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27th Annual SCUTREA conference proceedings 1997

Crossing borders, breaking boundaries : Research in the education of adults

Inferiorism in Scotland: the politics of literacy north of the border

Jim Crowther and Lyn Tett
Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh, Scotland

This paper focuses on the borders between dominant and subordinated literacies and the impact of these within the wider cultural (rather than merely geographic) borders between Scotland and England. We argue that the experiences and expectations of adult literacy students must be located within an analysis of the politics of literacy which, in the Scottish context, can best be understood in terms of a wider cultural inferiorism; in particular we are interested in the class and national processes which produce this. One implication of cultural inferiorism is the systematic and deep-rooted devaluation of indigenous, vernacular literacies. However, the revival of cultural politics within Scotland opens up possibilities for a more dialectical response to emerge which can challenge the dominant assumptions informing adult literacy practice.

There is a common approach to adult literacy education that embodies two contestable assumptions; the first is that literacy practices are neutral and the second is that there is only one literacy. Together they inform a powerful discourse of literacy that can be characterised as technicist; the key feature of this being that competence in literacy is associated with mastery of a set of skills and conventions for encoding and decoding communications. This formulation obscures the complex relationship between language, power and identity and implies that adults who fail to achieve competency are deficient in some way. In contrast, our focus is on the wider social and cultural processes which influence literacy use and its evaluation by adults.

We are interested in the impact of the dominant socially constructed literacy on the identities and literacy practices of social groups, their way of life and the values, beliefs and practices associated with them in our case working class Scots. What we have to recognise, as Barton (1995, 39) has argued, is that that there are different literacies which are 'configurations of practices that serve different purposes'. Moreover, the literacies are not equally valued and varying whose purposes they serve. 'Dominant literacies originate from the dominant institutions of society. Vernacular literacies have their roots in way life.

The way in which vernacular literacies are excluded has a profound effect on the reinforcement of class-based relationships both between the community, the home and the school and within socially excluded communities as people internalise a sense of their own literacy practices as inferior. In Foucault's term dominant ideas of literacy reflect a 'regime of truth'(1985, 93) in which knowledge and power conic together with the effect of marginalising vernacular literacies as partial and inadequate. The capillaries within which this regime of truth circulates are varied and numerous, but clearly educational institutions are the prime conduit. This results in a particular cultural form, with its version of literacy, being universally and unquestioningly accepted and, as Street and Street argue, this literacy is:

the variety associated with schooling [which] has come to be the defining type, not only to set the standard for other varieties but to rule them off the agenda of the literacy debate. (1991, 143)

Challenging the dominant literacy involves questioning class based, hierarchical notions of what constitutes 'good' and 'bad' language, high and low culture and imperial notions of the superiority of Standard English as a symbol of nationhood (see Hamilton 1996, 149).

The politics of literacy

Literacy is about shaping people, not just words; the literacy practices people develop in their everyday lives reflect and reinforce particular ways of life. Rather than being seen as a neutral, technical issue, acquiring literacy has to be located within the cultural politics of society. In these terms the privileging of school literacy has a number of problems when considering the development of literacy as an activity valued by people in their own community contexts. What is more, adult literacy initiatives often contrast themselves favourably with schools in terms of developing more relevant literacy work; what our experience suggests, to the contrary, is that what they have in common often outweighs the difference. This is particularly so in relation to the transmission of the dominant discourse of literacy which is assumed to be neutral.

Literacy education is contested terrain. 'Politicising' literacy provision could be used to address issues of power and representation, for example, by emphasising the need for social and political change to address communication-based inequalities. On the other hand literacy could be seen as a way of maintaining the status quo by functionally shaping responsible, moral and economically productive citizens through the gaining of the necessary skills to enable participants to become 'employable' (see Hamilton 1996, 145). The way in which literacy education is provided, therefore, is a political act; it has to be seen as an organic part of wider social interests and processes and be grounded in the actual practices of people if it is to he responsive to their wishes and desires. It cannot he detached from people's everyday lives and treated as if there was only one universal, neutral literacy, if radical change is to occur the curriculum has to be shaped by the interests and experiences of the participants. The literacy that comprises reading and writing words is, ultimately, an intrinsic part of a much larger literacy. the act of 'reading and writing the word and the world' (Freire and Macedo 1987).

