Conviviality in the Face of Zombies

from here

The Toronto Star has published an article about Canada's imaginary skills gap in May and it just came to my attention today - finger on the pulse as usual :)

The article is by Sachin Maharaj who is a graduate student at OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education).
If we really had a large skills gap, wages in STEM fields would be very high and unemployment would be very low relative to non-STEM fields. But there is almost no evidence of this. In fact, the median salary of science and technology grads is actually lower than those in non-STEM fields, and the unemployment rate in STEM and non-STEM fields is virtually identical. The report therefore concludes that contrary to popular opinion, “Canada appears to have a well-functioning labour market, where individuals are choosing fields of study and occupations based on factors such as market signals and personal preferences.”

That so many people continue to believe in existence of a skills gap, despite the facts, is why Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has dubbed it a “Zombie Idea,” an idea that should be killed by evidence, but refuses to die. Krugman pins the blame on the fact that influential people and the media have kept repeating the skills gap narrative for years now, to the point where it has just become accepted wisdom. He thinks part of the reason for this is to divert attention away from widening income equality and so that workers can be blamed for their own struggles. But while I doubt that is a major motivation among government and business leaders here in Canada, that does not make the skills gap story any more real. So perhaps it is time to put this myth to rest and focus our efforts on more pressing issues.

We talked about this Zombie idea in our post about the Temporary Foreign Worker program and you can find links to more articles about the skills gap myth there.

The trope of blaming workers for their own struggles - especially when it comes to people who are viewed as needing to upgrade their literacy skills - is not new of course.
... the influential Jump Start report of 1989 stated, "There is no way in which the United States can remain competitive in a global economy, maintain its standard of living, and shoulder the burden of the retirement of the baby boom generation unless we mount a forceful national effort to help adults upgrade their basic skills in the very near future (p.iii)."

by Tom Sticht

The IALS discourse also acts as an important disciplinary mechanism of neoliberalism. Its framing of literacy is used to convince people who live in the Global North that economic competition is inevitable, that each of us is responsible for our nation’s GDP, and that some people in our midst—usually racialized people who are not fluent in an official language—are a drain on our individual and national prosperity. It is used to convince ‘good citizens’ to fear unproductive people who are hampering the economy, and to blame themselves rather than the structures of capitalism if they become ‘unproductive’ or unemployed. Finally, literacy as it has been constructed in IALS has been used as justification for undermining the social safety net: one of the most recent reports based on IALS data (Coulombe et al, 2005) concludes that investments in ‘human capital accumulation’ are more beneficial to national economies than policies that support social infrastructure.

As Tannis says:
In Canada, government departments which support adult literacy insist that programs focus on a narrow range of literacy outcomes tied to a framework of Essential Skills that articulates key competencies identified by the OECD through PISA and IALS. Increasing numbers of practitioners experience a profound disconnect between the real needs of learners in their classes and the demands placed on them by state funders. In addition, they now feel pressured to spend more time on paperwork than on working with the adults who the programs exist to teach.

Practitioners often respond to this predicament with dismay, puzzlement and frustration. They bemoan the fact that policies and funding seem driven by accountability rather than attempts to meet the needs of people who are marginalized because they lack basic education. Practitioners feel that the government policies are irrational, and most do not believe it is possible to effect change. While some may be aware that these pressures result from the past decade of neoliberal economic policies, the field as a whole has been unable to respond effectively to the poisoned environment in which they now work. 
I met up with some literacy workers at a work event the other day and we were talking about how we might have to start again - unfunded in a basement library as they did in Parkdale, Toronto many years ago.

Later that week, I went to a poetry reading where one of the founders of that program was reading and another was attending. We talked about the program briefly and Arthur Bull started talking about the Learning Circles Project and how what we learned there informs his work now. The other founder, Michelle Kuhlmann, was a researcher on the Powerful Listening Project and her work there and in a community based literacy program keeps our field connected to the needs of learners.

