of recycled materials and throwing solar panels on the roof is a futuristic, science fiction novel.  First of all, until you grow enough food to feed yourself every day you are not sustainable, so it’s pretty difficult to imagine the sustainable home when the inhabitants of that home aren’t sustainable.  Secondly, these sustainable homes are still hooked up to an energy grid, and unless you want to spend roughly $10,000 up front to run your refrigerator off solar panels (or want a refrigerator the size of a suitcase with no freezer) you’re going to use grid energy, which is not sustainable.  The sustainable home is a tent or a teepee or a cabin with no grid energy and enough land to grow enough food to eat every day.

The Critical Literacy and Sustainability Camps I’m proposing would help teach children the definition of true sustainability through experience.  These camps would have limited electricity provided by solar or wind power for emergency situations.  No electrical lighting is available at the camps besides flashlights and headlamps.  The camps would also have very few vehicles with combustion engines to be used in emergency situations, and these vehicles would run on biofuel.  This helps instructors teach the campers how difficult true sustainability is to achieve, and gives the instructors an opportunity to explain why their biofuel bus is not sustainable while they ride into camp on it.  Even before the campers arrive they’ve learned a valuable lesson about what sustainability is and is not.Hilary Janks

At orientation the campers choose activities and classes they will participate in during the course of their stay.  A critical literacy course will be a requirement of all campers because “language is not mere words…language constructs reality,” (Janks, 60) and until children are capable of reading between the lines to resist textual impositions they really aren’t reading at all.  “Discourses manufacture or produce people,” (Janks, 60) so it’s important children realize the power of language at an early age.  Campers will critically read texts of all sorts, especially advertising, as Janks demonstrates in Literacy and Power.  Breaking down the advertisements helps children realize the power words and images can have over us, and the hegemonic order that perpetuates this power.

All campers are required to take a second language course.  Janks, and others, have made it clear that native speakers of English will be left behind if they remain monolingual.  “There are already more speakers of English as a foreign language than of first and second language speakers combined. Already there are more speakers of English who are bilingual or multilingual than there are monolingual native speakers of English” (Janks, 144).  The result of discourse dominance is a case of identity theft of sorts.  “The price native speakers of English have to pay for speaking a global language, is that the language no longer belongs to them” (Janks, 151).  Other cultures adopt your discourse and inevitably, your culture, and create hybrid discourses and cultures.  “Access to dominant forms tends to come at the expense of diversity” (Janks, 116).  We shouldn’t allow our access to a dominant discourse limit our diversity.  We should embrace diversity, and go out searching for it.

Each second language course will create an alphabet book, as recommended by Janks, to be shared with children of other discourses.  Campers will also be encouraged to write a weekly letter to a pen pal in their second discourse in order to utilize the skills they’ve learned and share the sustainable practices they’ve acquired with children all over the world.

Obviously, there will also be activities that teach students sustainable practices.  Like Janks’s students, our campers will grow their own food and campers will assist in the kitchen.  Archery and hunter safety courses will be offered to interested campers.  Camping trips give instructors an opportunity to teach campers to distinguish edible and poisonous plants in the surrounding area, creating an experience that’s harder to forget than any book of edible and poisonous plants.  Fishing, hiking, mountain climbing, and other outdoor activities will be offered to campers to broaden their skills and increase their physical strength and endurance.

Janks implores us to make learning fun again, using games to provoke thought.  “While desire can consume us, pleasure can renew us.  Critical literacy work in classrooms can be simultaneously serious and playful.  We should teach it with a subversive attitude, self-irony and a sense of humour” (Janks, 224).  It is imperative that the next generation of children have skills to thrive in a capitalistic world, and it’s a lot easier to acquire these skills if it’s fun in the first place.

Janks suggests that we can attain personal power through critical literacy, but I suggest we attain practical survival skills to empower us as well.  It’s time to think practically about hegemony, and the best way to overcome a system of order is to withdrawal from that system entirely.  Living capitalistically is a choice, and though the comforts of Central Air and HBO are certainly enticing, they’re simply a choice.  Though getting around the private property aspect of capitalism is difficult, there are squatters that don’t pay a dime in rent living on public land, so there’s a way around everything.  There’s a man living in Moab, Utah caves eating whatever he can find and hasn’t pulled a salary for over a decade (Ketcham).

I was disappointed to learn that many of the valuable programs implemented in South Africa that developed specifically in reaction to a lack of financial stability, like the gardening and recycling programs, were discontinued as soon as the school had investors like BMW building new facilities.  I think if we embrace this struggle, we would learn a whole lot more.

I’m not saying American primary education shouldn’t receive funds.  That’s preposterous.  But these sustainable practices are not being taught anywhere besides the homes of sustainable families, which are very hard to find.  What I’m saying is there’s nothing wrong with options, and to give parents the option of empowering their children with skills that can overcome a hegemonic order and help them and their Earth live healthier lives.

Applying Janks’s critical literacy idea to deconstruct the idea of sustainability as Americans see it, and then reconstructing a practical application as a result of that deconstruction, can be beneficial to the next generation of children hoping to break free from a hegemonic order.

My friend has a special disdain for people who decorate the bumpers of their cars with “Sustainability Now” stickers because the people slapping those stickers on their cars don’t know what sustainability means.  Frankly, putting one of those bumper stickers on a bike would be oxymoronic since the bike’s tires are made of petroleum, but many Americans don’t think about this.  They think if they’re getting 35 mpg they’re doing their best to be sustainable.  And the way marketing campaigns conceal the true meaning of sustainability certainly isn’t helping.

It’s time there was an outlet that taught critical literacy and true sustainability practices, not just to protect the ozone or our water, but to free society from the shackles of hegemonic order and capitalistic ideals.  “Critical reading, in combination with an ethic of social justice, is fundamental in order to protect our own rights and the rights of others” (Jenks, 98).  By implementing Critical Literacy and Sustainability Camps, children will have the opportunity to see through the bullshit and free themselves.

The one thing I think we can all agree on regarding Hilary Janks’s Literacy and Power is that language does have power, and in order for students to acquire this power, their engagement in the material is essential.  That is, they must enjoy learning what they’re learning or they won’t learn it.  Janks provides some guidance regarding how to engage a text.  “Engagement without estrangement is a form of submission to the power of the text regardless of the reader’s own positions.  Estrangement without engagement is a refusal to leave the confines of one’s own subjectivity, a refusal to allow otherness to enter” (Janks, 96).  So it’s simple, really.  Don’t believe everything you read and don’t believe everything you think.  Always question.  “We need to think of identity as constantly in process, as dynamic rather than fixed, as produced but not determined” (Janks, 99).  Enrolling your son or daughter in a Critical Literacy and Sustainability Camp gives them the tools they need to free themselves from the ruling order.  It’s time we offered them the opportunity to understand and change their world.  Paulo Friere says, “To exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it.  Once named, the world in its turn reappears to its namers as a problem and requires of them a new naming” (Janks, 161).  It’s time we renamed Earth.

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About the Author

When Thompson isn't busy writing for Go Gonzo Journal, you may find him drunk at the movie theater with Professor Heinous or stirring up trouble in a bar with his attorney. Thompson also enjoys skiing, hiking, camping, and watching and betting on baseball and football.

2 Responses to Critical Literacy, Sustainability, and Personal Power: Using Hilary Janks as a Model for Change in American Education and Environmentalism

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