NLA Discussion: Politics and power
gdemetrion at email.msn.com
Sat Feb 24 14:42:35 EST 2001
The following is long and represents an attempt to explore some of the
contested ground that marks our field. Whether a vital consensus will
emerge or not I do not know, though I do view An Action Agenda for Literacy
as this nation's last best hope for significant system change in a manner
where policy can be linked to the goals of social justice. I do not view
the following analysis as "hand wringing," but critical work that has to
take place if such a consensus is to characterize our work in the future.
Stating this, I also take Jon Randall's challenge quite seriously for each
of us who think this effort is worth it, to offer our services in the areas
of our choice. Though the following focuses more on analysis, I will give
serious thought to participating in some capacity, particularly in Priority
III (Quality), Outcome E: the research focus on teaching and learning. I
do not necessarily recommend that others follow suit. I do suggest that the
issue of the value of An Action Agenda is, itself worthy of serious
consideration. A coming to terms with this issue of value will prove an
essential part of what is ultimately to follow. That's why, in my mind,
public discussion of these issues is so important. Based on this assumption
I will keep much of my effort focused on what I view as the broad context
that shapes our work even as I attempt to contribute to the work at hand
in more specific ways as I do every day as a parctitioner. It is in the
spirit of the former that I offer the following reflection.
Seeking a Unified Voice in the Midst of Contested Ground
The comments by Alice Johnson and Andres Muro point to some of the
substantial differences in the Contested Ground that characterize our field.
Both statements speak of a truth that cannot be easily squared. Consider the
following, written by Alice:
"Institutions of power are a lot like a coral sponge. Seen from the outside
they appear infinitely variegated, complicated, impossible to truly
penetrate. But on closer inspection, most people have found our political
institutions surprisingly permeable, quick to soak up new ideas and to
incorporate new participants. In such a setting the world isn't neatly
divided into two classes of people, 'the powerful' and 'the powerless.'
Rather, people (particularly in organized association with others) have a
large amount of unmobilized, unrealized, or potential power. How
interesting to note that the same Latin root for 'power'-potere - is also
the root for the word 'potential.'"
That there is space of an undetermined sort for, personal and societal
reconstruction is an argument with which I am in profound agreement, which
is reflected in some of my posts here and in some of my academic writing.
I draw extensively on the pragmatic thought of John Dewey for this and argue
that there is a middle ground between the status quo and calls for radical
revision of the existing order that merits a close look as a place that
adult literacy might situate itself. I place this perspective in creative
tension (that is, in dialogue) with Tom Sticht's Functional Context
Education and Elsa Auerbach's neo-Frerian critical pedagogy. The view that
I hold, shares closest affinities with Hanna Fingeret and Cassie Drennon in
Literacy for Life; Merrifield et. al. in Life at the Margins, and the EFF
project. Though on the latter, as stated in previous messages, I prefer to
ground the work in an imagery of life-long learning rather than in role
identification, which takes into account the roles, but allows for a wider
scope of what is viewed as legitimate for a potential policy perspective.
The following is from a forthcoming essay which spells out this
"middle-ground" a bit more:
"The 'middle-ground' thesis focuses on pedagogy and the politics of literacy
linked broadly to a meliorative reform impetus rather than an embrace either
of transformative radical change or merely the stabilization of any given
status quo. Thus stated, transformative-like energies are sometimes
required to bring about even 'modest' reform initiatives that may profoundly
matter to affected individuals even though such 'reconstruction' from a more
macro perspective may seem little more than a benign reinforcement of given
social patterns and cultural norms.
Despite the many constraints, normative institutions, such as adult literacy
programs are open to a wide range of development that sometimes
significantly matters to those who act within them. This is so even though
such change often results in little or no fundamental transformation of the
social order and also reinforces the many ambiguities over such issues as
equity, social justice, and power that remain embedded within the status
quo. This is not meant to deny the possibility of change or the perception
of enhanced life emerging adult literacy students sometimes experience as
they increase their mastery of literacy and apply it to critical areas of
their lives (Fingeret and Drennon, 1997). Such development is what I am
referring to as growth. However, this takes place within a constrained
political environment that invariably, though in no lockstep fashion
influences the learning climates in which adult literacy education is
practiced, particularly in mainstream settings like Adult Basic Education
classrooms and community-based volunteer tutoring sessions."
In short, such middle ground, both in terms of political change and
educational development often matters profoundly to individuals as they (we)
seek to improve and enhance our lives from any given current "reality."
>From this perspective, I agree with Alice that there is much to her linkage
of power to its root Latin word, linked to potential." That is, change,
both personal and social, at least of a moderate sort, is both possible and
desirable, which often make a significant difference in the places both
where we and our students live, though one does not speak for another
individual and that does not say much for the broader social structure.
Though, and this is an important but, I do not want to leave things there,
which brings us to Andres.
BTW, that's Andres.
Let's consider the following from Andres:
"Essentially, structuralism argues for an "iceberg" theory of society with a
surface structure that we can all see and agree on, and a deep structure
that most do not see or understand. As long as we do not try to understand
and engage the deep structure, having meetings to talk about literacy and
making them as inclusive as possible will not lead to any meaningful change,
since we are not changing the core. JTPA, SCANS, WIA/NRA, EFF are all
examples of how we try to patch the surface of the iceberg, while in fact we
are not addressing the real problems. We can talk about this all we want,
however, if we do not talk first about poverty, discrimination, sexism,
domestic violence, lack of access to health care, we can come up with all
kind of fancy acronyms which will ultimately be meaningless."
