It is not the
English teacher’s primary job to prepare students for the workplace, though
this is surely a responsibility we share with teachers of other disciplines.
Literacy, as Deborah Brandt says in Literacy
in America (2001), is a resource,
an “economic, political, intellectual, spiritual [resource], which, like wealth
or education, or trade skill or social connections, is pursued for the
opportunities and protections that it potentially grants its seekers” (5). To
this I would add, the nation to which they belong, for as Brandt says “Literacy
is a valued commodity in the U.S. economy, a key resource in gaining profit and
edge” (21). Such an emphasis on literacy as a resource stresses the fact that
it is a resource which people trade, thus focusing on the competitive nature of
literacy and its relation to individual and social success. Brandt notes that
“literacy looms as one of the great engines of profit and competitive
advantage” and is cultivated by what she calls “sponsors,” those “agents, local
or distant, concrete or abstract, who enable, support, teach, and model, as
well as recruit, regulate, or withhold, literacy—and gain advantage by it in
some way” (18).
Echoing others’ comments (Godin 2003; Hayes 2008; Tapscott 2008; Seely Brown 2002) about the changing nature of work in the global economy, Brandt drives home the extent to which “the nature of work in the United States puts a premium on the ability to traffic in symbols generally and verbal symbols particularly, as print and print-based technologies have penetrated into virtually all aspects of money making. In an information economy, reading and writing serve as input, output, and conduit for producing profit and winning economic advantage. Systematic information has replaced direct experience as the basis for knowledge making and decision making, turning texts into the principle tools and literacy into the principle craft of the information economy” (25). The problem is that high school and even a large percentage of college graduates are showing up for work without the skills and knowledge needed to compete in this economy (NCEE 2007; Friedman 2007; Wagner 2008) at the same time that a growing number of adults in other countries are showing up with thee qualifications as part of what Zakaria (2008) calls “the rising of the rest” of the world in an increasingly global marketplace of labor and ideas.
As the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) says in its critical report Tough Choices or Tough Times (2007), “this is a world in which a very high level of preparation in reading, writing, speaking, mathematics, science, literature, history, and the arts will be indispensable…in which comfort with ideas and abstractions is the passport to a good job, in which creativity and innovation are the keys to a good life” (xviii). A report on “basic knowledge and applied skills” for the 21st century workforce, titled Are They Really Ready to Work?, reinforces the critical tone and grave concern expressed in the NCEE report, concluding that the future U.S. workforce is “woefully ill-prepared for the demands of today’s (and tomorrow’s) workplace” (2006, 9) particularly in four areas, each of which involves literacy in one form or another:
· Professionalism/Work Ethic
· Oral and Written Communications
· Critical Thinking/Problem Solving