The Need for a New Conversation

We have seen a number of ways we can help adults with low literacy change their lives. However, is there nothing we can do to change the social attitudes that alienate and marginalize so many millions of adults living with low literacy? Is there nothing to be done about the fact that so many with low literacy are reluctant to come to literacy programs? Ashamed and hidden in society. Research tells us that less than 10% of the eligible population come to Adult Basic Education and literacy programs (Quigley, 1997; 2006).

I believe we need to talk about this larger issue. I think we need a new conversation.

Back in Section One, we met 82 year-old Maria. She was so proud to have learned to read. If you remember her story, when her restaurant boss said he never knew anyone who could work as a waiter and cook while not being able to read, as Marie told me: “I just looked him square in the eye and said, ‘I’m not just anybody.’” There are thousands of Maries. Thousands of learner success stories. But behind these stories lie so many other stories. Stories of how learners have been caused to feel shame, embarrassment and defensiveness due to low literacy. Many of our learners have even avoided telling their own families they have low literacy. We need to ask: “Why did Marie feel she could never tell anyone she was a non-reader through the 82 years of her life?”

There is a growing movement for our field to talk about this major issue, but we could well ask: “Why? Why is low literacy so stigmatized anyway?”

Why Literacy Stigmatization?

All prejudices come from somewhere. In our field, we live in the shadow of class structures that have been inherited from a very long history. The challenge for our future, I believe, is to become aware of this debilitating prejudice and talk about ways we can make a difference in the ways our learners are seen and perceived. The stereotypes need to be challenged.

In my opinion, a new conversation needs to begin around these two main questions:

1) Why is low literacy so stigmatized in our society? What is the reason?

2) Is there nothing our field can do? Can we not at least identify, discuss and maybe challenge the stigma of low literacy? Is it even possible?

Until now we have not had a name for the phenomenon we need to discuss—what I and others are now calling “literacy classism.” Elsewhere, colleagues and I defined classism itself as follows:

[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…. Members of each class see value and power in their own class, which gives significance to their membership and reifies the social-cultural boundaries between classes. Classism is amplified by conscious and unconscious biases that reinforce one class as better than another. (Zacharakis, Patterson & Quigley, 2021, p. 421)

It is beyond the scope of this Guide to discuss the long history and sociology of adult literacy; but elsewhere, I have discussed literacy classism at greater length (Quigley, 2017; 2021), noting how the social construct of adult literacy itself dates as far back as the Roman empire. Rome was considered the first literate empire in Western history (Fischer, 2003). In order to manage that vast, highly diverse empire, a special class arose called the litteratus. This group became a privileged and very powerful class because it was “capable of accessing and sharing written knowledge” across the entire empire (p. 149). The litteratus was instrumental in building and sustaining the empire and they did so by being able to communicate in Latin. Knowledge of Latin was why they were so privileged and powerful—no other spoken or written language across the empire mattered. As Fischer tells us, Latin became “the vehicle of Christendom and all learning” (p. 149). From this period, we have inherited words like literacy, illiteracy, literature, letters and literati.

“Today’s litteratus” are effectively the formally educated classes that have risen in the class structure of the Western world. By sharp contrast, those who have lacked a formal level of education, and in particular those who have been illiterate or low literate, have inexorably fallen to the bottom of the class structure. Here is an issue that is larger than singular prejudices such as poverty, race or gender. The attitudes towards low literacy are broader than any one of these.

We saw a number of literacy landmarks in Section Two. We learned about some of our remarkable heroes and heroines. They struggled not just with a lack of resources or issues of public support, but, in every case, they also struggled to develop literacy programs in the face of almost unimaginable prejudices towards those living with low literacy.