I’ve been thinking about literacy sponsorship for the past couple of days and I really want to get a better understanding of this relationship between sponsorship and ideology. Brandt, of course, says “sponsors deliver the ideological freight that must be borne for access to what they have … the sponsored can be oblivious to or innovative with this ideological burden” (74). So, it is clear that every instance of literacy (it might be helpful to think of Gee’s definition of literacy here) learning is simultaneously a presentation of ideology. I hesitate to say that every act of literacy learning is also an indoctrination because Brandt makes it clear that the learner can innovate in critical and creative ways with this ideological freight–if they are conscious of it.
I think it is helpful to think about sponsorship first through our experiences in formal education–public or private. The teachers, administrators, officials, etc. that make up the entire educational apparatus at the county, state, and federal level. For Brandt, the bureaucratic machine behind education–and its interests–cannot be separated from the individual classroom experience and the instances of literacy sponsorship on a day-to-day basis. Even if this is largely, and perhaps purposefully, not made apparent or not thought about. (Like the little league team that wears the logo of the insurance agency on their jersey in order to play ball.) So, thinking of Alexie’s description of his experience with formal education and his returning to the classrooms on the reservation trying to reach students:
I visit the schools as often as possible. The Indian kids crowd the classroom. Many are writing their own poems, short stories, and novels. They have read my books. They have read many other books. They look at me with their bright eyes and arrogant wonder. They are trying to save their lives. Then there are the sullen and already defeated Indian kids who sit in the back rows and ignore me with theatrical precision. The pages of their notebooks are empty. They carry neither pencil nor pen. They stare out the window. They refuse and resist.
It is important to point out what is implied is going to happen to the students refusing his sponsorship noting that he is, quite literally, trying to save their lives. Alexie recognizes the social power of literacy and what it can do socially. But, at the same time, there is a recognition of the ideological burdens that comes with these particular literacies and why the rebel students might feel compelled to resist it. Accepting English, accepting formal education modeled and structured in that particular way, means accepting the same dominating forces that created the reservation to begin with. I mean, there is a reason why these kids are resisting. It’s not as simple as being “bad” students, I don’t think. What Gee does for us in this regard is allow us to articulate a third way to think about literacy and ideology beyond simply blind acceptance or a fierce resistance: powerful literacy. Powerful literacy is, I would argue, related to Brandt’s idea that we can be innovative with the ideological freight of literacy. We need to spend some time thinking about examples of what is meant here. Frederick Douglass immediately comes to mind for me. Who his literacy sponsors were, how he came to learning, and what he was able to do with it. Malcolm X’s short piece, “Learning to Read,” is also worth checking out to think about innovation in this way.