What Americans Are Not Allowed to Know

Literacies of Power: What Americans Are Not Allowed to Know

Patricia A Young-Mitchell

Literacies of Power: What Americans Are Not Allowed to Know, by Donaldo Macedo. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994. 206 pp. $15.95, paper.

Reviewed by Patricia A. Young-Mitchell, University of California-Berkeley.

The major premise of this book by University of Massachusetts professor of English and program director of Bilingual and English-as-a-Second-Language Studies Donaldo Macedo is that there exist, in the United States and other Western cultures, certain types of literacies or discourses that actually impede the dissemination of truth and knowledge.

In this analysis of what he characterizes as the deceitful literacies of the powerful and their “pedagogy of big lies,” Macedo implicitly frames true literacy as the power to dispel the myths surrounding significant historical events, political ideologies, educational constraints, and social agendas of American culture. Key among the themes touched upon in this book is the author’s contention that in the United States the cultural reproduction of literacy uses institutional mechanisms to prevent independent critical thought, especially by those whom it seeks to dispossess. He subsequently identifies the nation’s schools and its media as two of the most pervasive perpetuators of these lies because they are, in his view, the predominant vehicles through which dominant ideologies are projected.

Literacies of Power is organized along five themes. In the introductory chapter, “Literacy for Stupidification: The Pedagogy of Big Lies,” Macedo hypothesizes that an unfounded pedagogy has been used to keep Americans blind to the truth of Euro-American involvement in the wronging of the Western hemisphere. He attributes both this blindness and the belief in the myth of a “common culture” to Americans’ general inability to create critical thought-that is, to their lack of mastery and knowledge of the literacies of power. Macedo demonstrates this through a comparison of Hirsch, Kett, and Trefil’s (1988) Dictionary of Cultural Literacy and their list of “What Every American Needs to Know” to his own elaboration of American historical facts offered in this book’s list of “What Every American Needs to Know but is Prevented from Knowing.” As well, he suggests that next to the Western world’s esteemed museums of fine art and science should be established museums of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and American slavery, the Vietnam War, the Holocaust, and the genocide of the American Indian-“museums of crime” that would serve to demystify the myths that often shroud the truth about American history and its dominant culture.

In chapter two, “Our Common Culture: A Poisonous Pedagogy,” Macedo emphasizes his contention that the big-lie theory, along with its philosophical twin-the poisonous pedagogy of an American culture based on Eurocentric ideals and practices yet masquerading as a “common” culture-together inhibit the achievement of a true common culture in the United States, one that allows persons of all races, genders, cultures, and language groups equal participation and representation in U.S. society. This theme is further explored in chapter three, “Our Uncommon Culture: The Politics of Race, Class, Gender and Language,” which presents a conversation between Macedo and Brazilian educator-philosopher Paulo Freire. In their conversation, these two theorists engage in a dialogue about the development of an anticolonial society based on cultural production, which Macedo defines as the process by which particular groups of people produce, arbitrate, and corroborate their mutual ideologies. This chapter is also notable for Freire’s penetrating reflections on his classic 1970 work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Macedo maintains in chapter four, “English Only: The Tongue-Tying of America,” that the combined malapropisms of the American dominant group’s pedagogical ideals involve schools and societal and government institutions alike in lies, deceit, humiliation, scare tactics, manipulation, and ridicule of non-White, non-male persons. These lies inevitably influence the nation’s educational systems and breed an “uncommon” culture. While claiming to support a commonality of cultures, Macedo argues, proponents of these pedagogies create mechanisms that actually prohibit full participation such as the elimination of affirmative action and other social entitlement programs. Their true nature, he claims, is exemplified by the uncommonality of the English-only movement, which he attacks as a crusade of intolerance. In his critique of this movement, Macedo assails two notions: (a) the assumption that English is the most feasible language of instruction, and (b) the assumption that most American educators are already aware of how language is influenced by racism, classism, and economic deprivation. Macedo proposes an alternative educational plan for educating linguistic minorities that focuses on the validation of their language and culture and on the reconstruction of a more democratic educational program. He advocates for multiculturalism and diversity and for a national milieu in which all races, genders, cultures, and languages are respected, tolerated, and embraced.

In his concluding chapter, “Educational Reform: Literacy and Poverty Pimps,” Macedo analyzes a variety of ideologies enacted in the name of educational reform. He also makes it clear that he perceives conventional educational reform approaches, and the people behind them, as part of the problem. Throughout the book, but especially in this chapter, he skillfully and accurately references a variety of newspaper, journal, and interview sources to demonstrate educators’ and others’ rampant avoidance of what Americans are not allowed to know-namely, the truth about the nation’s fallible history. To be truly empowering, Macedo maintains that American education must be transformed, not reformed. In support of this, he offers examples from his own audio-journal, “Ghetto Life 101,” and references his professional in the academy.

To bring educators and students to a more critical analysis and political stance of themselves and the world, Macedo proposes in this last chapter an “anti-method” pedagogy that is free of dominant group mentality-based methodologies and models. This pedagogy, he maintains, situates instructional practices in a world view in which social, cultural, economic, and political connections involve all of the participants in education (i.e., teachers, students, and theorists), thereby producing a more humane and just educational process.

Literacies of Power is a reminder that the injustices perpetuated against people of color and women throughout American history continue to this day. As Macedo reveals, these injustices are evident in our society and they are sorely evident in our schools. This book is thus a wake-up call and a call to action for those who will educate future generations of Americans. It is of definite benefit to educators seeking to better understand and analyze the truth about American society and culture generally and seeking more specifically to critique their own practice from a sociocultural perspective. Additionally, researchers interested in educational reform may find alternative representations for educational transformation in Macedo’s ideas.

Donaldo Macedo has skillfully crafted Literacies of Power as a book that contributes much to critical pedagogy and social theory. It is a book that builds on one educator’s depth of experience and seasoned pedagogical knowledge to transform the mindsets of his peers. It is also one that challenges all of the participants in the educational process to critically analyze, to question, and to act, if necessary, to change the condition of American education.


Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Seabury Press.

Hirsch, E. D., Kett, J. F., dr Trefil, J. (Eds.). (1988). Dictionary of cultural literacy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Copyright Howard University Spring 1996

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