We cannot return to the old days and we cannot shake the zombie ideas. So what can we do? How can we keep community development and asset-building approaches alive in our work? Here are some ideas from those founders:

We called our time together deep listening. We needed this experience and we were very open about how we entered this time with each other, looking for what would emerge each time, and cherishing the time together. This is a very personal reaction to a research project, but I was also aware how it related to the field we work in everyday. There was this lingering feeling about how unusual our research situation was compared to the experience of keeping up with our daily life in literacy. When feelings of discomfort and difference arise in our work we are on the spot and have to choose the best response for the moment but can be left with disturbing feeling and questions that are not resolved even for years. These feelings and experiences surfaced and lived in our storytelling. I don’t mean that we “used” the stories as much as we experienced them together.
by Michelle Kuhlmann, Powerful Listening

there is a hard-to-define element that seems to be a prerequisite for any successful learning circle. This is best described by the word conviviality; that is, the enjoyment people take in each other’s company. Again and again, when asked why they come to a group, people expressed the idea that they like spending time with the other people in the group. All of the above elements - safe place, peer learning, self-determination, group thinking - contribute to this atmosphere of enjoyment. It is also something that has a life of its own, that the group itself can create and nurture. Of course this is not something that can be made into a rule, or produced on demand. Nevertheless, it should never be far from our minds as we think about learning circles.

How are these elements of the group dynamic created?  There are undoubtedly many factors, but the overriding one seems to be the role of the facilitator. Clearly this is different from the traditional role of the teacher or instructor. It involves a number of different facets. ...

Another feature of facilitation that we noticed in a number of the cases is that the facilitator was thoughtful about being, and acting like, an equal with the participants in the group. The leadership role of the facilitator seemed to be to all about leading the group to where they take over.

At the same time, we observed that the facilitator’s role in fact shifts within the group, and sometimes even during a single session. The facilitator is almost always the person who has the responsibility for the overall life of the group. As such, he or she is always paying attention to what is happening in the group, and adjusting his or her role accordingly. This role might shift from time-keeper, to storyteller, to peacemaker to teacher, to traditional facilitator. This attention and adaptability seems to be at the heart of what makes a good facilitator in a learning circle.

Balancing Acts

We know that our conditions of life are deteriorating. ... Interesting jobs are sliced up, through digital Taylorism, into portions of meaningless drudgery. The natural world, whose wonders enhance our lives, and upon which our survival depends, is being rubbed out with horrible speed. Those to whom we look for guardianship, in government and among the economic elite, do not arrest this decline, they accelerate it.

The political system that delivers these outcomes is sustained by aspiration: the faith that if we try hard enough we could join the elite, even as living standards decline and social immobility becomes set almost in stone. But to what are we aspiring? A life that is better than our own, or worse?

For some reason this article made me think of all I have been reading about the precariat lately.
Guy Standing is a scholar at Soas, who was once a high-up at the UN's International Labour Organisation. In his vocabulary, to be at the sharp end of modern capitalism is to be a member of the precariat: a split-off from the shrinking working class, and one which is growing in size, though not yet in influence.
His 2011 book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class set out its story: the term was originally used in 1980s France to denote temporary and seasonal workers, but now, with labour insecurity a feature of most western economies, it is the perfect word for a great mass of people, "flanked by an army of unemployed and a detached group of socially ill misfits", who enjoy almost none of the benefits won by organised labour during the 20th century. In Standing's view, they increasingly resemble denizens rather than citizens: people with restricted rights, largely living towards the bottom of a "tiered membership" model of society, in which a plutocratic elite takes the single biggest share, while other classes – the salariat, free-ranging "proficians", and what remains of the old working class – divide up most of what remains.
A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens – review
by John Harris, The Guardian, April 9, 2010

This is not a new phenomenon of course
What these harsh economic conditions have produced in Canada, as they have in other capitalist nations like the U.S., is a split in the working class between a relatively better-paid, more secure stratum (but one that is not immune to the effects of recession, as the present period is demonstrating), and a large "surplus population" of unemployed and underemployed workers, forced either to fill low-wage Jobs or to remain idle, waiting to be called up during a period of exceptional economic expansion. ... While in the Marxist sense all productive workers face exploitation, members of the surplus population face an extra measure of it in that they receive a significantly smaller portion of the product of their labor than other workers-- often below the amount required for normal standards of subsistence. They are what has been termed "superexploited".

but we are all surplus labour now.

Here is Andrew Cash on the issue of the precariat in my neighbourhood:

In 2013 Cash put forward a private member's bill C-542, the Urban Workers Strategy Act, designed to grant urban workers greater access to social support mechanisms and basic labour standards. (Read the Rabble article by Ella Bedar - an intern! - about the Bill here.)

