What Can We Learn from our Own History?

What Can We Learn from our Own History?

As seen in Section One: Beneath the Tip of the Iceberg: Seeing the “Dark Side” of Literacy, through the years I have come to ask various questions, such as:

Why isn’t adult literacy seen as a human right rather than a “problem that needs fixing”?

UNESCO has argued this for decades. Our history dates back to the Kingston YMCA in 1859—even before Canada as we know it today existed. Adult low-literacy is neither “new” nor “temporary.” Yet, when is the last time anyone has been able to do long-term planning in an adult literacy? Such as building a five-to-ten year plan based on, for instance, local demographic trends to anticipate the areas of a city, town or region that will need literacy programming into the future, and planning for future staff and resources. Why is our field perpetually “reactive”?

Why can’t literacy staff be offered real job security?

Low literacy has existed for generations but literacy typically lives on annual budgets. At least some job security can be seen in educational systems such as the K-12 system, trades training and university education. What other educational system is dependent on thousands of volunteers to conduct tutoring and teaching? When is the last time a public school, college or university closed for lack of funding? Sadly, it happens all the time in adult literacy. We need a new conversation.

“An adult’s right to know”

In closing this section, I turn to the words of Ron Cervero who put it this way: “Learning needs should not be treated as deficiencies of the individual that can be treated and remedied. Rather, learning needs should be seen as an adult’s right to know” (2017, p. 16). I participated in writing a chapter for The Handbook of Adult and Continuing Education where three of us discussed class structure and introduced the term “literacy classism” for the first time (Zacharakis, Patterson, & Quigley, 2021). As defined and explained there, classism denotes “a negative relation between classes where one class treats another class differently based on the first group’s perception of a second group’s cultural values and social status” (p. 421). We argued that we have an “invisible caste system” (p. 420) in Canada. Adult literacy was the sociological example we used. We explained that the unchallenged prejudices we have toward those with low literacy have been inherited. Ours is a class-based issue. As noted by Cervero, low literacy is not and should not be seen as “deficiency” to be “treated and remedied.” Leading to the need for a new conversation in our field…and beyond.

Some practical suggestions for a new conversation appear in Section Seven and I hope this leads to a new way of thinking about our field.

With this historical background and the hegemonic issues we face into the 21st century, let’s turn to the job of tutoring and teaching adult literacy…with implications for counselling and administering in this fascinating profession of adult literacy education.

Read More

Cervero, R.M. (2017). Professionalization for what? Fulfilling the promise of adult and continuing education. PAACE Journal of Lifelong Learning, 26, 1-17.

Quigley, A. (2017). Will anything be different in the 21st Century? How 107 million adults and the field for adult literacy became so marginalized. PAACE Journal of Lifelong Learning, 26, 39-54.

Zacharakis, J., Patterson, M., & Quigley, A. (2021). Working class, social class, and literacy classism. In T. Rocco, C. Smith, R. Mizzi, L. Merriweather, & J. Hawley (Eds.), The handbook of adult and continuing education (pp. 420-435). Sterling VA: Stylus Publishing.