But his remarkable progress was not a matter of him believing in himself. He came to believe in himself in the context of appropriate funding, significant physical and emotional care and safety, and an intensely self-paced and learner-centered curriculum. More, he indicated in his follow-up remarks that his academic improve-ment "really began" (his words) after his physical and emotional needs were met.
The Mind Learns When the Body Heals
On Saturday, the editorial writer of the Telegraph Journal, New Brunswick's sole provincial newspaper, angered and disappointed some of my colleagues by proposing we divert adult literacy funds into elementary school programs.
The writer doesn't name these school programs, but one assumes he would include his boss's hobby-horse. In 2009, Jamie Irving, then publisher of the Brunswick News Inc. owned Telegraph-Journal, and now Vice-President of Brunswick News itself, came up with a volunteer-based, in-school reading program for grade two students. While not a bad idea in itself - provided it adheres to recognized best practices - the Elementary Literacy Friends' effort is a lightweight program. In contrast with, say, the four component Kenan model (an adaptation of Sharon Darling's Parent and Child Education or P.A.C.E. program noted here and here) and the fiscal efficiency of the double duty program spending envisioned by Tom Sticht, or the kind of family literacy work described in Other People's Words by Purcell-Gates, or that celebrated in Denny Taylor's Many Families Many Literacies, ELF appears to be the equivalent of "getting extra help after school." That's always a good idea, but it's no reason to defund adult literacy.
If they could find the venue, my colleagues would argue the facts. (It's hard to argue publicly with the guy who owns all the newspapers and is determined to ignore you.) They would call up the research showing that what happens inside homes has a greater impact than schooling on children's literacy success. They would argue that improving the literacy skills of parents almost always improves the literacy (as well as health, living conditions and developmental outcomes) of their children. They would point out that fieldworkers in family literacy have been critically reviewing and improving on their work since the mid-1990s, paring away the more blatantly invasive, sexist and classist of interventions, and becoming increasingly effective.
But all that's beside the point. The editorial opens with an untruth ("In a province where some 60 per cent of adults lack basic reading skills...") and carries on with cheerful disregard of facts thereafter. Jamie Irving and his employees aren't going to be swayed by anything as trifling as research. In any case, my friends' reactions aren't really a result of the editorial's falsehoods. They are about about years of scarce-rewarded hard work and a persistent feeling of powerlessness.
When Mr. Irving came up with his ELF idea, he had little problem talking the Minister of Education into sliding him a quick $250,000. Said Mr. Irving, "It's amazing how quickly things progress once you put a co-ordinated effort towards it" (quoted in the Telegraph). Well, he's an audacious and vigorous sort of guy (see the Ryerson piece "The Calm after the Storm").
He's also arrogant and naive, and you can see how people working in the field for a couple of decades or more could react to a rich kid throwing his weight around like that. For him to openly argue that we should stop funding adult literacy work is more than just silly and immature: it's frightening. What if somebody with real power listens to him?
And that's the thing. Campaigning politicians, government departments and literacy organizations alike are fuelled by money and good press. Mr. Irving, like the Irving family in general, seems to be in a position to provide both.
I wasn't bothered much by the editorial. I'd already learned about Mr. Irving's distain for adult literacy learners. (His appointment to the board of LCNB for a time helped me understand just how vacuous that organization had become.) If anything, I think its good that literacy and basic adult education workers get to see how Brunswick News views their field.
There's a myth that Business is a vital stakeholder in literacy; that Business supports adult literacy work, though it naturally wants us to spend conservatively. But there is no such thing as Business. There are only business people. Some of them are friends of literacy. Some of them are not.
So, the next time you hear they're inviting the "stakeholders" to the table, you might ask who they are and what kind of stakes they're bringing.