Dr Jim Crowther: Looking back

Dr Jim Crowther has been involved as a practitioner, researcher and academic in adult and community education since 1980. His PhD focussed on adult learning in and through popular protests.  He is the co-ordinator of an international popular education network (PEN) for academics and researchers in higher education.


His main research interest is in the contribution of adult education to furthering democracy and social justice, which he has written about extensively in reference to popular education, adult literacy and the politics of lifelong learning, active citizenship and social inclusion. I have also undertaken research on the educational use of information and communication technologies, and social media, in struggles for environmental justice.


100 years after the 1919 Report on Adult education, speakers were brought together around the proud history of adult education in Scotland to make collective plans for a radical future.


Speakers included: Sharon Clancy, Raymond Williams Foundation Working class and union education: Wendy Burton (STUC), Dek Keenan (independent scholar and author) Recovery movement and adult learning: Joyce Nicholson (Glasgow University), John Player (independent scholar and author) Empowering literacies: Jim Crowther, co-author ‘Powerful Literacies’, Sarah McEwen, University of Dundee


Below is a transcript of the presentation given by Dr Jim Crowther celebrating 100 years of radical Adult Education in Scotland.


Sarah and I are going to do this session. We have three questions and I’m going to just say what they are now so you can think about them, but we will put them up towards the end anyway. So: Where are the opportunities for powerful literacies today? What resources and allies can help further them? What might get in the way and how can these obstacles be managed or reduced? Those are questions we would like to ask you. We will put those up at the end but just in case you wanted to have a wee think about them.


Just to say in terms of literacy what I’m thinking about is always text is somewhere involved in literacy. Now, obviously in the age of social media it’s linked with visual, iconic information, but always some kind of degree of text is connected in there. Now people might say well there is oral literacy, my working definition in a sense is excluding that to some degree. But I think there’s something that has to hold the idea of literacy or literacies together and that has something to do with text. I want us to start, this is my first slide, was ‘Ideologies of Literacy Practice’ by Mary Hamilton, and it’s a chapter in a book that Sarah has over there. She talks about four distinct ideologies of literacy: Literacy for social control, this weird shaping functionally and morally responsible people who will be economically productive citizens. Now, we’ve all heard of that one. Literacy as a cultural missionary activity: that ideology has some strong roots probably in religiously influenced work around reading the bible and so on, historically. But my own experience of working in the 1980s in what was called basic education at that point was also it was transformed into a cultural missionary activity, or bringing enlightenment access to poor people who hadn’t acquired literacy skills. It was kind of there, it wasn’t stated so openly like that, but you could get a sense of that. Literacy as a remedial activity for poor people who didn’t quite have the capacity to acquire it at school so it was part of that people with learning difficulties who needed some remedial help. And then finally she says: Literacy as an emancipatory activity, obviously linked with critiques of dominant culture, ways in which schooling or limited forms of schooling was available to people with limited types of knowledge, and implied a radical critique of things as they existed and what needed to be done to change things. So part of literacy was always linked to some sense of action to change things.


So, two points to take from these four distinctions: one, the purpose and practice of literacy is contested. We often just assume somehow or other that it is straightforward, that it is just one type of thing, but clearly there are different things going on all the time in what we think about as literacy. And that the radical tradition, which is what we focus on, was always part of a kind of independent working class education: independent from the state, from religious influence, and so on. And it was to serve the interests of working class communities and other marginalised or exploited groups. Literacy was woven into the fabric of organisations who were about resisting at community level. We always talk about adult education histories, and when Sharon was referring to Raymond Williams about adult education and change, it’s about the process of change, it’s not about adult education history, adult education IN history, making history, part of that fundamental change.


Now I can only just sketch a few things, leaving out tons of stuff. But if we take the long view, we go back way beyond 100 years obviously of radical education, for example in 1822 there were 51 Scottish working class-controlled libraries without any middle class influence. Now, I don’t know if I’m getting this pronunciation correct, the Wanlockhead, it’s in Dumfries. It’s in Dumfries and Galloway, it was one of the first, it was founded in 1756, part of that tradition of working class communities. They would produce their own libraries because they needed to use knowledge to further their own particular interest. So these institutions were the tip of an iceberg of a growing radical political social culture that wanted to educate themselves into looking at and examining the inequalities and so on that existed and what they could do about them. But they were not explicitly political in any simple sense. They provided a wide range of literature for a wide range of interests that people would become involved in. And that was much in the tradition of the idea of mutual improvement rather than a radical end. But for instance, many of the Chartist papers, now we’re moving forward from the 17th into the 1830s/1840s, many of the Chartist papers actually suppressed the political content to include a much wider range of material within them. As one such convert to Chartism remarked, “The poetry of Coleridge and Shelley was stirring within me and making me a Chartist and something much more”. Now that was in Jonathan Rose, ‘The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes’, a fantastic book.


