Public Policy as a Factor Influencing Adult Lifelong Learning, Adult Literacy and Public Libraries

By McCook, Kathleen de la Pena; Barber, Peggy | Reference & User Services Quarterly, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Public Policy as a Factor Influencing Adult Lifelong Learning, Adult Literacy and Public Libraries


McCook, Kathleen de la Pena, Barber, Peggy, Reference & User Services Quarterly


Public policies affecting the funding for adult lifelong learning and adult literacy through public libraries have created a framework for service that may be dissonant with the ideals of the transformational value of reading. This article reviews the current context for librarianship and adult lifelong learning and literacy programs in light of federal legislation. Ethical dilemmas of the work first ideology are presented. The librarian's capacity to foster an attitude of creation and recreation is presented. The role of education for librarianship in preparing graduates to understand the philosophical context of work with adult lifelong learners is addressed.

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By 2010, a system of high quality adult literacy, language, and lifelong learning services will help adults in every community make measurable gains toward achieving their goals as family members, workers, citizens, and lifelong learners. (1) Current public policies that affect funding for many adult lifelong learning and adult literacy programs have been crafted in the context of economically driven ideologies such as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996. Librarians who serve adult learners, though, have generally come to their work through a commitment to provide an expanded view of the world that can be brought to the mind and spirit through reading and literature. The implementation of programs for adult learners through libraries funded with government monies may therefore create a feeling of dissonance for librarians as demands for workforce accountability conflict with the librarian's traditional focus on the humanistic and transformative aspects of adult education. An exploration of the very complex current governmental and professional perspectives that comprise adult learning and literacy will help illuminate some of these issues.

The National Literacy Summit, an invitational conference held in February 2000, brought together concerns about adult literacy and adult lifelong learning. (2) It is important to realize that adult literacy and adult lifelong learning, while overlapping, have different histories and advocates. The current working definitions of adult literacy used in this paper are those provided in the National Center for Education Statistics report, Adult Literacy in America, which include "prose literacy," "document literacy," and "quantitative literacy," and the definition provided in the National Assessment of Adult Literacy: "using printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one's goals, and to develop one's knowledge and potential." (3) These definitions, which are based on the recognition that literacy is not a single skill, provide an interpretive scheme. It is not hard to see why adult lifelong learning, adult education, and adult literacy might be used interchangeably in many discussions.

"Adult lifelong learning" has been defined by the Lifelong Learning National Center for Education Statistics Task Force:

   A lifelong learner is typically defined as any adult who is involved in
   learning activities other than compulsory (K-12) education. This includes
   those involved in voluntary learning activities, as well as in activities
   that are required for legal, professional or other reasons. (4)

In its discussion of policy issues, the task force focused mainly on work-related lifelong learning, with minimal attention to informal learning driven by personal goals for enrichment outside of the workplace. It would be helpful if adult education were used to indicate activities for definite learning goals (GED, ESL, post-secondary, community colleges, university) and lifelong learning for enrichment, but this is not the case with federal definitions.

The Foundation Paper presented at the National Literacy Summit had as its primary aim the provision of information on the history and current state of adult education in the United States, and laid the groundwork for action to build a stronger field in the coming years to serve adults with literacy needs. …

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