According to Cash, you are an urban worker if your source of income is vulnerable or precarious because you work without benefits, workplace pensions or job security in the following circumstances:
(a) as an employee on a short-term contractual basis, whether continuously or intermittently;
(b) as a self-employed individual;
(c) as an employee on a part-time basis; or
(d) as an intern.
The McMaster University study, It’s More than Poverty, was prepared by the Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario (PEPSO) research group, a joint university-community initiative.

The United Way follow up to the 2013 study, The Precarity Penalty, can be found here and an overview can be found here.
Lewchuk's study shows that nearly 44 per cent of working adults face some level of precarity, a fact that Statistics Canada labour force data doesn't always show. While roughly half of this group work in temporary or contract employment, the other half work jobs that might on the surface appear stable, but in reality contain many of the characteristics of precarious labour, such as irregular and inconsistent scheduling and a lack of any benefits beyond basic wages.
by Ella Bedar, Rabble, May 22, 2015
The longer-term trend points to more insecure employment, said Prof. Lewchuk. “Each time there’s a recovery, the level of security is a little bit lower than the previous boom. I think this is because the competitive pressures are greater – firms are looking to cut costs … technology has changed, and there’s an infrastructure where they can go to temp agencies, and get not just unskilled workers, but they can get CEOs now.”
by Tavia Grant, The Globe and Mail, May 21, 2015

This is not a Canadian phenomenon. In May of this year the International Labour Organization published The World Employment and Social Outlook: The changing nature of jobs.

What was once viewed as a passing crisis now seems to be the new normal, producing deep psychological unease within the workforce and growing inequality between those with stable incomes and those without.

Global financial officials are worried to the point they've again started using the term "hysteresis," borrowed from physics, to warn that long-established unemployment is becoming "structural" and therefore harder to correct, as the jobless lose skills and companies grow addicted to cheaper, temporary labour.

The Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, often called the developed world's think tank, describes this ugly phenomenon as the rise of the precariat — a play on the working-class proletariat and meaning those trapped in precarious lives with neither material nor psychological welfare.

by Brian Stewart, CBC News, June 01, 2015

So what does this have to do with literacy work, literacy workers and adult education policy?

Many literacy workers and adult educators have been members of the precariat for as long as we can remember. A small group of us actually approached a public sector union in the late 1990s to see about how we could work together for "greater access to social support mechanisms and basic labour standards" but the union was not ready work with us. Maybe they will get ready now.

As we have mentioned a few times on this blog, on this contested ground that is adult education, the battle for a system that is accountable to learners has been lost. The primary "customers" for adult education and training are employers. Governments at all levels and in all jurisdictions try to design training that meets the needs of employers and programs are assessed by their ability to meet labour market outcomes instead of educational ones. However, the labour market outcomes expressed by these bureaucrats and policy makers - a permanent, stable, well-paying job - are not possible for most workers and are at odds with the needs of employers "addicted to cheaper, temporary labour."

And this is where we fit in.
As anyone who’s watched a TED talk, read a David Brooks column, or attended an Aspen Ideas Festival can tell you, there’s hardly a single issue currently vexing Americans that the 1 percent doesn’t think can be solved with more “education.” Urban poverty? Education! Stagnant wages? Education! Police brutality? Education! ... If you can think of a problem that might be at least mitigated by redistribution, you can bet that there’s some sage of the plutocracy out there insisting that we focus on education instead.

So how are we going to fulfill our mandate?
In response, the Westminster [British government] consensus insists that [the precariat] should be subject to regimes that are not just cruel, but dysfunctional. In other words, it doesn't actually matter if so-called welfare-to-work programmes actually help people, or just screw them up: the point is that they visibly punish them in pursuit of a political dividend. In that sense, the precariat is not only at the cutting edge of the economy, but at the receiving end of a postmodern politics that values the manipulation of appearances much more highly than reality. 
A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens – review
by John Harris, The Guardian, April 9, 2010

Are we going to continue to design "boutique" programs that profess to prepare workers to be "nimble" and "flexible" enough to meet the mercurial needs of capricious employers? Or will we be adherents of the critical perspective
while liberals see literacy education as a technical process of compensating for cognitive skill deficiencies among the poor (to permit them to better adjust to the needs of the economy), adherents of the critical perspective view such efforts both as ineffective - because they do not deal with the root cause of poverty - and as oppressive - because they better accommodate the poor to the structures which exploit them. For their part, they would make adult basic and literacy education a vehicle for the awakening of critical social consciousness among members of subordinate social classes and a means of support for collective efforts to radically transform the class system.