[NLA] Return on Investment Imagery
George E. Demetrion
sophocles5 at juno.com
Mon Dec 31 12:19:27 EST 2001
(Note: David and others: The formatting problems you brought to my
attention were still there with the obnoxious carriage returns (=) at the
end of each line. My effort to resolve this with MSN so far have oroven
unsuccessful. These problems will appear on certain systems and not
others. For the sake of providing a clear text, I'm resending this
through Juno, where I've manually removed all the carriage return marks).
Thanks to Tom, Catherine, and to Harry, and now David Hayes for this
important discussion on Return on Investment imagery. I believe this
discussion speaks to the heart and soul of the field and needs to be
taken seriously, thoughtfully, carefully, and considered charitably,
given the marginality of the field and the substantial challenges it
faces, particularly in the current political-social climate in moving to
a more center stage into the public and policy sector.
As Allan Quigley points out in Rethinking Literacy Education (1997),
"return on investment" imagery has been with us for at least 40 years,
when as he put it, adult literacy as an independent sector from ABE
became policy disenfranchised, where the latter became linked with human
capital development. Though other discourses have arisen over the
decades, it would be difficult to dispute the dominance of the human
capital thrust over several decades culminating in the Workforce
Investment Act. Thus, ABE/literacy advocates have also drawn upon the
metaphor, return on investment for decades in the difficult effort to
achieve public/policy legitimacy. With Tom, David, and others, I don't
think it can simply be dropped without establishing important bridges to
other discourses that might speak to more comprehensive and humanizing
visions of adult literacy education that are not reduced to a
cost-benefit utilitarian human investment calculus.
Yet I also believe there are paths forward. Both Tom and Catherine
speak about the importance of broader notions of "investment" than
commonly used. In the effort to move from here to there, certainly an
expanding notion of the terminology of investment represents an important
strategy that should not be lightly dismissed. I leave it to Tom,
Catherine, and others to flesh out the specifics of what this means,
which they have begun to do so in their recent messages.
The imagery in EFF of the active citizen reconstructing self and society
through the mediating institutions of community, the family, and the
workplace, represents another opportunity to shift gears from notions of
overcoming deficiency to those of empowerment through the aegis of adult
literacy education. Though I think there are aspects of EFF that need to
be looked at critically, I think it does the field well to think through
the many positive accomplishments that its developers have established
against some very difficult circumstances.
One of these accomplishments is in the portrayal of adult education as a
very positive social and cultural force contributing to the vitality of
the US political culture through stimulating lifelong learning that helps
to enable adults reconstruct their own lives as well as the local
institutions in which they are invested. On this vision, the emphasis
adult literacy education is no longer focused on deficiency imagery
linked to crime reduction, etc., but to the building of the city, by
which I mean the American political culture through the strengthening of
mediating institutions and the ethos of voluntarism through which much of
this effort takes place.
In moving from current investment linked to a somewhat narrow economic
calculus language, often couched in terms of overcoming dimensions of
perceived deficiency, toward a more empowering notion of adult literacy
education, I believe EFF is an important mid-wife in a gradual shift from
imagery stemming from capitalistic metaphors to those premised on our
potent, though largely underutilized democratic lineage.
The longer-term effort, I believe, is to establish a coherent political
culture of adult literacy stemming from premises grounded in the US
political tradition, namely, the ethos of constitutional democracy.
While it could be argued that we *should* be there already, particularly
our politicians, the reality is that we are far from us. However, I agree
with Catherine that the outrageous events of September 11th offer some
new opportunities to draw on democratic discourse that could conceivably
cross some neo-conservative/neo-liberal/progressive boundaries to open up
fresh dialogue for a broad based national consensus to which EFF could
help point the way.
I do believe that long term, a gradual shift from capitalistic to
democratic metaphors on how the field defines the public value of adult
literacy education is critical both to the vitality of the field as well
as the political culture. I also feel there are many field resources
such as EFF, the new literacy organization, VALUE, the NLA, and the work
underway with An Action Agenda for Literacy that conceivably could find
some common ground in shifting the metaphors of how we define ourselves.
Though I believe any such effort has to be gradual, building from where
we are to where we could be, keeping attuned to the reality of current
needs, such as the next legislative cycle as well as to longer term
To state it negatively, I believe what the field lacks is a coherent
political vision congruent with the dynamics of US political culture to
which a thoughtful and careful embrace of constitutional democracy could
unleash. To state it positively, there are a variety of factors at work,
including current return on investment language, which could be enlarged
that could gradually lead toward a more humanizing vision stemming from a
coherent political framework.
Many would argue, given the inherent pluralism of US society, it's
practically impossible to move toward such coherency. I don't doubt the
difficulty of the challenge. David Hayes' message this evening gives us
even more reason to pause in assuming that this issue of imagery and
language has any easy solution.
Yet, adult literacy conveys a certain symbolic significance in terms of
its value to the lives of individual students as well as to the culture
and society that if appropriately tapped could lead to a new synthesis,
which I believe, is in no small measure, conveyed within EFF. The issue
is whether pushing the envelope toward such coherency is worth the
effort, not that it is an impossible task, that is, unless one believes
that the gods control our fate. Though the issue on whether it is worth
it is a fundamental one, which, in my view, should not be lightly
Literacy Volunteers of Greater Hartford
Happy New Year to all
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