The Community Health & Learning Foundation has just published an interesting short briefing on health literacy. Their basic case is that there are huge inequalities in people’s access to and understanding of information about health, and they set out a number of ways in which to remedy this.
It’s an important argument, and forms part of a wider case for public investment in adult learning. But it also illustrates a trend that I’ve been thinking about recently, which is the proliferation of different literacies. As well as health literacy, we hear about financial literacy, digital literacy, civic or political literacy, and even emotional literacy.
What is this about? Well, one obvious reason for using the word ‘literacy’ is as a way of focussing attention. It is an arresting word, because it implies that some of us are ‘illiterate’ in the context of financial planning, or health, or information technology. Actually, all of us must be illiterate in some contexts, so it’s a kind of linguistic hook, a way of pulling us in to the discussion about this or that form of literacy.
But isn’t there also a risk of linguistic inflation in this multiplication of literacies? The more we use it to describe unequal access to different kinds of knowledge and information, the more we dilute its original, narrower meaning. And we know that we have massive inequalities in people’s abilities to grapple with and command the written word; and this in turn has huge consequences for people’s life chances.
In a modern information society, literacy as narrowly understood is a fundamental precondition of participation in the wider community. Weak literacy skills have clear material effects, which are measurable. The OECD’s recent adult skills survey showed just how far literacy is linked not just to higher incomes, but also to political efficacy, volunteering, trust and indeed health. And it also showed that these effects were larger in the two UK nations that participated in the survey than in most of the other nations involved.
So literacy in its narrowest sense – confident and competent reading and writing in real life settings – is among the most important fields of adult learning. Anything that reduces the focus on literacy, and allows policy makers to avoid their responsibilities for securing its improvement, is a concern.
On the other hand, the proliferation of literacies has a more positive effect in reducing stigma. Anyone who has worked in adult literacy knows that fears of being branded ‘illiterate’ can cause learners the most profound anxiety and distress. This is one of the reasons why Freire’s work became so influential in the 1970s among those working in the area, as his ideas of liberation pedagogy offered a constructive way of understanding literacy practices as having to do with power, and thus offering a possibility of empowerment.
The idea that we are all ‘illiterate’ in some contexts reduces the stigma attached to ‘illteracy’, and breaks down some of the barriers to participation. Of course, this in itself is only one step towards literacy learning as a force for civic empowerment and social change, but it is a start.
This also reminds me that I used to watch a lovely tv programme called ‘On the Move’ which starred the great Bob Hoskins, who died recently. The BBC still took its educational mission seriously in the mid-1970s, and this series – intended for adults with literacy difficulties – attracted an audience of millions. It is generally credited with breaking down some of the stigma attached to literacy learning; the fact that I am still discussing this issue now suggests that we still have some way to go.