Monday, October 29, 2007

literacy for what?

Well, since you guys started the critique of capitalism... here goes...

Harold Alden, in Illiteracy and Poverty in Canada: Towards a Critical Perspective, says

The main objectives are increasing the productivity of the poor and unemployed, i.e. enhancing their value to employers, while extending "social control" over them, i.e. obtaining their acquiesence to their subordinate positions. (Chapter 4)

Juliet Merrifield, in Contested Ground: Performance Accountability, says

As concerns about the skills of the workforce grew, preparation for employment became ever more explicitly the primary purpose of education. Voices advocating the broad view of education for citizenship lost ground to a sharper vocational focus in both adult and K-12 education. ... The customers of adult education began to be defined as employers, interested in the “product” of skilled employees. (p. 5-6)

Deborah D'amico, in Politics, Policy, Practice And Personal Responsibility: Adult Education In An Era Of Welfare Reform, says

Union educators have pointed out that the assumption underlying much of workplace literacy is that workers and management have the same interests in education. Certainly, some interests are shared, but others aren't. (p. 13)

What do you think?
What is the contested ground?
How do the interests of the private sector, policy-makers, practitioners and learners intersect? Who has shared interests and what are they?
Where are the creative tensions and where are the battlegrounds?

How has this landscape changed since you have been connected to literacy education?


  1. Let me demark three points... or opinions, or something. I'd really like to hear peolpe's thoughts about any or all.

    1. Literacy for employment is (one) good option
    Some adult learners want to improve their skills in order to find employment (or fuller employment). This is okay, and its a great context for cooperation. For example, if a large cleaning firm like Servicemaster identified skillsets and information they wanted employees to have, I'd feel fine about making that available. On the other hand, if that was all that was available, I wouldn't be doing literacy work anymore - I'd be subsidizing Servicemaster (or whoever) by doing their training for them.

    2. The relationship between literacy and the economy: let's not oversell.
    It is commonplace for "poor education" to be cited as a cause of "low employment" - and for literacy programs to be promoted as a way of raising employment figures. But literacy programs don't increase job opportunities: they increase literacy. Jobs come from tax policies and infrastructure resource allocation and decisions made in a thousand boardrooms, large and small. If people in my city are underemployed, poor, and increasingly desperate and despondent, that's not my fault. I just help them with things like reading, writing, math and some computer skills.

    3. If adult literacy is a right - or even a laudable goal - it should be provided and managed in society's best interest, not that of one sector or social class
    Simply put, the business sector doesn't have business directing literacy programming and supports. This gets overlooked ever now and then when somebody starts believing this or that fat-cat business tycoon is going to give us bags of money. But those bags of gold buy advertising for buinesses, and leave us open to downsizing when the economy contracts.

  2. Wendell - I really like the way you think - and not only because I agree with everything you say - but you have expressed it so clearly.
    Yes, some adult learners want to improve their skill so that they can find employment or "better" employment. The situation we're more and more finding ourselves in though is that employment is being seen as the only "acceptable" reason for improving skills. It's as though there's only one right answer to the question "Why are you setting out on this learning journey?" The only destination can be a job. And I know it's easy to criticize from where I'm sitting - at work actually - but it just seems to me that if the purposes and intent of learning are so narrowly defined that a lot of what is actually going on in adult literacy is lost - and that overly narrow definition obscures some difficult issues or racism and classism and the realities of exclusion and power.
    If learning only supports us to fit in and does not support us to question and to critically review
    what does that mean?

  3. How do the interests of the private sector, policy-makers, practitioners and learners intersect? Who has shared interests and what are they?

    These are fascinating, but very large questions.

    Firstly, the policy-makers must look at Canada as a country beginning to slide toward the status of that of a 'developing nation.' They must see that the only visible positive growth we are experiencing is within the entrepreneur/business sector. Our negative growth rate is much less visible, nevertheless, sneaky, quiet and looming. For example, citizens cannot have better health as a result of being in charge of their own health, regardless of health promotion, if they can't read to purchase the right foods, budget their small incomes, and so on.

    As I have said previously, if health, justice, education, community services, and Service Canada would attack the problem using the skills and knowledge of literacy workers and learners, we would begin to address the needs at grassroots.

    Because Canada looks like, walks like and talks like a viable country with everything working in good order, there appear to be no glaring issues. It's like a plant-the bloom has good colour, there's no visble eating away at the foliage and the stem is sturdy looking...but has anyone checked underground for 'root rot'???

