A sense of crisis, a spirit of giving and... then what?

I've said before that I don't think New Brunswick is in the midst of a literacy crisis.

I think there is work to be done. But I don't believe that, as Jamie Irving once stated, New Brunswick has a literacy problem which would cost a billion dollars to fix. Nor that there are "about 300,000" New Brunswickers who "can read a soup can or a road sign, but that's about it" (April 2009; Podcast).

I've also said I think charitable giving and taxation raise enough money to fund conventional literacy work. More would help, but we don't need anything like a billion dollars! Mr Irving expressed it, "There was all kinds of money and activity going on and nothing seemed to be working, nothing seemed to be getting better." The trouble, as I see it, is that the money earmarked for literacy rarely ends up there.

Instead, the money goes into GED preparation programs, or courses meant to improve work habits and employability. It goes into broad-based early childhood learning initiatives, or narrow-based programs targeting early speech development or fine-motor coordination. It goes into axillary in-school programs designed to raise test scores or ease classroom management problems. It goes into library collections and buys books to give to new parents. It goes into computer and distance learning technology. It goes into cost-subsidy programs and scholarship programs that encourage adults to pursue on-going training or higher education. It goes into project work such as a twelve week workshop series, a month long promotional campaign, or a day-long celebration of reading. It pays for conferences, research and opinion polls.

These are all activities with merit. But none of them will do much for someone who "can read a soup can or a road sign, but that's about it."

In addition, our promotional work and several yearly conferences seem to have failed us. We have created an uninformed sense of concern around literacy. Good people all across the land feel something ought to be done, and they are not above donating books, money, time or effort to help out. But, as my recent encounter with the Doctor and the Journalist shows, the creation of a general concern doesn't mean there is an understanding of the particulars.

Why do we think there's a literacy problem? What, exactly, is the problem? (And what isn't the problem?) What has been done to deal with it over the last 10, 15 or 20 years? What's being done right now? What works? Anything? Everything? Nothing?

In my city's sole newspaper, the Telegraph Journal, there was a story about yesterday's fund-raiser titled Raising readers, one coin at a time. Sandra Davis, the reporter, wrote a cheerful fabric of half-truths celebrating Saint John's giving spirit.

After talking to a volunteer fund-raiser, Ms. Davis wrote of her: "She gets out to do her part to try to guide children away from video games."

I'm not sure why this woman thinks an afterschool reading program for selected Grade Two students will do this. It's none of my business, really. But it raises the possibility that, like the Doctor and the Journalist, her belief in the value of raising funds for "literacy" is independent of her knowledge of where and how the money will be spent.

Ms. Davis tells us, "One hundred percent of the donations raised through Raise-a-Reader are committed to local literacy and educational organizations and all the funds stay in the community where they are collected." This is true in much of Canada where the intention of Raise-a-Reader (support for family literacy) is honoured. But it is not quite true in Saint John. Here, all of the money raised will go to a single reading program - the one created a few years back by Mr. Irving when he was the Telegraph-Journal's publisher (before being shifted to Vice-President) - for which only Grade Two students are eligible.

Would Saint Johners have dug as deeply to help out Mr. Irving, one coin at a time? Would they have been as eager to donate to an after-school program for Grade Two students? Would they have raised questions about why the Department of Education needs handouts?

I don't know. Maybe it wouldn't matter. But I can't help think they might have been told who and what they were contributing to.

And I can't help but think this is our own doing. Somehow, our public discourse about literacy has become badly crippled; full of generalized appeals, vague notions of do-goodedness, and genuine but uninformed support.

"...all kinds of money and activity going on, and nothing... working"

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