Inferiorism: dinnae say dinnae

if we are to shift the problem of literacy from its technicist discourse we need to locate it within a wider cultural politics one that is sensitive to the way in which language and culture are intertwined and located within unequal relations of power. issues of literacy should be placed within a discourse of identity and the processes which influence and limit the way identities are socially constructed and valued. Language is crucial to the way we understand and see ourselves in relation to others; self esteem, membership and exclusion occur partly through language. Significant in the context we refer to, are experiences of class and nation but clearly issues of 'race' and gender are important too.

By inferiorism Fanon (cited in Beveridge and Turnbull 1989) means those processes which bring people to distance themselves from, and devalue, inherited ways of life; their indigenous culture is rejected or accepted only in a diluted way. Instead, people embrace the values, styles and cultural ways of the coloniser. A key feature of this is the process of mystification. The coloniser depicts the subjugated culture as inferior and impoverished in relation to the culture of the coloniser nothing of much value is claimed to arise from it. The treatment of Scots as poor English is a case in point. Another theme is the civilising nature of the coloniser's role; without their intervention and generally uplifting role barbarism is depicted as the only likely alternative outcome. The strategy of inferiorisation is fully successful when the native internalises the estimation of culture which is propagated by the coloniser, acknowledging the superiority of metropolitan ways' (Beveridge and Tumbull 1989, 6).

Delegitimating the languages and literacies of the colonised culture is a crucial part of the process of cultural domination. An extreme example of this occurred in 1993 in Edinburgh when a young man was jailed for contempt of court for repeatedly saying 'aye' when asked by the sheriff to say 'yes' or 'no'. This case highlights a visible way in which the dominant language serves to discriminate against the users of vernacular languages; the impact of less visible practices on the confidence and creativity of the indigenous population is probably greater and more widespread. Some evaluative research we undertook amongst literacy students showed that feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem were closely related to patterns of speech (reported on in Crowther and Tett 1996). As one of the participants interviewed stated: 'Ah dinnae like the way I speak'. Improving the confidence and self-esteem of literacy students must, therefore, include addressing the issue of language and power. In discussions the subject of language stimulated the most animated exchange. Not surprisingly, many considered the use of Scots words in their speech as inferior as the following remarks suggest:

[referring to her child saying 'troosers'] 'Can I say troosers? I say 'no it's trousers', but my friend says 'no, she's Scottish, let her speak as she wants' but I try to teach her to speak properly. She'll learn more that way'.

The relationship between language and power is clearly grasped in the following parent's comment:

When they grow up they need to know there is a right time and place to speak. When my girl goes for an interview I'd like to think she'd speak the way the person expects her to speak. That she doesn't go in and speak all slang. But if. she comes back and speaks slang that's fine.

The assumption that there is a correct way to speak and that their children's speech is inherently inferior is evident in both comments. Yet there is also a recognition that the child's speech patterns are natural (Scottish), and adequate in a variety of contexts (at home, with friends). Both also recognise the way in which language and power may work in education ('she'll learn more') and in the material context of work (an interview for a job). What this indicates is that inferiorism is internalised but also questioned; there exists a residual feeling of the cultural worth of indigenous patterns of speech.

The internalisation of inferiority frequently occurs amongst adults in relation to literacy that is closely related to their own voice. For example,

Whit did ah think I the gem? Ah'll tell yi. Ah felt like greetin like a big wean. Wu've probly goat the best fitbaw players in the world weet when thur playin in English jerseys that is. Ah dinnae ken whit it is bit the meenit the lads pit oan thay blue jerseys thir like a gang i lassies thit dinni ken whit a baw's fur. Thir playin fitbaw bit thir's nae fire in thum. Ah'm staunin here prood wavin the flag an the tartan scarf an whit happens? Ah'll tell yi. The only lions aboot ur oan the terraces an oan the flags. Thay yins oan the pitch ur nutbin bit lambs gittin the stuffin knocked oot i thum An efter it? Ah'm left staunin bere in a dwam, watching ma hops run doon the gundy like the beer oot i that can.
The international I went to on Saturday was disappointing. The Scottisb team didn't play well and they didn't deserve to win.

