Blogging on adult literacy, 2011

and as usual this “academic” study uses assumptions which promote the economic interests of those who funded it.

This involves the principle, of its nature alien to Socialism, that you must not protest against an evil which you cannot prevent.
Orwell, As I Please, 40 (1944)

My Christmas reading has been the second volume of Hans Küng's biography, Disputed Truth. The book is thick with names from my wasted youth - von Balthasar and Claude Geffré, Raymond Brown and Walter Kasper, Karl Rahner and Yves Congar, J-B Metz, Jürgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg - all the theologians who bewitched and bewildered me for a handful of years until, thank Marx, the political economists gave me a good shake and I went to work at a gas station.

This time, I find myself reading for the story of how theology has been shaped and driven by power relations in society. This is not a particularly religious story. It's part of a 600 year old story of Western humanities and sciences and the myths we create around these. This one strand of that story, tracing the relations between university theology, officially sanctioned beliefs, pastoral work and economics (which, we seldom remember, used to be a subsection of ethics) is my home country. But someone else could do the same thing by examining, say, psychological theories, practical counseling and psychiatry, the regulation of service providers and key socio-economic developments; or, say, the study of astro-physics, the historical links between NASA and the military, and the corresponding industrial-military economies. No matter what the strand, the story is always of the over-riding influence of political wealth and power on both intellectual theory and application, and the deceits good people use to avoid acknowledging this.

Earlier this month, Michael Lind wrote a brief, exasperated Salon post in the wake of Christopher Hitchen's death and the tributes that followed. I don't know much about Hitchens - the only work of his I recall reading was his treatment of Orwell, Why Orwell Matters, which I found slight and odd and rather less interesting than almost any of Orwell's own essays - but one part of Lind's post hooked me. He writes:

But though he played one on TV, Hitchens was not an intellectual, if the word has any meaning anymore. Those known by the somewhat awkward term “public intellectuals” can be based in the professoriate, the nonprofit sector, or journalism. They can even be politicians, like the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan. But genuine intellectuals, as distinct from mere commentators or TV talking heads, need to meet two tests.
First, intellectuals need to produce some substantial works of scholarship, literature or rigorous reporting, distinct from the public affairs commentary for which they may be best known to a broad public. If you do nothing but review other people’s work or write brief columns or blog posts, it is easy to appear to be much smarter and erudite than you really are.
Second, genuine intellectuals base their interventions in public debate on the basis of some coherent view of the world. A dedication to rigorous and systematic reasoning, wherever it may lead, is what distinguishes intellectuals from lobbyists or partisan spin doctors who change their views according to the demands of a special interest or a party. It also distinguishes them from mere “contrarians” — the term Hitchens used to describe himself — who attract publicity by taking controversial stands according to their whims.
- Hitchens, gossip columnist of genius

It is often said of bloggers that they are "mere commentators" or "mere 'contrarians'” who "review other people’s work or write brief columns or blog posts" occasionally attracting "publicity by taking controversial stands according to their whims."

What Lind, and others, would rather see is "some substantial works of scholarship, literature or rigorous reporting" based on "some coherent view of the world." A body of work, in other words, that is both internally consistent - the parts and pieces fit together and all point in the same direction - and that is more than derivative, more than talking about what someone else said or wrote.

I'm not convinced that publishing papers (but where?) or a book would constitute something more substantial than this blog. All the same, I tend to agree that the format helps me "appear to be much smarter and erudite" than I am. And it's less tightly organized than it might be; the themes and learning too scattered to allow easy access.

In fact, I'm not quite sure what the point of the blog is. In the past, people have written me, thanking me for what I write. I'm flattered, of course, but unconvinced. I suspect I mostly offer a sort of gruff, entertaining cheer-leading that says out loud all the sarcastic things we can't say in staff or funder meetings. I would rather be a source of comfort and encouragement for those who work alone in scattered neighbourhoods or outside our cities. But I'm probably too self-absorbed and grumpy for that.

What to make of the blog, then, as we roll over into 2012? What's the point of it all? Do I just plod on, adjusting to changing economic circumstances, contributing to... what? What's the goal? How will I know when I'm done?

For that matter, how would I know if I was done with literacy itself?

I mentioned some papers I was reading and wanting to talk about (see here). Since then, I've done precious little writing about them, but did manage to add five more papers to the pile. These are, largely, way-point papers: they sum up where we are now in adult literacy work. A few also offer a bit of history, though it tends to be lukewarm.

I've long wanted to read a proper critical, political-economy of adult and family literacy work in Canada. We, too, have university-sanctioned and officially funded theories and histories that fit only poorly with front-line practice and memories. We, too, get shoved about by economic and political currents, adjust to our new course, and then, frequently, tell ourselves fairy tales to ward off despair. Sadly, I'm not competent to write a political-economy of Canadian literacy work. At best, I know enough to contribute. (I've an outline sketched out on a scrap of paper someplace around here, and written bits like this December 31st 2010 post.) I also want to create an account of literacy work in New Brunswick since 1980, which chiefly involves interviewing some people before they forget who said what to whom. But, in any case, these are hardly the topics for an 800 word blog post.

The thing I'm least likely to do is also the most helpful thing I could do: produce an honest, day-by-day account of frontline adult literacy and basic education work. There's too much self-censorship for that (chiefly due to a backdrop of government funding and stage management), and anyway I can't resist big idea writing. I will probably always tell the little stories, but there are gaps in my narrative that make it an unreliable record of failure and success.

Mind you, there are things I still want to say. I want to write about accountability and assessment. I would like to make an effort to better promote or defend my adopted theory - theories? - of adult learning and reading, of effective classroom design and management, and of my use of Choice Theory in my work.

And I very much want to speak to some of the larger themes of literacy theory and history in Canada. I want to explain, again, why universities aren't our friend, why we should shut up about Freire, why no politician will ever listen to research finding, why umbrella organizations need to be called to account, why... well, why a bunch of stuff.

I still want to write, and so I'll probably continue to blog for some time yet.


I do wish you would write. Even if you wrote badly, just once a week, I'd like to know what you're thinking, what you're doing, what you're going to do next, what you wish you could do but can't.

You know, when other people don't "write brief columns or blog posts" it's also "easy to appear to be much smarter and erudite than you really are."

I'm just saying. I'd do more and better if you did some too.

Okay. That's enough earnestness for now. I'm going across the street for a couple of bottles of Birell's malt. You should, too.

Happy New Year's, everyone. Thanks for reading.

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