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Papers from the 28th Annual SCUTREA Conference
Research, Teaching and Learning: making connections in the education of adults

Developing critical literacy in the context of democratic renewal in Scotland

Jim Crowther and Lyn Tett, Moray House Institute, Edinburgh, Scotland


This paper is concerned with the cultural politics of adult literacy practice and its implications for developing critical literacy. Essential to our concern is the problematisation of literacy as an uncontested good. Instead, we argue that what constitutes literacy has to become a reflexive part of what is taught rather than what is assumed. This step can provide a way of validating subordinate cultures whilst providing opportunities for adult students to stretch their critical faculties and at the same time acquire skills in the dominant literacy. This presents both a challenge and an opportunity for adult literacy to develop a curriculum based on a more genuine dialogue between tutors and students. For this to occur dominant assumptions informing literacy practice need to be opened up and challenged. We argue that the current context of democratic renewal in Scotland is an opportune time for literacy practice to refocus itself towards a broader and more critical curriculum.

Ideologies of literacy

'Whilst literacy is an emotive word that evokes almost universal agreement about its desirability' as Hamilton (1996, 148-9) points out, there is, nevertheless, considerable divergence about its definition and purpose. Hamilton identifies three competing ideologies of literacy:

1. Literacy as cultural missionary activity: literacy education is understood as a welfare activity promoted by the middle classes for disadvantaged others. A variant of this has been dominant in the 1990s through the linking of illiteracy with unemployment, anti-social and criminal behaviour by young people.

2. Literacy for social control: literacy is linked with maintaining the status quo by shaping responsible, moral and economically productive citizens. During the 1980s and 1990s literacy was strongly associated with a wider discourse about national training, economic needs and functional competencies.

3 Literacy for emancipation: this ideology involves a radical critique of elite culture, state controlled curricula and unequal power relations between groups. This emancipatory discourse has always been marginal and its success sparsely documented.

What constitutes literacy in any society, therefore, reflects the selective tradition of the dominant social groups. However, a powerful mode of control is to present the existing state of affairs as timeless and unchanging - a natural order of things. This process involves abstracting literacy from its social context and representing it as a set of technical skills to be acquired. We want to argue the opposite. The social construction of literacy needs to be reflexively constituted in the curriculum. By problematising what literacy is, the process of learning it can become a more critical enterprise. Furthermore, relativising the dominant form of literacy reinforces the legitimacy of other, subordinate, literacies. It may also help to shift the curriculum so it can be shaped by the interests and experiences of the participants. What this entails is a view of literacy as part of a critical curriculum which helps people to take greater collective control over their lives.

The cultural politics of 'language-dialect'

Culture and language are embedded in each other and in relations of power. Powerful cultures are in competition with subordinate ones - in Scotland this struggle has been echoed in the status of Scots as a dialect or a language. This debate is an important socio-linguistic issue but, at the same time, its outcome is also a signal of the balance of cultural forces which are in struggle. Dominant ideas about the 'right' or 'correct' way to speak and (as a consequence) to write constitute a 'regime of truth' (see Foucault, 1985) in which variations are 'other'; denigrated and devalued as dialects which deviate from the normal or standard pattern.

The wider cultural politics of class and nation are noticeable by their absence in literacy practice in Scotland. Adult literacy has tended to be blinkered to the realities of the complex social formation of which it is part - and in part reproducing. It tends to treat literacy as an uncontested good and fails to locate literacy in the process of cultural politics with all its ramifications. For instance, the cultural politics of language marginalises the patterns of speech of subordinate groups. This sets the terms in which literacy is defined and involves a process of homogenisation. Varied and subordinate literacies are fossilised or rendered invisible. But it is never simply a given way of speaking that is stigmatised, rather, the entire way of life and the integral identities associated with it. To accept the standard 'language-dialect' as the necessary condition for advancement means that being assimilated into the dominant culture involves the rejection of both the language and 'the way of being of those who speak the non-standard variety. To succeed therefore entails a rejection of ones own language, family, and community. [thus serving] to reinforce further the cultural politics of domination and subordination'.(Lankshear et al, 1997:38).

The advantages created for specific social groups of having their language legitimated by educational institutions has been well documented (Bernstein, 1971). Moreover, dominant groups are able to establish their knowledge priorities, learning styles, pedagogical preferences, notions of important and useful knowledge, their ways of representing truth, their ways of arguing and establishing correctness, and their logics, grammars and language as the institutional norms. The real challenge to literacy practice is to find ways of valuing the vernacular language and literacies of subordinate groups whilst not disadvantaging them. We have to recognise that there are different literacies which are 'configurations of practices that serve different purposes' (Barton 1995, 39). Moreover, these literacies are not equally valued. 'Dominant literacies originate from the dominant institutions of society. Vernacular literacies have their roots in everyday life'. If the richness of indigenous languages go unacknowledged then their culture is distorted 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).

