ProLiteracy is spotlighting “Toward a Vision of Movement Building in Adult Literacy Education,” by Ira Yankwitt, Literacy Assistance Center. This article is featured in the Adult Literacy Education: The International Journal of Literacy, Language, and Numeracy, ProLiteracy’s free online, peer-reviewed research journal with the mission to publish research on adult basic and secondary education and transitions to college and career programs.
An excerpt of “Toward a Vision of Movement Building in Adult Literacy Education,” by Ira Yankwitt, is highlighted below.
Recently, a colleague of mine in his 20s asked me when and why the discourse in the field of adult literacy education shifted from the language of “human rights” and “social justice” to the language of “human capital” and “workforce development.” My response: the 1990s, neoliberalism, and the subsuming of federal funding for adult literacy education under the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) in 1998.
Neoliberalism has been the prevailing economic ideology in the United States for the past four decades; and, as Stephen Reder alludes to in his article, A Lifelong and Life-Wide Framework for Adult Literacy Education, the core tenet of neoliberalism is a faith in “free markets” to address all social, political, and economic ills. Neoliberal doctrine promotes free trade, deregulation of business and industry, decreased government spending, and greater privatization of services, and it regards individuals first and foremost as economic actors (i.e., workers and consumers). As Reder notes, neoliberalism narrows the purpose of adult literacy education to “increasing human capital.” It justifies public investment in adult literacy education primarily for its potential to meet the needs of employers, expand the available workforce, and, ultimately, to grow the economy as a whole. Based on the norms of the market, neoliberalism strives to maximize efficiency and seeks measurable, near-term returns on investment; and, as codified in WIA (and later WIOA), it requires our field to measure the effectiveness of our programs principally by demonstrating students’ success at increasing standardized test scores, attaining credentials, and entering into further training or employment.
As Reder points out, while the neoliberal understanding of the purpose and value of adult literacy education aligns with the employment and workforce goals of many of our students, it devalues other goals and motivations. It also fails to recognize that the economic outcomes it prioritizes sometimes only emerge over time. In response, Reder argues for a more expansive “lifelong” and “life-wide” framework that would measure impacts over longer periods of time and would be “structured around the literacy activities and purposes in individual adults’ lives.” While I share Reder’s critique of the current system and applaud his vision for a lifelong and life-wide framework, Reder’s article raises several questions for me.