These two quotes were taken from a language experience exercise conducted by an adult literacy tutor. They are from the same student: the first was produced by the tutor who faithfully wrote down the person's description of the football match; the second was produced by the student when asked to write about the match he had described. In the first quote the expressions are vivid, natural and personal; in the second, lifeless, dull, impersonal the identity of the speaker is 'missing'. What is pertinent also is the fact that the tutor did not ask the student to write in the way he did it was done 'voluntarily'. The internalised sense of inadequacy in his spoken language involved the writer in translating his voice into a very different one. This is not merely a technical exercise. In the process, part of the culture, the mood and desires which are so vividly present when spoken, are subjugated and rendered invisible. In his effort to acquire literacy the individual denies the opportunity for his own voice to be expressed.

What the above highlights is some of the tensions and contradictions experienced in literacy work in this context. Natural modes of expression are rejected as inappropriate by students who have internalised a sense of their own tongue as inadequate and inferior; 'wbat a bear in ma heid isnae wbat a've got tae bring oot a ma mooth', as one student expressed it. Whilst this process reinforces the identity and confidence of dominant groups the reverse also occurs; negative views about language are internalised and this has consequences for how people see themselves and serves to undermine their own self-esteem. To illustrate this, the literacy project studied by the authors, despite its stated intention to be relevant to the cultural context of the people and its location in an area where working class Scots was the language of the home and the community, adopted literacy practices that reproduced Standard English. Such English has a powerful ideological stranglehold on what we understand literacy to mean.

As the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum have pointed out, since Scots is the language of the home for many people, it provides speakers with their first awareness of themselves and their relationships. The linguistic form of the home and community is intimately connected with loved ones, community and personal identity. Use of the language also helps people to:

establish their own sense of values, and [is] closely involved in the development of thinking skills, and those related, equally important, worlds of feeling and social consciousness. Neglecting Scots has, therefore, unwelcome social and personal consequences. (1996, 15)

Clearly, one of these unwelcome consequences is a message internalised by many that the language of their home and community is only of value within a very limited range of social contexts. If the contribution of communities and the richness of indigenous languages are unacknowledged then their culture is neutralised and objectified in a way that disguises its social and ideological character through processes that are represented as politically neutral. literacy thus contributes to the construction of a particular kind of citizen, a particular kind of identity and a particular conception of the nation through the privileging of one form of spoken and written communication (Street and Street 1991, 163).

The identities of the people who live in Scotland are marked and varied and have left a rich linguistic legacy. Our point is that such richness and diversity, and its influence on literacy practices, is obscured by a technicist discourse which is highly selective about the literacy it reproduces. The class nature of the dominant discourse is critical; it is in working class communities that inferiorism is often most clearly felt. Without a doubt speech is one of the most significant indicators of social class within a British context. Dominant ideas about the 'right' or 'correct' way to speak and (as a consequence) to write constitute a 'regime of truth' in which variations are 'other'; denigrated and devalued as dialects which deviate from the normal or standard pattern.

It was the emerging identity of the middle classes in the 19th century, as Williams (1961, 200) points out, that was decisive in defining what constituted Standard English;

'indeed, its naming as 'standard', with the implication no longer of a common but of a model language, represents the full coming to consciousness of a new concept of class speech' and this has meant that '...thousands of people have been capable of the vulgar insolence of telling other Englishmen (sic) that they do not know how to speak their own language. And as education was extended, under mainly middle-class direction, this attitude spread from being simply a class distinction to a point where it was possible to identify the making of these sounds with being educated, and thousands of teachers and learners, from poor homes, became ashamed of the speech of their fathers (sic)' (1961, 224). We would add the cultural dependency on England amplifies this process in a Scottish context. Working class Scots is intrinsically devalued because it suffers from being both alien (Scots) and working class; whereas more middle-class Scots is able to transcend some of the limitations of Scots by its class affiliation. The location of working class English speakers, and the labelling of their speech as dialects, indicates the cultural politics within England which inferiorises these speakers. The similar devaluation applied to English working class speakers is clear; what gives the Scottish predicament a sharper edge is the fact that Scots once was one of the country's national languages.