Democratic renewal in the new Scotland

The contradictions of the current context has opened up opportunities for developing a more critical approach to literacy practice in Scotland. Democratic renewal has been an outcome of a changing relationship between the cultural politics of civil society and the political culture of the state (see Martin, 1998). The demands for a new democratic order arose in civil society and has had repercussions in terms of the development of a form of self-governance. In the Referendum held in September 1997 the 'settled will' of the electorate was overwhelming in its support for a Scottish parliament. Scotland will have its own devolved parliament in the year 2000. This changing relationship between the state and civil society has benefited from a wider process of cultural renewal.The constitutional changes underway reflect a distinctive moment in Scottish history. In our view there are unheralded opportunities for a critical adult literacy practice to contribute to and benefit from this process.

In reconfiguring the state and civil society there are dangers in absolutist forms of political and cultural nationalism which deny difference. Nationality has been central to the cultural politics of difference between Scotland and England - particularly in this century. One outcome of this has been an assertion of Scottish identity with the kitsch of the kailyard, Rob Roy, tartan and heather - a mythological cultural heritage which has resonated with narrow forms of nationalist politics. Whilst this asserts a difference to English culture it also asserts 'sameness'; it represents only one version of Scottishness. What it has generated is a polarised debate between pro-and-anti Scots language / literacy teaching (see Ferri, 1996; McClure, 1997). The former denies the importance of difference and the latter assumes it unproblematically. We have difficulty with these positions on three accounts. First, to ignore the importance of vernacular language devalues an important aspect of people's cultural capital which is the educational equivalent of 'asset stripping'. Second, assumptions made about Scottish identity tend to ignore its complex and contingent nature. Our identities are not immutable and can vary in relation to different structural positions and social contexts. Third, this also ignores the diversity of Scottish culture for example, by marginalising the linguistic and cultural diversity of Scotland's ethnic minority communities. Historically, the process of denying difference has been accompanied by an ideology of assimilation in which the rights of these groups to express their own culture and maintain their own traditions has been delegitimated by an assertive appeal to Britishness.

There are signs, however, of a revitalised civic politics and cultural life which reflects a more diverse social base. This new context creates an opportunity to rethink key assumptions which inform current practice in basic education in Scotland. The impetus for re-examining cultural identities may be ideal conditions for critically appropriating the dominant literacy. The 'cultural movement' can contribute to the type of identity people want to construct for their future. William Morris has called this the 'education of desire' and one aspect of this development may come from the recognition and confidence of a new tradition of Scottish novelists, poets, play-writers and film-makers who reject, and actively resist, the dominant language and literary traditions of the metropolis. Other ways in which people have been helped to think about their identities differently has been through the movement to reclaim Scottish working class history and the everyday experiences of ordinary people. New social movements such as Women's Groups have been particularly active in reclaiming their own stories (see Henderson and Mackay, 1990) and have developed a resource for women to think and desire differently by expanding the horizons of the possible. The new cultural space which the process of democratic renewal signals provides the opportunity to recognise and validate indigenous literacy forms.

Implications for building a critical curriculum

The dominant emphasis on literacy as culturally neutral undersells its contribution to encouraging critical thinking and social action. We understand critical thinking to include the ability to go beyond the surface of experience and its representations in order to identify social interests - and where necessary, to act on them. There are at least four aspects for the development of a critical curriculum - implicit in the analysis - which need to be considered further.

First, we need to develop an approach to literacy which positions people in a way which enables them to appropriate the dominant language critically - and in a way which valorises the indigenous culture without discarding what is useful in the dominant one (Allman and Mayo, 1997). The social construction of literacy should become part of the literacy curriculum. There is a parallel in our argument with the more widespread practice of adult literacy students 'learning to learn'. The basis of this development was that to equalise the power relations between tutor and student both parties needed to be familiar with the psychology of adult learning. Inducting both in the process of learning to learn, it was argued, would facilitate dialogue over how the curriculum was organised.

We are arguing a similar case to be reflexive about the literacy learnt. What is different is that, currently, neither tutors nor students are encouraged to problematise the nature of literacy itself. The assumptions which underpin what it means to be literate are reflected in a diluted (functional) version of adult literacy practice. Yet the socially constructed nature of literacy could be made open and explicit - making comparisons with the literacies reflected in the indigenous cultural movement would help its achievement. This would involve relativising the dominant literacy whilst at the same time revealing its social roots. Moreover, the vernacular literacies of people could become a resource for making visible the cultural politics of literacy practice whilst providing an opportunity for them to be legitimated as a cultural asset rather than liability. In this process, the resources both tutors and students bring to the curriculum could be more evenly balanced and provide a basis for genuine dialogue. Instead of assuming literacy to be unproblematic, a reflexive practice would reveal its social construction and the consequences of this, exploring why it differs from people's everyday literacies and 'mother tongue'.

