Beneath the Tip of the Iceberg: Seeing the dark side of literacy

Beneath the Tip of the Iceberg: Seeing the dark side of literacy

We have had many statistical studies about adult literacy since the mid-1970s. Some have been national, some provincial, others have been international. Over the past almost 50 years these studies have had various levels of political, media and public impact. However, the fact is little has changed at the systemic level—below the tip of the iceberg things have stayed much the same.

Here’s my story and part of the reason I have written this Guide.

After two years in Fort McMurray (1973-1975) teaching what was called “VocTech” (the Vocational Technical program) then moving into management whereby we changed the status of the Fort McMurray Alberta Vocational Centre (AVC) to become today’s Keyano College, I joined what was to become Regina Plains Community College. The college began as a store front in downtown Regina and, as the college grew, I became the Director of Adult Basic Education.

It was at that time the first study of adult literacy in Canada was released. In 1976, Audrey Thomas published Canadian Adult Basic Education and Literacy Activities. A conference was held at Algonquin College in Ontario where the report was released and the Movement for Canadian Literacy was formed (since discontinued). The participants, myself included, left passionately committed to doing what Audrey had asked: “raise consciousness” about the sorry state of adult literacy across Canada.

She had urged us to contact our provinces’ newspapers and go on radio or TV to discuss the findings. I got an interview on the CKCK TV station in my home of Regina. I told viewers 37.2% of adults in Canada over the age of 15 had “less than grade 9” education (Thomas, 1976, p. 2), and Saskatchewan had 41% without grade 9. This shocking announcement meant over a third of our province was what was then called “functionally illiterate” by each of UNESCO, Statistics Canada and the Canadian Association of Adult Education.

I could see the incredulous look in the eyes of the television interviewer. Then, he turned to the camera and said: “We have to take a break now…but when we come back, we’ll find out if our camera man, Danny, is ‘illiterate.’” Off camera, there was a chorus of laughter in the studio.

I knew this would not be easy.

As a book-end to my story, jumping ahead to the annual DECODA conference held in Vancouver in 2021, we had a distinguished keynote speaker. He had been the mayor of a mid-sized city in the Lower Mainland of B.C. and was currently owner of a number of restaurants in the province. He was introduced to us by the Dean of Education at the University of Victoria and came forward to address our audience of about 100 literacy tutors, teachers, administrators and counsellors, including some from other provinces. Well dressed in a business suit, he stood at the microphone for a minute or two looking out at us, his speech in his hand. Then he burst into tears. He stood at the microphone sobbing uncontrollably for at least two full minutes. The audience was stunned. What was happening? He pulled out his handkerchief, wiped his eyes and said, “I hope I can get through this.”

He then said, “I have had dyslexia all of my life….” Then, taking a breath, “This is the first time I have ever told anyone that I have dyslexia. I have never told anyone before I have never been able to read.” He held up his speech. A single sheet of paper with what looked like doodling on it. “This is what I use as a speech.” He gave a bit of a laugh then went on to tell us what it was like to be a city mayor, politician and business leader while keeping his inability to read a deep secret.

He explained how he would put the medals around the necks of kids who had won a local game and have someone else read their names aloud. How the minutes of a City Council meeting would be taken down by the secretary, then read aloud next meeting for approval. These and a million other strategies to keep his illiteracy hidden over the course of a lifetime followed. He told us he had been placed in special education in school and called “retarded” by some kids. But his father had helped him move ahead in life.

After a long, halting speech he thanked us for all that we were doing in literacy. Then, after a long pause, he ended with, “Thank you.” He received a twenty-minute, thunderous standing ovation.

We filed out of the ballroom amazed by what we had seen and heard. I have heard many keynote speeches in my life but we were so impressed by his courage. His strength. Then I thought to myself, “Why?” Why should anyone have to stand and weep in front of others because they cannot read? Surely this is not just tragic, it is wrong.

These two stories, and so many others along the way, have convinced me that adult literacy is far more than statistics. It is far more than the acquisition of reading or writing or numeracy skills. Beneath the tip of the iceberg is a hegemony of stigmatizing those with lower levels of formal education, low or no literacy in particular. As Hal Beder wrote, referring to the U.S.: “While it is no longer socially acceptable to publicly denigrate Blacks, Hispanics, and welfare recipients…it is acceptable to denigrate…illiterates” (1991, p. 140). Of course, things have changed since Beder made this observation. Today in Canada and the U.S., it is not only socially unacceptable to denigrate those groups, but groups such as the LGBTQ community, Indigenous peoples, people with disabilities, women (including in the #MeToo Movement), Black Canadians and Americans, and various immigrant groups have come to gain a voice along with levels of equity and legal rights. But not for low literacy. In our case, the prejudicial image of low literacy has not particularly changed. Nor has it been challenged. Or even named. In my own writing and presentations, I have been calling this phenomenon “literacy classism.”

The heroes of our literacy field—some founding landmarks are presented in Section Two—are made even more heroic as we see how they struggled simply to teach adults literacy. This is the underside, “the dark side” of literacy. But this historical context may help explain why our field is as it is. And, moving through this Guide, we conclude in Section Seven with some suggestions for a new conversation as we go forward into the future.

Read More

Beder, H. (1991). Adult literacy education: Issues for policy and practice. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing.

Quigley, A. (2006). Building professional pride in literacy: A dialogical guide to professional development. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing.

Thomas, A. (1976). Canadian adult basic education and literacy activities: A digest. Toronto: World Literacy of Canada.