In the current issue of the research journal Adult Literacy Education: The International Journal of Literacy, Language, and Numeracy, the Forum section looks at “Serving Learners with Barriers.” Last week, we featured Erik Jacobson’s article “There Are No Hard-to-Serve Learners, Only Ill-Served Ones.” In response to Jacobson, Joni Schwartz, of the City University of New York, LaGuardia Community College, states that she agrees overall with Jacobson’s assessment.
However, Schwartz takes issue with how Jacobson refers to previously incarcerated people and explains why the language used to describe these individuals matters.
Read an excerpt from Schwartz’s response here:
Overall, I agree with Jacobson’s predominant premise – words matter. And the use of the term hard-to-serve is at best misinformed and at worst harmful. I strongly agree with Jacobson, “Recognizing that there are no hard-to-serve students, only ill-served ones, will help clarify the political project required to remove the barriers that stand in these students’ way.” Language is a first step.
Unfortunately, Jacobson does make one error when referring to people formerly involved with the criminal justice system as “ex-offenders.” Granted, this term is WIOA language, but Jacobson continues to use the term. Ex-offender like ex-inmate, ex-felon, or ex-con is inappropriate and pejorative, defining individuals by perhaps the worst moments in their lives. It is not the totality of who they are. Therefore, using identifiers such as a person who experienced the criminal justice system, person formerly in prison, or formerly incarcerated citizen is better. (Tranet al., 2018).
Why should this choice of words matter? As adult educators, we profess to be learner centered, and many of us come from the tradition of Freire and Mezirow with a deep investment in andragogy and transformative learning which begins with hearing from the adult learner. In the case of persons formerly incarcerated, we have heard their collective voices as articulated in the now famous 2007 Eddie Ellis language letter:
When we are not called mad dogs, animals, predators, offenders and other derogatory terms, we are referred to as inmates, convicts, prisoners and felons—all terms devoid of humanness which identify us as “things” rather than as people. These terms are accepted as the “official” language of the media, law enforcement, prison industrial complex and public policy agencies. However, they are no longer acceptable for us and we are asking people to stop using them. (Ellis, 2012)
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