Opportunity Knocks

Some people tell me Scott Murray is a real booster of literacy, but what I've seen happening as a result of all of the work he has done--starting with IALS--is policies that punish people rather than actually supporting them.

Part of my reaction has to do with the fact that I locate his emphasis on calculating literacy within a larger trend that has been happening for several decades whereby the only knowledge that counts is 'expert', 'evidence-based' knowledge, which really means people who believe that you can treat education, and other social 'issues', as completely separate from issues of power and inequality, and that ignore both the histories that have contributed to these inequalities and questions of who benefits from the status quo.

For me, part of the problem with this approach is that it makes it impossible to talk about what we know--that educational benefits are NOT equally distributed across society AND that those inequalities are not random but systematic.

The statistics that presenters such as Scott Murray use to bolster their arguments are the numbers being used to blame poor people for being unemployed. This at a time when what has ACTUALLY been happening is that rich people are using governments to erode the rights and social benefits of the 99% while they amass ever greater amounts of wealth [see Linda McQuaig on this issue at http://rabble.ca/columnists/2010/12/growth-extreme-inequality-canada], and then say that when we are unemployed it's because we lack 'skills'. For what jobs? As far as I can tell the only people hiring these days are Tim Horton's and the Tar Sands.

Literacy workers in Ontario where literacy and basic skills has become an Employment Ontario program tasked with preparing the unemployable for jobs often ask the question, "WHAT JOBS?" They also report that what has been happening to many people who come into their programs is that people are being systematically DE-skilled -- they are being told the work they've done for 20 or 30 years now requires them to have a Grade 12 even when the job itself has not changed.

Scott Murray spoke about the looming problems. He projects into the future, but not in a compassionate way; his projections are based on a sense that he is certain about who can be excluded and exactly how to do so. I would rather be in conversation with people who, like me, try to envision a future not built on blaming and fear-mongering. I think we COULD build a future built on thinking about how we could do things differently, how we COULD find ways to 'distribute literacy' instead of punishing those people who struggle with this very particular, class-biased and culturally-specific type of interaction with the world. I would much, much rather envision a future built on imagining how multilinguialism could be a resource rather than a 'deficit' that 'proves' people with professional qualifications in their mother tongue are 'only level 1' when they struggle with the heavy language demands of standardized tests (whether IALS or benchmarks in OALCF).

Yes most politicians these days are economists. But what Scott Murray presents is NOT economics, it's human capital fundamentalism. There are many interpretations of economics. And the human capital ideologues are only one thread of economic thinking. They are not the side of people, they side with everyone who believes that less government is better and that the market should rule all aspects of social life. I think that the adult literacy field has made a HUGE mistake by choosing to side with the CEOs and the OECD rather than economists from the people's side, such as folks at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives [http://www.policyalternatives.ca/] or unions or the Progressive Economics Forum [http://www.progressive-economics.ca/].

I'm also deeply troubled by how these numbers are being used to talk about the 'skills crisis' among aboriginal youth as if it is a problem of lack of motivation, and not a legacy of colonialism and underfunded education and intergenerational trauma and dispossession. Even if human capital fundamentalism (aka neoliberalism) was the only way of approaching economics, I will not and do not adopt the language and framing of the oppressor. In my experience, what has shifted homophobia has not been queers internalizing the hate speech directed at us, it has been LGBTQ folks and their allies standing up and saying STOP. What is shifting colonial attitudes in this country is not Harper's policies aiming to extinguish sovereignty and indigenous rights but Idle No More and Theresa Spence and all of the actions of allies who say, "We are not willing to be complicit in this form of violence."

To me IALS and all of its antecedents and offspring are insidious violences that MUST be resisted. I refuse to adopt the language and logic of this mean-spirited view of the world.

To see some of the different ways economists talk about  jobs and the economy, see Economist Talk.

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