By taking a reflexive approach the opportunity exists to make explicit the hoops people have to jump through in order to be judged competent. We are not arguing that people should be denied access to dominant literacies or that their own vernacular literacy is somehow privileged. The cultural politics 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.

Second, literacy is deeply and inescapably bound up with producing, reproducing and maintaining unequal arrangements of power. The meanings that are given and received in texts are not innocent. They are ideological. Developing critical readers and writers has, then, to be about enabling them to detect and handle the inherently ideological dimension of literacy, and the role of literacy in the enactment and production of power.(See Lankshear et al 1997) Macrae (1997) has documented ways in which reading texts critically has been developed by tutors in their practice in one part of Scotland. Another way this has been encouraged in the past has been through the growth of student publishing. The role of adult literacy students as producers rather than consumers of texts not only 'empowers' authors and demystifies the authority of the text it also creates the possibility for diverse experiences and understandings to circulate and become a resource for the curriculum. However, there is no equivalent in Scotland to the publishing activities of adult literacy students at Peckham in London or Gatehouse in Manchester. One consequence of democratic renewal might be a greater interest in producing student writing.

Third, the breadth of curriculum opportunities has to be extended to provide a stimulating and intellectually demanding experience which will enable students to stretch their critical faculties. In these ideologically and materially 'mean times' the only encouragement for expanding literacy has been tied to narrow forms of vocationalism. Developing critical literacy in this context has been an act of resistance at the margins of a marginal service. Yet there is a rich educational philosophy that was once dominant in Scottish education that argued that the encouragement of a 'democratic intellect' was seen to be essential to the wider functioning of a democratic society (see Macdonald, 1998). A democratic society is one in which the experts and specialists have to be scrutinised by the wider community. We see no reason why, with a bit of imagination and resources, this tradition could not apply in basic education too. We are aware of one literacy project were the provision offered to students involves an unusual breadth by encompassing subjects like philosophy, democracy, anti racism, amongst other things, and seeks explicitly to develop the critical faculties of students (see Hayward et al 1995). Undoubtedly there are more and we are currently investigating the range of activities which can be identified as critical literacy in Scotland. However, the early indication is that such work is scarce.

Fourth, the least developed aspect of critical literacy practice is that which involves the link between education and action. Instead of forging the two, basic education often undermines it. The key issue here is the way the learner is socially constructed. With one or two exceptions the vast majority of literacy practice is grounded in a view of the student as an individual rather than as a member of a social group. That such a construction is ideologically laden is seldom made explicit. The implicit assumption that we are independent of others - and not interdependent with them - is reinforced by claims of an individual, needs meeting curriculum.

Focussing on the needs of the individual obscures as much as it reveals. What it hides is that we are individual men or women, members of a social class and ethnic group, able bodied or not, with different sexualities. In other words our experiences are shaped by the social context of which we are part rather than some over-riding abstract individualism. Our common position with others generates the possibility of joint interests which can become the basis of collective action. In a sense the last thing we are is an individual. Despite this, the ideology of individualism (see Keddie, 1980) is rife in education and adult literacy practice in particular. One consequence has been the failure to build a curriculum which addresses the collective nature of students' experiences. Without taking this step it is difficult to move on to engage literacy work with local community or wider forms of social action. The apocryphal example is the student who has a real life problem which they want to deal with - for instance they may be a tenant living in damp, sub-standard, housing - but instead of this concern entering into the curriculum as a resource for analysing how it might be addressed, and by whom, it unthinkingly gets turned into a letter writing exercise and is displayed as an example of student-centred learning! The substantive issue (how to successfully challenge the provider of the damp housing) is lost behind an emphasis on the skill of letter writing. The implicit assumption that writing a letter is the appropriate response, perhaps as opposed to collectively organising, is never on the curriculum as an issue for discussion.


We have argued that the current context of democratic renewal can help adult literacy practice to shift its emphasis on the development of individual technical skills and embrace an approach which prioritises critical thinking and social action. Critical literacy that draws on the wider curriculum made possible by the new cultural developments in Scotland should be able to contribute to people's self-worth as well as to their competence in handling different literacies and the contexts in which they are used. This, in turn, could facilitate a more genuine dialogue in the curriculum. In the current conjuncture the 'resources of hope' for richer and more varied literacies to emerge could inform a more reflexively constituted curriculum. Literacy programmes that help people to be 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 and challenging misrepresentations about people's own lives and experiences.

Much needs to be done but there are signs of this work already underway. The broader context of democratic renewal can provide the impetus for a more critical and creative curriculum which will benefit students. The manacles of a functionalist and technicist approach to literacy need to be loosened and this is an ideal time to do it. The dominant culture is not monolithic and there are opportunities for resistance and contestation which recognises there are many literacies and that none are neutral.


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This document was added to the Education-line database 01 July 1998