Living in a Time of Hope

I believe change is possible. In fact, if there ever has been a time of hope for our field, the time is now. We are living in a time of social change. In my lifetime, it has become unacceptable to denigrate members of the LGBTQ community, women, those living with HIV/AIDS, people with disabilities, the aged, and Indigenous peoples. In the past few decades, more marginalized groups have gained a level of public and/or political voice than ever before in Canadian history. But how to make change for literacy?

Naming the Elephant

The first step, I believe, is for our field to “name the elephant in the room.” Until now we have not had a name for the stigmatization of low literacy, although my experience tells me most practitioners are very aware of the stigma discussed here. I have proposed we adopt the name and start a new conversation about literacy classism in our field.

As stated earlier, 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” (Zacharakis, Patterson & Quigley, 2021, p. 421). In this definition, it is important to note: “Classism is amplified by conscious and unconscious biases that reinforce one class as better than another” (p. 421). Meaning, many in the wider public will not be aware of what is being called literacy classism as most of us don’t realize our biases until we are made aware of them.

Throughout the almost fifty years I have been in this field, we have talked about “raising awareness” of adult literacy issues. If we are to affect change, we need to put name to the stigmatization of low literacy that most of us have been aware of, but rarely discuss. And, in our discussion, we also need to more think critically about some aspects of our own practice.

Here are some topics for discussion.

  • We don’t own literacy

Low literacy and illiteracy are issues that are far bigger than our field. We need to recognize that “we don’t own literacy” and we cannot make change alone. Literacy classism should be a concern and a point of action for many of our allied professional associations, including the K-12 education system, career and trades postsecondary training, and higher education. Likewise, the problems created by literacy classism should be a concern for allied helping agencies such as social services, the justice system, culture and youth organizations, and faith-based institutions. We need our allies.

  • Literacy needs to be seen as a human right

Let’s consider the positions we have taken when advocating for our field. For years we have tried to make decision-makers and the wider public aware of the ever-rising statistics of low literacy in the hope that would affect change for literacy education. We have tried to make economic arguments and point to the social benefit higher literacy rates would bring. But we haven’t been particularly successful, especially over the past few decades. We need a larger, much more compelling argument. Frontier College held an international conference in 2019 with the following theme, which I agree with: “It is time to reframe adult literacy as a fundamental human right, not mainly as a simple ‘social benefit.’”

This is far from a new idea. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed in 1948, states:

1) Everyone has a right to education.

2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.
(Article 26)