Literature and Opportunity in the Midwest

by Deborah Brandt, Daisy Morales

decorative header image

Since the middle of the 19th century, farm families in the Midwest have aspired to improve their situation through education. Our current school system, and frankly our society as a whole, is based on the premise that if you work hard enough you can achieve what you set your mind to. This belief may provide people with hope—it suggests individuals control their destiny—but embedded in the rhetoric is the subtext that failure to succeed must mean personal inadequacy. This message obscures the effects that socioeconomic factors can have on a person’s success despite that person’s hard work or ability. Socioeconomic effects are hard to measure because they vary with geographic location. In her 2001 book Literacy in American Lives, professor Deborah Brandt demonstrates some of the general dynamics of the relationship between opportunity, reward for literacy, and economies through a case study of two Midwestern farm women.

Rootstalk: Can you tell me about the origins of Literacy in American Lives? How did you get interested in the topic which you write about in the book?

Brandt: For nearly 30 years I taught writing and courses about writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I was always interested in the social conditions for literacy learning, particularly the ways in which the rising standards for literacy achievement affect everyday people and their families. By “rising standards” I mean the need for more and more people to do more and more things with literacy, an escalating demand that was so much of the story in 20th century America and continues into the 21st century. How do people cope with these unrelenting demands?

The only way I could think to find answers to these questions was to go out and talk with people. So, in the early 1990s, I did in-depth interviews with 100 people from all walks of life, born between 1895 and 1985, asking them to remember everything they could about how they learned to read and write, in and out of school, from their very earliest memories to the present. Many of the interviewees grew up in the Midwest, but others migrated from other regions in the U.S. and other countries. They were all living at the time of the interviews in Dane County, Wisconsin, where I lived and taught. So Literacy in American Lives is an analysis and interpretation of those astonishingly rich and detailed—and often surprising—interviews.

Literacy certainly can be seen as the ability to read and…to write. But there is nothing simple about it.

Rootstalk: Is literacy more than simply the ability to read?

Brandt: Literacy certainly can be seen as the ability to read and, I would add, to write. But there is nothing simple about it. First, you have to ask: the ability to read or write what? In what capacity? For what end? So, for instance, I might be able to read a recipe and follow the words but end up making a disaster of a meal. A master chef might read the same recipe and create something much better than even the recipe called for. The chef and I will see the same words, but they will mean different things to us. We will operate them differently. And all reading and writing works like that—the ability to read and write is not stable. It depends on context. It is always relational. And what counts as literacy or enough literacy is always changing.

Rootstalk: What affects people’s ability to attain literacy?

Brandt: I would say anything and everything affects our ability to attain literacy—where we live, when we live, who we live with, how we are treated, how literacy is treated, what is expected of us, what learning opportunities are presented to us, how we respond to them, how things change or do not change around us. Literacy is knitted into the social and economic and political contexts in which we live, and it will be acquired (or will need to be reacquired) as both a reflection and a product of those contexts.

Rootstalk: Why did you decide to begin your study by portraying the lives of two Midwestern farm women, Martha Day, born in 1903, and Barbara Hunt, born in 1971?

Brandt: During the interviewing phase of the project, I was just trying to find volunteers who were willing to spend a couple of hours talking with me about their memories of reading and writing. So among other places, I went to local elder care facilities and to various schools, including the local community college. Martha Day, born 1903, lived in an assisted living facility and volunteered for the project. Barbara Hunt, born 1971, was attending the community college and volunteered for the project. As a coincidence, they both grew up on small, family owned dairy farms in the Midwest, one at the beginning and one close to the end of the twentieth century.

Rootstalk: The two women were born 68 years apart. However, you found that there were some similarities in their backgrounds. What were they?

Brandt: I tried to make the point that these two women had some striking similarities in their backgrounds but that the meaning of those similarities really changed between the early 20th century and the late 20th century. Both were raised on 80-acre, low-income dairy farms that their fathers had inherited, Martha Day in northern Indiana and Barbara Hunt in southern Wisconsin. Both grew up in sparse, rural settlements of about 500 people, quite a distance from stores and schools. Neither had money nor family encouragement for schooling beyond the 12th grade, and both left home and went to work shortly after high school graduation.

Rootstalk: Despite their common background, how did the effect of the farm economy on their literacy experiences differ?

Brandt: In the 1920s many children of farmers, including Martha Day, were moving to bigger cities because of employment opportunities. Interestingly, it was because of the general health of the agrarian economy at the beginning of the twentieth century that more farm families had surplus money to buy commercial goods, like appliances, magazines, and clothing. Banks also thrived in service to farmers. So service jobs could be found in the larger cities. As people migrated, though, they brought their hometown, homogeneous, close-knit social networks with them. “I never did have to hunt for jobs then,” Martha Day recalled. “Somebody from my area would just call up and say, we have a job, would you be interested?” Martha Day carried her religious affiliations with her, too, and started attending a Sunday School class for young adults, volunteering to write a newsletter for the group. Her interest in writing attracted the attention of her Sunday School teacher, who happened to be the editor of a regional farm magazine. He set her up with a typewriter and desk in her home and taught her how to write journalism. “He would say, ‘Imagine you are a farm woman.’ That I grew up on a farm helped me in some respects. It wouldn’t today,” she told me. Her social network launched her eventually into editorial positions in corporate offices as farm magazines were bought up and merged by media conglomerates. By the time she retired in 1968, the heyday of farm magazines was over. But for a time, as we can see, the social structure of the agrarian village still operated in Martha Day’s favor even as she made the transition into an urban economy. Her identity as a farm woman was exploitable by her sponsor (the farm journal), and she traded on that identity for a chance to write for a living. That give and take is a key feature of the literacy sponsor-literacy sponsored relationship.

