Academic journal article College English

EMERGING VOICES: Capitalizing on Adult Education: The Economic Imperative for Literacy in 1960s Federal Policy Discourse

Academic journal article College English

EMERGING VOICES: Capitalizing on Adult Education: The Economic Imperative for Literacy in 1960s Federal Policy Discourse

Article excerpt

For composition and rhetoric scholars, 1966 is a familiar year, one often touted as the birth of the field in modern academia. As the narrative goes, the National Council of Teachers of English and the Modern Language Association sponsored a conference on the teaching of English. The approximately fifty American and British teachers and scholars attending the conference at Dartmouth College responded to the emergent needs to define English and establish pedagogical approaches to the subject. According to Harris, some scholars mounted discontent with the Harvard model of writing instruction that privileged direct training in the formal rules of Standard English and promoted instead a growth model of composition that favored expressive writing. Others expressed interest in defining English as an "academic discipline," a subject of study with a distinct body of knowledge (634). The resulting discussions, while reflecting intense conflicts over how to define and teach English, led not just to revisions of the study and teaching of writing but also to the formation of a new academic discipline. Since the Dartmouth Conference, composition scholars in the United States have focused on efforts to investigate the composing process, foster students' authentic voices through personal, expressive writing, and ultimately understand writing as an activity worthy of study in its various forms and contexts.

The year holds less, if any, significance in the field for what should be considered a remarkable move by the federal government to launch a publicly funded system of adult education with the Adult Education Act of 1966. The same year that English and composition studies experienced what "has symbolized a kind of Copernican shift from a view of English as something one learns about to a sense of it as something one does" (Harris 631), the federal government engaged in a much different effort to change literacy education-one that positioned literacy as something one obtains. In 1966, Congress passed the Adult Education Act as Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Spurred on by Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty, adult basic education became part of the Economic Opportunity Act in 1964 and aimed to increase individuals' employability by improving their English reading, writing, and speaking skills. The Adult Education Act solidified the government's investment in education as a vehicle for economic advancement. As I will demonstrate, this legislation and the Congressional discourses accompanying it also solidified a popular skills-based notion of literacy that has shaped not just publicly funded adult literacy education but literacy education at all levels.

I begin with this comparison because I think it was no accident that these developments occurred during the same period. Their concurrence demonstrates that literacy ability-variously defined and at all levels of education-had become a national priority. However, federal and academic efforts to shape literacy education took off in separate directions, and a sharp distinction formed between literacy in the academic context and literacy in the federally funded educational context. Composition scholars were interested in interrogating the very meaning of English, literacy, and composition in order to understand how these subjects or activities should figure into educational contexts. The government, by contrast, was interested in negotiating the rationale for investment in literacy education, assuming literacy to be a stable, neutral, and transferrable set of skills. That rationale centered on an idea that most members of Congress, the executive branch, and political groups could agree on-literacy education leads to higher economic productivity.

This article complements existing histories of the development of composition studies1 and literacy research by examining the historical development of federal adult education policy, which has been given limited attention in composition studies. …

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