This is based on a wide range of well-developed political, social, and
cultural analysis, which is largely dismissed by our current neo-liberal
(Gore Clinton), neo-conservative (Trent Lott) political culture. The
structuralist critique that Andres discusses is based on the premise that
society, culture, and the political order as currently situated function
fairly well, according to those who benefit by it and that the existence of
race and class inequality serves a stabilizing function. On this premise
that a certain level of poverty stabilizes society, current levels of low
literacy (rhetoric to the contrary) play a socially functional role. For
example, in terms of the job market, many service type jobs don't require
much formal education. Besides, there are sufficient numbers of people to
fill those jobs. True, there may be a need for additional highly technical
people, but they are not going to come from the pool of people whose current
literacy levels are at the NALS 1 &2. True, also, that increased literacy
especially for mothers has a positive impact on the education of their
children. So there is some value in funding family literacy programs, but
we're not convinced they work sufficiently to merit the expenses required to
support them in a substantial way in the face of other pressing matters,
such as the determined need of a $1.3 trillion dollar tax cut.
While urban poverty might be viewed a problem of sorts (from this
perspective), it is not worth the sustained commitment of national resources
and money to substantially come to terms with it. That is, it is not that
big of a problem after all and poverty also has a functional value in
providing certain prescribed social roles to fill, notwithstanding the guise
of free choice, that individuals make their own lives and pull themselves up
by their own bootstraps. Besides, remember the "failed" Great Society. If
there is a solution, it is the free market system and welfare reform. The
little money that we do provide, we'll put tight strings on, measure closely
through abstract quantitative "instruments" that the social scientists we
depend on equate with the closest thing we have to 'objectivity.'
I'm not saying anyone is actually saying those words (though some may), and
am exaggerating a bit (perhaps). However, there is a substantial argument
similar to the above that would suggest that the "hidden curriculum"
inherent within current policy is to maintain the legitimacy of the status
quo without profoundly addressing issues of justice, equity, and the
pervasiveness of urban poverty. There are many out there, who could refine
this critique much more subtly than I have just done.
My purpose here is not to defend this view, though I draw from it, but to
attempt to put its premises on the table for examination in the public
sector as representative of some of the Contested Ground that marks our
field. In short, from this perspective, adult literacy cannot be
substantially addressed unless the nation comes to terms with the more
foundational issue of urban policy. Without addressing this latter
challenge, even our combined and unified efforts will be paltry on a
societal level, even though perhaps profoundly significant for specific
individuals. To address this issue frontally, however, is to confront the
"hidden curriculum" that shapes the ideology of current policy, the need to
maintain the status quo as it currently functions..
Both Alice and Andres have represented very substantial views, though with
significantly different implications? That's a question and not an answer.
Though I do suggest that the common voice called for by Jon and Alice can
only come through a profound mediation between these perspectives, along
with other conflicting issues particularly over pedagogy and assessment,
which, combined with the purposes of social policy as reflected in the
discussion above, mark our field most complex and contestable issues.
Short of a profound mediation of the contested ground across the social,
economic and intellectual landscapes of our field, it is lost upon me how
any vital consensus (and there is no guarantee that this will fall into
place in any case) can come into play. As stated previously, whatever its
flaws, the long-term focus provided for in An Action Agenda for Literacy may
represent the last best hope for our field.
I conclude with the following from the Report on Literacy Programs
publication of February 14, 2001 under the title, Coalition to Study Poverty
"At the suggestion of Mary Ann Corley, director of the National Center for
Literacy and Social Justice (NCLSJ), NCL (National Coalition for Literacy)
members agreed to put a discussion of poverty and racism on the agenda for
their annual planning meeting May 8.
Corley pointed out that there are no action steps on poverty or racism in
'From the Margins to the Mainstream,' the action agenda that resulted from
the National Literacy Summit (RLP, Sept. 14, 2000). She wants the NCL to
correct the omission by creating a new agenda for those issues."
The fact that such issues were not addressed by either the NCL or placed in
An Action Agenda, points to the structural (as opposed to blaming
individuals) critique leveled by Andres. The fact that the NCL responded
points to the sense of potentiality for at least modest system change as
described by Alice.
Mary Ann came to the NCL with a passion and got the issue of poverty and
racism placed on the table. Jon has opened the invitation to any and all, to
participate in the work of An Action Agenda. Perhaps this is where we are,
somewhere between an oppressive society and one that has the potential for
transformation. In my view, I can't fathom any substantial reform that is
able to move beyond the premises of liberal, democratic capitalism.
However, if one accepts the assumption that the distance between where we
are at this time and where we can be as a field by 2010, is both
undetermined and infinite (based on the notion that the distance between any
two points is infinite even though we may desire to traverse the distance of
five points), then there is viable work on these complex issues that can be
At least some of what will come to pass has to do with the efficacy of
conscious human action.
What do others think?
Literacy Voluneters of Greater Hartford
Gdemetrion at msn.com
Gdemetrion at juno.com
Gdemetrion at lvgh.com
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