By the time of Barbara Hunt’s birth in 1971, there had been 50 more years of shrinkage in the family farm economy, bringing disintegration of the societies that supported it. Barbara Hunt’s hometown was struggling—isolated, poor, and weakly tied to the region around it, which had become a cosmopolitan, school-oriented, tech-heavy, knowledge-making service economy. The work she could find was not tied to agriculture. Initially hired as a home health aide, she was laid off when medical providers consolidated, and her agency moved out of the area. Instead, she went to work at the cash register of an Exxon gas station and did babysitting on the side while pursuing her studies part-time at the community college. Interestingly, the remnants of the long, rich agrarian cultural tradition still could be found, if attenuated, supporting Barbara Hunt’s literacy development. In eighth grade, she joined the forensics club in her school (“As soon as I heard about it, I knew I wanted to be in it,” she said.) Her forensics club was part of a statewide consortium of speech, debate, and theatre clubs that had been founded in 1895 by a school superintendent from the same district in which Hunt was a student. (In fact, it had been the first high-school forensics association established in the United States.) As a participant in competitions, Hunt wrote speeches on topics of her choice, involving issues that “didn’t affect me directly, but did affect other people,” including the problem of homelessness. The forensics club provided opportunities for Barbara Hunt to conduct research, express, write, and argue, an experience that helped her find resonance with an urban-oriented social service degree program in her community college. At the time we talked, she was training to be a technical assistant with interests in services for the displaced. So Barbara Hunt, to me, represents many of the young people of the late 20th and early 21st century who must pursue literacy in contexts of fragmentation, volatility, anonymity, and escalating demands for credentialed education.

National magazines like The Ladies’ Home Journal eventually displaced women’s sections in regional farm journals like the one Martha Day wrote for.

National magazines like The Ladies’ Home Journal eventually displaced women’s sections in regional farm journals like the one Martha Day wrote for.

Rootstalk: You write about “sponsors of literacy.” What does that mean, and why is it important?

Brandt: Our literacy, as we know, has tremendous value in our lives and motivates our efforts to acquire it. It enables individual growth, learning, connection, knowledge, and social and economic security. Literacy is good in our lives and, often, the more, the better. But our literacy also has tremendous value for other people or interests who need our literacy to pursue their own ends. In the wider arena, the literacy of the people is considered a good, a raw material, a resource, a necessary ingredient in the making of products and services and profits. Our literacy helps those who use our literacy to make money or achieve power or spread their values. Those entities—the ones who need our literacy as much or more than we do—are sponsors of literacy. Think employers, governments, religions, social movements. Think Facebook. These entities will teach, encourage, support and stimulate literacy in various ways, but they do so in order to realize their own goals, which do not always necessarily converge with our goals. Sponsors of literacy will compete with each other for our skills and for our loyalty to their version of literacy. They also can gain advantage by destabilizing existing forms of literacy by, say, introducing new communication technologies or other changes. Then we have to hustle to respond to those changes. Sponsors enable literacy learning (we need them), but they introduce inequity and volatility into our efforts to pursue literacy or secure it for our children.

So we can expect the “literacy crisis” to be a perpetual problem, not because people are not learning the way they used to but because so much more is being demanded and the repercussions for not keeping up are more punishing.

Rootstalk: In your book you mention that the need for more and more people to do more things with their literacy also has an effect on individual literacies. What is that effect?

Brandt: In the not so distant past most people worked with their muscles. Today, most people work with their minds. We have been transformed from a farming and manufacturing economy into a service economy or what some call a knowledge or information economy. In this transition, literacy became a dominant form of labor. Today, just about everyone writes on their jobs now, and it is not uncommon for people to spend three, four, five, eight or more hours a day in the posture of the writer—communicating, recording, analyzing, interpreting, and responding to others who are also writing. In many industries, written products are the only products. We are living at a time of tremendous pressure on our literacy skills as they are pulled more and more deeply into the engines of production and profit in our economy. This puts pressure on young people, as well, to achieve forms of advanced education and to adapt to rapid changes in the forms and levels of literate communication. The U.S. must compete with other nations in innovation, efficiency, speed, and productivity. These competitions are waged with the literacy of the population. So we can expect the “literacy crisis” to be a perpetual problem, not because people are not learning the way they used to but because so much more is being demanded and the repercussions for not keeping up are more punishing.