Culture renewal and critical literacy: the dialectics of experience

The teaching of literacy can be seen, in Foucault's terms, as a process of disciplinary power in which literacies other than Standard English are delegitimated; they are accorded the status of subjugated knowledges which are partial and inadequate. Literacy agencies are involved in the process of normalising what constitutes literacy; they reaffirm and reproduce a particular literacy form as self-evidently valid. To our knowledge, with one notable exception (Cohen 1989), adult literacy work in Scotland ignores the varied and indigenous literacies of those they work with. The culture of the people, as expressed through their language, is denied and marginalised.

We do not wish, however, to argue that people should be denied access to dominant literacies or that their own vernacular literacy is somehow privileged. The hegemonic literacy of schooling clearly embodies the language of power; a language which systematically disadvantages working class and other communities. Some people are able to develop multi- literacy skills that enable them to move freely between vernacular and dominant literacies without disadvantage but we contend that these individuals are unusual and should not be treated as if they were the norm. What we are advocating is shifting the way the literacy 'problem' has been defined. This would involve a move away from a pathological, deficit view of individuals to one that recognised that some groups, classes and communities are at a disadvantage because of the embodiment of a particular literacy within the practices of dominant institutions. The social practices of institutions, and the literacy they reinforce, have to be made visible to show that they represent a selection from a wider range of possibilities none of which are neutral. These practices then become a critical resource for learning and literacy.

The current conjuncture in Scotland is particularly interesting; there are centrifugal social, political and cultural forces which are challenging conventional assumptions. The recognition and confidence of a new tradition of Scottish writers using vernacular Scots, for example Kelman, Leonard, Lockhead and Irvine, are indicative of an emerging confidence and assertiveness of alternative cultural practices which reject, and actively resist, the dominant literary traditions of the metropolis. Political confidence and energy is also expressed through a growth in civic politics and social movements. It is not surprising that popular mobilisations of discontent emerged first in Scotland (the poll tax rebellion) and ignited similar protests elsewhere. The growth of civic movements which have transcended traditional party lines around issues of democracy and services have started a process of politicising experiences amongst new constituencies. For example, in 1996 over 40,000 people marched through Edinburgh protesting over cuts in services; what was interesting and surprising was the size of the march which was organised with little prior notice and less publicity. Furthermore, those involved were not 'all the usual suspects'; very few political and trade union branches were evident. It was ordinary people involved in a whole range of community groups, schools and local services and voluntary organisations that were voicing their discontent.


In the current conjuncture the 'resources of hope' for richer and more varied literacies to emerge is possible; enabling deeply embedded assumptions about what literacy is to be explored and challenged to help inform an alternative curriculum. Literacy programmes that help people to he true partners in their own learning involve paying attention to literacies that are culturally productive, through supporting the real life context of the communities in which they are located.

If vernacular literacies are unacknowledged or actively suppressed then coming to voice is particularly difficult; asserting the relevance and value of the literacies of the home and community helps to make clear the role of power in shaping our understanding of literacy. Literacy programmes could play a part in this struggle through a clear and proactive commitment to working class Scots and other marginalised cultures. This involves valuing, rather than denigrating, their difference from Standard English and starting from the subordinated knowledges of people's everyday uses, meanings and purposes for reading and writing. It also requires access to, and use of, the resources available in communities to support these practices. The dominant culture is not monolithic and this means that there are opportunities for resistance and contestation that recognise that there are many literacies and that none of them are neutral. Legitimating vernacular literacies as a resource for learning can enable the voices of excluded people to be heard rather than marginalised.


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Beveridge, C and Turnbull, R (1989) The eclipse of Scottish culture. Polygon

Cohen, A (ed) (1989) Speaking of Scotland. a resource pack. Edinburgh City Council's Adult Basic Education Team.

Crowther, J and Tett, L (1996) Evaluation of the Connect Family Literacy Project. Unpublished paper.

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Freire, P and Macedo, D (1987) Literacy: reading the world and the word. London: Routledge

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Street, J and Street, B (1991) The schooling of literacy. In D. Barton and R. Ivanic (ed) Writing in the community. London: Sage

Williams, R (1961) The long revolution. London: Chatto and Windus.