Our Landmarks Through the Lens of Literacy Classism

Let’s look back at these landmarks for a moment through the lens of literacy classism. We will clearly see that our heroes and heroines were incredibly courageous. Yet few ended their careers with the accolades or even the recognition they were due.

Remember William Smith in the 1812 Bristol School Movement? The local door-keeper of the local Methodist chapel? He was “a poor, humble, and almost unlettered individual” who “relinquished three shillings weekly from his small wages of eighteen shillings per week” (Hudson, cited in Quigley, 2006, p.38) to rent two rooms to help illiterate adults learn to read using the Bible. We also saw how the Methodists worked to spread the Bristol School Movement across England, then on to Africa, China and America.

But consider the levels of prejudice and scorn they were facing.

Dr. Pole’s was the first written history of adult literacy in the English language and the first time the term “adult education” appeared in print. Published in 1816, his purpose was to advocate on behalf of the Bristol School Movement. He argued passionately that learning to read using the Bible would “moralize and Christianize the minds of men” (1816/Verner, 1967, p. 19). While this may seem to be a startling, even demeaning representation of a huge subculture, Pole was living in the early 19th century, a Dickensian period when fear and loathing towards what Pole called “the illiterate poor” was the norm. The lower classes, many of whom were either illiterate or low literate, were blamed for all kinds of social issues. Pole, then, was writing to reassure his skeptical readers: “Instead of idleness, profaneness and vice, [the Bible] would inculcate diligence, sobriety, frugality, piety, and heavenly-mindedness” among the “illiterate poor” (1816/Verner, 1967, p. 19). It took a dramatically moral argument to foster and spread the Bristol School model. But there were limits to what the Bristol School was prepared to do, to teach. For instance, the Bristol School did not teach writing. Why not? Because the prevailing view was teaching the “illiterate poor” to write would only tempt them to commit forgery (Moore, 1997). This was an underclass that could not be trusted, rather they needed to be morally uplifted.

Our early history was founded on assumptions we can hardly fathom today. The expressed needs of learners did not matter. The perceived needs of society through the lens of literacy classism determined both the content and purpose of teaching literacy. Incidentally, there was a secondary purpose. According to Pole, learning to read with the Bible would reduce the need, and public expense, for Poor Houses (Quigley, 1997). But, above all, Pole assured his readers that teaching the illiterate poor to read with the Scriptures would mean “they will…have learned better to practice meekness, Christian Fortitude, and resignation” (1816/Verner, 1967, p. 19).

On the other side of the Atlantic, the Port Royal Experiment (1862-1865) was intended to help the freed slaves—the Freedmen—become able to take over the South Carolina farms and plantations after the Civil War. But there was more to this “experiment.” The main reason for the Port Royal Experiment was to see if the formerly enslaved men and women were actually capable of learning to read and write (DeBoer, 1995; Rachal, 1986).

As history tells us, the Freedmen “walked for miles along the dusty roads…to taste the forbidden fruit [of reading]” (Swint, 1967, p. 72). Reverend Richardson and his wife worked tirelessly to try to convey to the Northerners, and any Southerners who would listen, that these adult learners were their intellectual equals. However, the backlash against the Freedmen during reconstruction saw a total reversal in education for African Americans. According to Richardson’s replacement, Francis Cardazo, the Southern whites “wished to shut them up rather than see the colored people educated” (cited in Quigley, 2006, p. 44).

Literacy classism rose to heightened pitch in the U.S. when, in 1924, President Calvin Coolidge warned of the dangers of low literacy, asserting: “When it is remembered that ignorance is the most fruitful source of poverty, vice and crime, it is easy to realize the necessity for removing what is a menace [i.e., illiteracy], not only to our social wellbeing, but to the very existence of the Republic” (cited in Quigley, 1997, p. 92). Those living with low literacy in the U.S. at that time were seen in much the same way those in England had been depicted by Dr. Pole during the Bristol School Movement. The low literate population was to blame not only for their own condition, but for countless other issues of “poverty, vice and crime.”

