The Framing and Values of Literacy Work

Well here comes the future and you can't run from it
If you've got a blacklist I want to be on it
Waiting for the Great Leap Forward
Billy Bragg (1996 CD re-issue)

I have a constant colleague who is a small "c" conservative (i.e., what we used to call "liberal") who believes more in private effort and individual initiative, than in government systems. I'm more of a small "l" liberal (i.e., what we used to call "socialist") who believes in social efforts and government intervention, and mistrusts private-property interests.

We get along just fine - you know, diversity is richness and all that - but the differences are there. (Ironically, it's the running-dog capitalist who coordinates with government and central committees, rather than the pinko-leftist commie. Who'dda thought?) We had a chance to talk about our different lens a few days ago, which started me thinking about sharing my lens here. You know, kindda explain what I mean when I say I'm mostly a post-marxist dependency theorist* sort of guy.

Then, I had the chance to read David J. Rosen explaining his lens in a blog post titled Advocating Smarter.

This Rosen bloke seems like a pretty smart guy, and I'd encourage you to take some time with his writings. According to the webpage I was on, he's been an executive director at an "Adult Literacy Resource Institute" which is part of the University of Massachusetts, and he's been a consultant with "education projects for adults and out-of-school youth in the U.S. and abroad." He's also been associated with some other state and federal adult-ed groups in the U.S. over the past couple of decades. Smart, articulate, and experienced.

He came to my attention (via Alphaplus) with this multipart post about how and why "adult literacy education advocates have been pushing a boulder up hill [which]... rolls down on us, and we just try to push harder." His suggestion is "maybe we don’t have to push up hill, and maybe we have more potential allies to help us push."

Literacy worker as Sisyphus? Hmm....

He tells us the blog entry is based on his paper called “Framing Literacy Values for Successful Advocacy” which appeared in the March 2006 issue of The Change Agent. By the way, I've had zero success getting at past issues of The Change Agent which appears never to have heard of OPEN ACCESS without registration and password systems that Never Seem To WORK (hello!! hello!!).... but I digress.

You can find his ideas pleasantly presented here: Advocating Smarter. In this post, he takes care to give us his lens up front:

My argument is based on three assumptions:

1. If adult literacy education – the work that teachers, tutors, and other practitioners and adult learners do – were well understood, it would be a bipartisan priority for Republicans and Democrats, and for conservatives as well as liberals or progressives;

2. The way we describe our work now, many conservatives, and the political middle-of-the-road, do not agree that it should get more government support; and

3. Our messages – what we project to the general public about our work — are flawed. They stereotype adult literacy education as “liberal,” “do-gooder,” or “noble work… for volunteers.”
Those are, indeed, happy thoughts. Would that the world worked that way.

Look, again, allow me to urge you to go read this piece. It's smart, thoughtful and thought-provoking.

But, I gotta tell ya, sadly, my experience and my lens lead me to three very different assumptions:
1. What adult literacy educators do poses a threat, on two levels, for social and fiscal conservatives (one threat is the redistribution of wealth required to fund this particular social program, and the other is an increasingly empowered and literate electorate who may speak, act and vote contrary to established interests) and they know this threat exists even if we all pretend it's not there;

2. The way we describe our work (particularly in funding requests) can create fences around what we are allowed to do (for example, preventing us from scaffolding learner self-advocacy, and pushing us toward an employer-determined workplace learning curriculum), which means it is more important that, from the get-go, our self-descriptions be effective for learners than that they be palatable for business interests; and

3. Our messages are often flawed because we have allowed ourselves to be pushed into two small corners where we typically blame the victims of unjust or poor social policy and then over-promise results ("Too many people get sick or become criminals because they can't read, and literacy workers can fix that," "The economy's in trouble because too many people aren't educated enough to be good workers, and literacy workers can fix that too").
This is part of what I mean about my post-marxist lens.

You would think that with such a pessimistic outlook I'd be depressed all the time, and probably sick and badly dressed to boot.

But I'm not. Go figure.

Oh, by the way, here's my picture of uphill work. F**k a bunch of boulders.


* A fun but mysterious slideshare introduction here.

By the way, the fact I find this slideshow "fun" probably says something tragic about my upbringing. If you've enjoyed it as well, go here and, well, party like it's 1996!

What we don't know keeps the contracts alive and moving
They don't gotta burn the books, they just remove them
While arms warehouses fill as quick as the cells
Rally round the family, pockets full of shells
Bulls on Parade
rage against the machine (1996)

It may have been Camelot for Jack and Jacqueline
But on the Che Guevara highway filling up with gasoline
Fidel Castro's brother spies a rich lady who's crying
Over luxury's disappointment, so he walks over and he's trying
To sympathise with her but he thinks that he should warn her
That the Third World is just around the corner
Waiting for the Great Leap Forward
Billy Bragg (1996, CD re-issue)

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