    The general population is not aware of the impact of the low literacy and life skills of those around them , because nobody talks about it. It's a dirty little secret. Were they to realize the impact this will have on costs and taxes in the future they would be rioting in the streets.

    Anyway, this is my rant for now. I'm enjoying reading the views of so many others in this field.

  4. Hi,
    I have to repeat the questions in order to keep my thoughts focused.

    What is the contested ground?
    How do the interests of the private sector, policy-makers, practitioners and learners intersect? Who has shared interests and what are they?

    I like the title of these thoughts - "literacy for what?" It makes me also think about "literacy for whom?" and "what is literacy?" and "What? Literacy in Canada?"

    Ideally, in my opinion, things would work this way. An adult decides that learning to or omproving their reading writing and math would benefit them in some way. They would know why and that would drive their motivation to seek and engage in the rigour and joy of learning. The puts the learner first.

    What would be their next step? Find a place to learn. How would they do that? By asking around or using the skills they have to find a place to learn. Finding the right place to meet their needs is the challenge.

    So there need to be places to learn. That's where the private sector, policy makers, practitioners and other learners enter the picture. It costs money to provide places to learn. It takes planning to make sure the money is there and there are enough programs in enough places.

    But that doesn't displace the adult learner from being the driver. What adult learners want from programs should drive "literacy for what?" Ideally.

    Where things have gone wrong in my view goes back to globalization and capitalism - because that is what seems to be more and more driving the answer to "literacy for what?, and "literacy for whom?" and "what is literacy?" and "What? Literacy in Canada?"

    In this view, although many learners are clear about wanting to gain skills in order to have work or better work, etc., in order to participate in and benefit more from the global economy, that is only part of their picture and drive. There is more to it that seems to be dismissed as irrelevant, eg. read for pleasure, plan a vacation, study something unrelated to work goals, etc.

    Where are the creative tensions and where are the battlegrounds?

    Learners have become a problem for Canada. They put us at a disadvantage globally. Make us look bad to the world. We aren't worth investing in because of our low literacy levels, etc. I don't think that is what is in learner's minds when they decide to seek help and join a literacy program. Although they may come with low self esteem and feel shame and fear that they have literacy needs, what brings them forward is hope. It is so sad to see this kind of tension - someone steps into a process with hope and can discover that they are deemed a problem. Remember when the most recent IALSS stats came out? what was the message from that? Nothing has improved - you are still a problem - Canada is falling back because of you - literacy practitioners have failed, etc. etc. So negative. So disheartening. So tense.

    It costs money to provide literacy training for people who want it. There's a tension. Services are funded based on a priority list. That priority list is one competitive place and those priorities can shift from week to week and government to government. Literacy isn't that high, unless lack of it is couched in risks to everyone - risks to health, risks to the economy, risks to children, risks to opportunity, risks to safety on the job, etc. Again not having the skills is deemed negative, costly, risky, and those without them hold us all back. Whose going to step forward into that and say - "I'm guilty - sign me up?" Where's the hope?

    How has this landscape changed since you have been connected to literacy education?

    I like to operate as a literacy practitioner from my ideal place - and I find it more and more spiritually draining and challenging to my integrity to be caught up in the global thrust - the numbers game, the administrative accountability game to prove that it is valid to help people increase their literacy skills.

    Again though, and I always feel like I am projecting negative energy when I share here so bear with me, literacy really isn't high on the priority lists for funding unless it is framed as serving the machine of globalization and capitalism. Because it takes money from the public purse to make it available.
    We are all so bound together by the need for money, eh! And I say that as a career literacy practitioner whose livelihood is based on learners wanting and needing help. I wish I could do what I do for free.

    I'll stop here.


  5. Hi Nancy.

    I was following your argument right up to the "places to learn" part, and then I started to drift... yeah... places to learn, I thought. Just like we have hockey rinks and playgrounds and walking trails and libraries and swimming pools and tourist information centres and ... why don't we just Have places to learn?

    (The answer to why is in the second part of your comments, of course.)

    Keep contributing.

  6. My sister just sent me this link.

    Reuters does not keep things up long so I'll copy this UK headline:
    Millions wasted on teaching reading

    I too was dreaming of the places, and then I read this.

    At first I enjoyed the absurdity of it all. But then I started to feel the weight of the absurdity of it all.