The democracy movement of the 1830s/40s and so on provided a rich range of material, informal situations, the kinds of things Sharon was talking about, and provided their own institutions and ideas which would help shape the values and the actions that they needed to take. The struggle for the vote throughout the 19th Century came and went but was also always part of that wider struggle for dignity and human equality, and that always, always occurred within it. The Committee for Public Libraries in 1849 noted that it led to, direct quote, “Exercising the minds of the labouring classes better than any school instruction” and that’s in a book by Dobbs, written in 1919, no 1918 maybe, on ‘Education and Social Movements’, a fantastic collection in that book. That Committee on Public Libraries called this process of participation ‘education by collision’, and there were lots of collisions taking place. Traditional authorities running up against science, reason, those kinds of collisions, collisions between the need for the growing discipline of factory life and the earlier popular cultural ways of living. The collision between widespread poverty and opulence, that people were beginning to question why did they live in such a rich society and be so poor. And so we have literacies linked to the growth of a thriving culture challenging, opinionated, questioning, and that book by Edward Thompson, ‘The Making of the English Working Class’, a fantastic resource.


John Stuart Mill, the key liberal philosopher of that period, commented that the position which gives the strongest stimulus to the growth of intelligence is that of rising to power, not that of having achieved it. So there you go, Boris Johnson. Of course, this huge range of examples of social-political movements and institutions provided a kaleidoscope of demands for an independent working class education. As the 1919 Report recognised, here’s a quote from it:


‘The growth of movements which have as their aim the creation of a better social order is not less important than the progress of education itself…such movements create the background of aspiration and endeavour which is the foundation of more directly educational work’.


What I wish to highlight relevant to my theme, is that this involved in Freirean terms the practice of reading the word and reading the world. They are mutually constitutive, creating the possibilities for literacy to be in history, an essential part of those struggles for emancipation.


Fast forward very quickly then, the modern history of radical literacy at least outside of Scotland is associated with, clearly, Paulo Freire’s ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’, a way of working and teaching with the oppressed. His philosophy that education is never neutral, had to be grounded in the generative  themes from people’s lives, the appropriate methodology for liberating was dialogical, and that people – teacher and student – were interchangeable in their roles, all that bringing together of an ontological equality into the educational experience. So, he has been a dramatic powerful influence in terms of practice of radical literacies but I would say not so much in Scotland actually, more generally in the field of adult education but probably less specific to the practice of literacy in Scotland.


But getting to where we are now, these ideas can be connected very clearly with the idea of literacy as a social practice. Now that notion underpinned the Adult Literacy and Numeracy in Scotland report in 2001 and is still seen as a core element of literacies practice. The idea that it is social, it’s a reciprocal process of people in relationships using text, and with other things as well, but using literacies because it relates to their context – their issues, their interests, and the idea that you build on people’s wealth, the knowledge and experience they bring to the situation, and the sense of a social dimension to the practice of literacies is really key. And that has been exploited by workers to be able to do a whole range of different types of literacy practices and not simply start from the idea of somehow or other – it’s like the remedial model – there is a literacy student at the bottom rung of the ladder and they slowly will work their way up, and kind of use a dipstick and measure where they are. So it challenges that notion.


Of course, literacy practices have to be artful, they have to be thoughtful, they have to be related to the struggles of different communities. In one of the anthologies that we produced with Mary Hamilton and Lyn Tett – John Player’s work on football literacies, using the common interest as social practice, what brings people together to examine the world: globalisation, racism, economic inequalities, homophobia, sexism, all these things providing a reading of the world that was used to also write the word, to construct, to deconstruct text and to reconstruct them, and so develop a richness in their literacy practice. So I would really recommend John’s chapter in there. Alan Addison, who was involved in Scots family literacy practices, using the language of people in poor communities in the north part of Edinburgh, using their everyday language as part of a resource for writing plays, for educating children and for educating adults. That powerful recognition that the adults who were involved in these activities that this was okay, it was acceptable, this wasn’t just inadequate English, this was a natural language of the home, the family, the community, and therefore it was a resource.


In conclusion, radical empowering literacies need to connect or reconnect the word and the world; that is what makes it powerful. Literacy is not a technical, neutral activity divorced from context, it’s always part of a social practice. And the history of radical education is always part of those shared struggles of people trying to make some difference to their world. The lesson of history: as long as the world is a problem there are always going to be struggles for democracy and dignity and human equality. There will always be context for empowering literacies until we’ve cracked those problems. Sites of practice may change, policy contexts may alter that, but those enduring issues are there and they will not go away and therefore they are sites for radical empowering literacies.


Our question is where are the opportunities today, where are the problems, how do we engage with those, and we cannot sit back, as Freire has said, you sit back from that, you side with the powerful. You haven’t got a choice. Thank you very much.


This is part of the 100 Years of Radical Adult Education in Scotland archive


100 years of radical Adult Education in Scotland: Building hope for the future 100 years after the 1919 Report on Adult education, join us to learn from the proud history of adult education in Scotland and make collective plans for a radical future Speakers: Sharon Clancy, Raymond Williams Foundation Working class and union education: Wendy Burton (STUC), Dek Keenan (independent scholar and author) Recovery movement and adult learning: Joyce Nicholson (Glasgow University), John Player (independent scholar and author) Empowering literacies: Jim Crowther, co-author ‘Powerful Literacies’, Sarah McEwen, University of Dundee