Rootstalk: Do you believe that Hunt or Day were aware of the impact the economy and sponsors of literacy had on their lives, or did they explain their lives in terms of their own strengths or weaknesses?

Brandt: Perhaps because of the influence of school, we are invited to think of literacy as an individual skill. Do I make the grade? Why is my child having trouble learning to read? That young generation just can’t spell! We have all experienced or heard things like this. So Martha Day, Barbara Hunt, and I, for that matter, are not immune to those messages. But to your question I have to answer that Martha Day and Barbara Hunt were aware of the impact of the economy and sponsors of literacy in their lives, or else I would not have found evidence of these impacts when I analyzed their testimonies and the testimonies of all the other people I interviewed. All I asked people to do was to try to remember the scenes of their literacy learning across time. I was just about flabbergasted at the number and variety of figures who turned up at these scenes as they were recalled: older relatives, teachers, religious leaders, supervisors, military officers. These many references could not be ignored. As I worked with them, I came to understand them as sponsors of literacy, to see how those sponsors proliferated across the generations, and to appreciate how they linked individual literacy efforts to larger material and historical systems.

Rootstalk: Do you think it’s particularly important for individuals in declining economies, like the farm economy, to learn about literacy in the context of socioeconomic factors?

Brandt: As I mentioned, our society tends to hold simplistic notions of literacy; we are invited to think of reading and writing as neutral, timeless, and portable skills. So I think everyone can benefit from understanding that literacy is contextual and relational. When it comes to literacy learning, it is potentially advantageous to belong to a dominant economy, whether in periods of stability or change. We saw those advantages operating in the life of Martha Day. But for the young Barbara Hunt, those advantages were not available. If it took the society as a whole three or four generations to make the transition from agriculture to post-industrialism, Barbara Hunt, and millions of other young Americans from forgotten economies, have to make that transition in one fell swoop, in the span of their youth. This is where literacy disadvantage and economic disadvantage find their relationship. It is not fair, but for society to ignore that unfairness is a double injustice. So, to answer your question, wherever we are positioned—whether students, teachers, policymakers, concerned citizens, elected representatives or business leaders—it is important to learn about literacy in the context of socioeconomic factors.

Rootstalk: It seems external factors like the economy strongly influence the way people become literate. Can becoming literate be more equitable or at least be less entangled with the economy?

Brandt: This is where the role of public education becomes so critical. Democratic institutions, including the public schools, exist partly to rebalance injustice—to make sure that any differences in health, inheritance, origin of birth, or other inequalities do not over-determine one’s life chances. Democratic institutions are supposed to serve this function by expanding the control that individuals have over the decisions that affect their lives and by making sure that our collective resources and civil rights are equally accessible by all members. Literacy is central to equality because it is central to our participation in the political process: our right to know, our right to petition, our right to be understood. Inequalities in access and reward for literacy are symptoms of a more general disenfranchisement and aggravate it. So, it is important to remember what schooling is really for, especially when economic interests have such a huge influence over educational policy and practice. Inclusion and equality need to be not only the means of education but also the outcome. From all angles—policy to pedagogy—literacy needs to be addressed in a civil rights context. Understanding and not simply accommodating economic and technological change is a vital responsibility of a democratic school.

Rootstalk: Does individual initiative or intelligence still have a role to play in people’s literacy?

Brandt: It is important to say that I am not trying to make the case that our literacy is determined by the contexts in which we live in any predictable or monolithic way. Martha Day’s experience a century back was not the only—or even the most typical—experience of the farm people of her generation. Among other Midwestern European Americans of her cohort that I interviewed, extreme physical isolation, poor schooling, instability in farm prices and the catastrophes of the Depression all made access to material and institutional supports for literacy difficult and sometimes impossible. For people bearing the burden of racial discrimination, the conditions were usually more difficult. But as Martha Day’s individual initiative and intelligence played a role in her literacy outcomes, they came from a mentality that others shared around her. Success and failure, especially in literacy, are always co-creations. Our economic condition will not determine our literacy. But it will matter in ways that we can analyze. Rootstalk leaf-bug icon marking the end of the article's text.

Mrs. Roy C. Weagly, president of the Associated Women of the American Farm Bureau Federation, lights a candle at the 1948 convention. Martha Day traveled regularly to conventions like these, held in Chicago and other large cities.

Mrs. Roy C. Weagly, president of the Associated Women of the American Farm Bureau Federation, lights a candle at the 1948 convention. Martha Day traveled regularly to conventions like these, held in Chicago and other large cities.

About Interviewee Deborah Brandt
Portrait image of interviewee Deborah Brandt.
Photo courtesy of Deborah Brandt
Deborah Brandt is professor emerita of English at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Her book, Literacy in American Lives, published in 2001 by Cambridge University Press, won multiple awards, including an outstanding book prize from the Modern Language Association and the Grawemeyer Award in Education. Most recently Brandt is author of The Rise of Writing: Redefining Mass Literacy. (Cambridge University Press, 2014) Brandt has been a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, among others.
About Interviewer Daisy Morales
Rootstalk Associate Editor Daisy Morales is an English major at Grinnell College. She anticipates graduating in 2020.