According to Stevens, during the 19th and into the 20th century it was assumed that “bible literacy could allow the poor to do their religious duty…it would also help them to acquire the habits of industry and thrift. And a sense of their place in the social order” (1987, p. 107). The “social order,” in effect, meant literacy classism.

With the Moonlight Schools of Kentucky, which she started in 1911, Cora Wilson Stewart worked out of her belief in the social gospel, which argued for taking practical steps to help others (Quigley, 1997). While her curricula were undoubtedly based on morality and the normative values of her time, she changed the face of adult literacy across the U.S. with the creation of the night school model for teaching adults to read and write (Quigley, 2006). But her life’s work was nevertheless derided by her Kentucky school superintendent colleagues, who called her efforts “quixotic” and literacy education “a fad and a failure” and advised her to “channel her efforts elsewhere” (Estes, cited in Quigley, 2006, p. 56). Stewart died in relative obscurity at age 83 in a North Carolina nursing home.

In 1889, Jane Addams and the women of Hull House moved into a house formerly owned by the Hull family and now surrounded by the worst slums in Chicago. In the face of huge social prejudice, they taught and worked with immigrants in the neighbourhood. As Addams and her colleagues tried to lift the immigrants out of poverty with liberal, then vocational forms of education and training, the women came to see how the poor were not to blame for a situation that was not of their own making. The immigrant families were clearly being exploited by Chicago’s magnates of industry and corrupt Chicago politicians. The women of Hull House began to fight for social justice. They joined the women’s suffrage movement; they helped initiate the Factory Act so children would not be so exploited. They are today credited with founding social services in America, and Jane Addams was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1932. She is seen as one of America’s greatest champions of the poor and oppressed. She stood up to literacy classism.

But it clearly is still with us. Despite the Hull House landmark and the heroism of so many individuals throughout our history, the stereotypes and prejudices of literacy classism continue to this day.

Elsewhere, I wrote about some of the literacy stereotypes that were appearing in the popular media during the 1970s and 1980s (Quigley, 1997). There were so many stereotypes of adults with low literacy in magazines and newspapers that I could categorize them into what I called “literacy genres.” For instance, there was the widely accepted genre of the “Heroic Victim” where males (always) were depicted as “tragic, sometimes as pathetic” victims (p. 51). Typically, these illiterate victims had “been wounded but they remained unvanquished” (p. 51). As a Saturday Evening Post editorial put it in 1988, this group of adults “suffer in silence to hide their problem in shame” (cited in Quigley, 1997, p. 52).

Variations on the Heroic Victim theme appeared as other genres. One I called the “Simple Immigrant” depicted as “an archetypal, passive foreigner who works humbly for a piece of America’s resources” (p. 53). Another—the “Simple American Worker”— was usually a gruff, aggressive male with little or no literacy but lots of anger. He typically had to first be “humbled by circumstances” brought about by his low literacy. Then, once humbled, he would be “nursed back to self-composure” (p. 54) by a caring, literate, female friend or partner. The categories of the “Simple African American” and the “Simple Southern White” each echoed basically the same stereotypical struggle due to low literacy. Some were “saved” due to a literacy program, but most were not. Most were effectively sensationalized examples of how sad the lives of illiterate adults were. Moving into the 1980s, Peter Jennings, anchorman of the evening news on a major U.S. television network, put it this way: “I have never encountered people as hopeless, as sad and as full of loss as those who cannot read or write” (cited in Quigley, 1997, p. 54).

These are but a few examples of literacy stereotypes appearing in the popular media during that time. Now, adult literacy, however depicted, has fallen out of the mainstream media. What is left is a well-engrained set of prejudices in our western culture. This literacy classism has never, to my knowledge, been seriously challenged.

What does this review of Section Two through the lens of literacy classism tell us?

In my opinion, seeing the “history behind the history” gives us an even clearer picture of the remarkable courage our heroes and heroines brought to our field of adult literacy. Furthermore, I believe it is time for us to raise the following question in a new conversation:

“How can our profession work to change the literacy stigmatization we have inherited from our history…challenge literacy classism not only for our learners but for the millions of adults marginalized by low literacy?”