Presentation Details

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ The Eleventh International Literacy and Education Research Network Conference on Learning

The Politics of Adult Literacy: National Interest or Personal Failure?

Dr Magda Lewis, Valerie Ashford.

In western nations, the modern state is distinguished by a particular definition of social participation; one that includes not only the possibility, but also the capacity, of its citizens to participate in the processes of governance and nation building through labour and social participation of various sorts. Within this framework, education—particularly education as a function of formal schooling—is seen to be a necessary prerequisite to political and social participation. A central component of national education objectives in many nations is “literacy”. While literacy is, without doubt, a serious goal of education, it is accepted without question that the level of literacy that a nation’s population enjoys—similar to life expectancy and infant death rates—is a marker of national success.

That schooling and its practices, such as curriculum development, programme delivery and student evaluation, is a political enterprise has had many decades of discussion. Within this context, the question of “literacy/illiteracy” is also an important political mechanism. “Literacy/illiteracy” is a much-used term that references everything from political knowledge to the skills required to code and decode symbols as words. However, as a political tool, it can be a means by which states manipulate and control levels of social and labour participation.

In this paper, we aim to show how the social construction of “literacy/illiteracy” as a personal achievement—rather than a national project—is manufactured through the processes of student evaluation. While these conditions of evaluation impact on student outcomes at all levels of schooling, nowhere is it more immediately apparent than in the lives of adult learners in literacy programmes. Teaching in adult literacy programmes involves many mechanisms for evaluating students academically: Education Ministry guidelines, professional development workshops for teachers, qualitative rubric-style innovations, skills monitoring processes, curriculum refinement exercises, accountability and standards monitoring, and best practices models. The effect of this focus on the processes of programme delivery and evaluation is to obscure some larger questions concerning the politics of “literacy/illiteracy” as a central component of social control within advanced capitalist nations. Through a close examination of literacy evaluation processes and how they are invoked and used, we propose to analyze how adult literacy programmes are sometimes used to satisfy national political and economic needs, while holding individuals personally responsible for their success or failure in literacy programmes.


Dr Magda Lewis  (Canada)
Associate Professor
Faculty of Education
Queen's University

- Professor of Cultural Studies, Sociology and Feminist theory

- Publications in Harvard Educational Review, other journals and book chapters

- Author of 'Without a Word'
Routledge Press, 1993

Valerie Ashford  (Canada)

  • Politics of Literacy, Literacy Evaluation, Adult Literacy Learners as Subjects, Literacy and Economic Function

(30 min. Conference Paper, English)