Just about every Monday for a little over four years I have been going to the library and meeting D to read (mostly) books about black history. D is a lovely man with a couple of decades on me who didn’t have the opportunity to finish school and who made it to adulthood without knowing how to read. D is not alone. A 2007 report found that 36% of DC adults are functionally illiterate.
Every year the organization I volunteer with has a recognition ceremony. Many learners stand up and tell their stories during the event. The room is filled with people who have been failed completely by our society and, especially, our school system. After all, while more than a third of adults in this town are functionally illiterate, only 60,000 of them do not have a high school diploma. One gentleman in particular I have never been able to forget.
The man was in his fifties or sixties. He stood up and described what it was like to grow up not knowing how to read. He told us how ashamed he was to tell anybody. How he was able to graduate from a DC high school without being able to read. After graduation, not even having the ability to fill out an application, he couldn’t get a straight job. So he sold drugs. Then he did drugs. Then he became addicted to drugs. He ended up in prison. Lost his family, his freedom, and decades of his life. And there was this “hardened criminal” crying as he laid it all out for us.
DC may have some of the lowest literacy rates in the country, but according to the National Adult Literacy Survey, millions of people in the US demonstrate the lowest literacy skill levels. Some of them are immigrants learning a new language. Many have disabilities. Many are from older generations who had even less access to schooling. Some are just poor and ignored. All of their options are limited because of their literacy barriers.
Now, if you know me at all, you know that I do not put much stock in the
education certification system. The system is not the answer to poverty. Going to a university is about continuing to be one of the privileged few. Promoting education allows us to ignore race and class and other accidents of birth. It is pretending like we live in a meritocracy and that a meritocracy is a good thing. It is about believing that the uneducated deserve their terrible fate so that some of us can enjoy our good lives guilt free.
They must just suck, right? Can’t read. Can’t eat. Not my problem. Should have been “smarter.” Should have worked harder. (As though we don’t all know lazy asses who have had everything handed to them on a silver platter and tireless sacrificers who have never caught a break.)
I started writing this post when I found out that this week is Adult Education and Family Literacy Week in DC. But shortly after I started, articles started coming out about the education debt jubilee. And I found myself feeling incredibly ambivalent. I’m happy for those people who are free of their education debt. It would be great if millions of students insisted that they no longer be shackled by debt before their life even really begins.
But I cannot get excited about a campaign that focuses on college debt when I spend every week focused on people who will be incredibly lucky if they get a GED and a stable job that pays more than minimum wage. Education debt campaigns are about less than 7% of the world population. As bad as education debt may be, we are not the “wretched of the earth” by any stretch of the imagination.
Astra Taylor and Hannah Appel recently wrote an important article about the scam of for profit colleges. A business that charges people tens of thousands of dollars for a product that is virtually worthless and markets itself to the people who can least afford it is repugnant. Sucking resources from those who can least afford it is how our system works – mortgages, payday loans, legal fines – and we should be taking down the institutions that do it.
But focusing on for profit educational institutions while accepting the stratification that higher education was meant to enforce is not helpful. It is like getting your drawers in a bunch about private prisons, but being fine with the rest of the racialized caste system of social control that relies on mass incarceration. We need to get much more basic than that.
In their article, Taylor and Appel wonder if it is “time to ask whether education alone can really move people up the class ladder.” With all due respect, that is the wrong question. It is time to ask whether or not there should be a ladder. And the answer is no.
In the end, we all have to ask ourselves some questions. Can there be justice in a society that has ladders? Should we be fighting for affordable higher education or should we be battling against the social hierarchy that considers those with education “higher”? Do we put our energies into fights where the immediate benefits would be felt by the most privileged third or tenth? Or should we focus on those people who are struggling the hardest for mere survival?
I don’t know what all the answers are, but I feel fairly certain that fixing “higher” education is not one of them.
A note about literacy: Literacy is hard to measure. What skills you need depend on your community and culture. The literacy survey sets the following framework – “Using printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.” The lowest levels of literacy that I refer to above would include people who may be able to do routine tasks (make out a check, sign their name, identify a meeting time on a sheet) and some that don’t even know the alphabet.