Adult Literacy in Australia: Reading beyond the Figures

Article excerpt

It has become commonplace for the education field in Australia to be presented with concerns, even indignation, about literacy levels among children at various stages of compulsory schooling. In more recent times these concerns have spread to include disquiet over the literacy levels of some adult Australians located in the workforce, the labour market and in the wider community.

Adult literacy, the term used to describe that sector of literacy provision designed specifically for adults, is a relatively new field of educational endeavour. Concerns about levels of literacy among the adult populations of western nations did not really emerge until the 1970s largely because of these nations' as yet, unquestioned faith in their compulsory, mass-education systems. It had been common practice for some time in developed nations to equate levels of literacy within the national population to years of schooling. From this premise it followed that, because these nations had a history of compulsory mass schooling going back a number of generations, they enjoyed high levels of literacy. The notion that there were non-literates in such a literate world was therefore hard to accept. A clear indication of this non-acceptance is evidenced in the fate of the Duncan Report on Adult Education, produced in Australia in 1944. This report, revealing the extent of literacy difficulties among military personnel, and recommending that measures taken by the then Army Education Service to overcome illiteracy among soldiers be extended to the wider population, was not made public until the late 1970s because its conclusions seemed so unlikely (Wickert & Zimmerman, 1991, p. 182). Since the 1970s, however, the adult literacy movement has developed rapidly in Australia, growing from modest, volunteer-dependent provision within small, community-based groups and organisations, to its current positioning within wider, national vocational education and training agendas.

Constructing adult literacy as a problem

The growing awareness of, and anxiety about, levels of literacy among adults, and official responses to that concern that have developed in Australia and elsewhere since the 1970s, cannot be directly related to any real changes in the actual situation. There is no reason to believe that levels of literacy among adults have declined markedly in recent times. Rather, the increased recent concern, and framing of adult illiteracy as a `problem', can be explained as evidence of how the history of literacy is always locally and situatedly contingent on wider societal events. Reports of literacy crises have become a regular feature of modern-day living, usually abating somewhat after a flurry of activity in the popular media. In discussing various explanations that can be given for `literacy crises', and thereby unearthing the fundamentally ideological work that can be ascribed to different notions of literacy by and within nations, Welch and Freebody (1993, p. 14) have suggested that such crises can be understood in terms of an `invented' phenomenon. From this perspective, the discourse of a literacy crisis is then interpreted within wider societal economic and political concerns. The pervasive and long-term effect of the pronouncements of literacy crises is the manner in which ensuing debates over literacy and literacy standards become contests of moral and social vision about what defines the ideal literate student and citizen (Green et al, 1997).

Appearing as it did in countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada in the early 1980s (Street, 1984; de Castell & Luke, 1986; Graff, 1987; Draper, 1989; Gowen, 1992; Freebody & Welch, 1993; Hull, 1993; Green et al., 1997) and in the late 1980s in Australia (Freebody & Welch, 1993, Castleton, 1997; Green et al., 1997), the latest discourse of literacy crisis among adults has been constructed in a world in the process of dramatic economic, social and political change. …