Whilst popular education classes offer socialists inspiration, Matt Parrott argues that we need to be more proactive in offering literature initiatives to adults regardless of political persuasion. He explains why he believes they're so important...
While much political capital was made from the dubious announcement that 1 in 5 Scots kids were leaving school ‘functionally illiterate’, too little attention is paid to those adults who face similar troubles when navigating the written word. Despite the fact that these people are more likely to be of a lower-income background, their difficulties are largely ignored across the political spectrum, including among socialists.
To an extent, this might be the result of a justified concern on the part of socialist leaders not to patronise or belittle those people they are working to secure a better deal, if not a new world, for. But competent literacy in all its forms is absolutely essential to a functioning democracy, a democracy whose tools we will use to achieve socialism. Of course, government-supported initiatives like The Big Plus, which offers literacy and numeracy tuition in local communities, are already doing great work, but there is an opportunity here that we shouldn't overlook.
There is a long and distinguished tradition in the socialist and labour movement of popular education, of evening classes and the like. And it is no coincidence that the widespread provision of this education coincided with the golden age of the movement as a whole. Those who provide education are in charge not only of setting the texts to be used in the classroom, but also of framing the discussion sparked by the texts themselves.
For example, a Spanish publisher has recently reissued an illustrated alphabet that was used in the civil-war period to teach illiterate adults to read. It follows the classic children’s example of linking specific words with the individual letters, differing only in that it reflects the revolutionary spirit of the times by linking letters like ‘F’ and ‘L’ to the words ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’.
The situation in 21st century Scotland is fortunately very different. Whether or not people struggle with their literacy skills, the overwhelming majority can recognise letters and approximate the sounds the combinations of these letters are at least supposed to represent. Our tasks lay elsewhere.
Using an engaging novel or chapter of a novel, socialists can shift the emphasis away from the world contained within the book itself, away from the fictitious characters and their inner lives, not to mention the inner life of the author, and onto the world as it really is – the world the book came out of. A capitalist world with all its inherent inequalities.
Novels written in Scots, Scots-English, or Scots Gaelic that represent more closely the way people speak than contrived literary English can be a hook. The very fact of these texts’ deviation from the so-called standard raises questions of what the standard is and how it came to be. A question we can help to answer.
Similarly, any writing tasks should be both interesting and relevant to the individual. It doesn’t have to be creative writing - not everyone’s a storyteller. It could be a letter-exchange between participants that passes from writer to tutor and then onto the reader before going back to the writer along with a reply that follows the same steps.
The important distinction to be made here is that we are not equipping people with the skills to succeed in the capitalist jobs market, even if that is a by-product of the process. Instead we are laying the foundations for an informed and class conscious population.
Financially speaking, this requires little expenditure. An hour’s room hire can be as low as £15 for non-profit-making unincorporated associations. With fifteen people paying £1 each, a volunteer to run the classes, and some donated books, you have a class.
Before going any further, however, it’s worth saying that for this work to be of any long-term benefit at all, it mustn’t focus on already-committed, card-carrying socialists. Work is already being done across Scotland in organising educational sessions for activists, and this is necessary, but there can be a tendency to preach to the converted.
Focusing too much energy on this sort of work is isolating, cutting us off from the foundations of our movement and winning over no-one to our ideas. This isn’t to say that socialists should be specifically excluded from these proposed classes, but that they shouldn’t be the primary target of any literacy initiative.
Although delivered by socialists, these classes should be as broad-based and as open as possible. The possibility of political disagreement should be welcomed. To be forced to defend a point of view is to learn critical thinking hands-on. And a well-informed, critically-thinking population that acts on its own initiative is of course the end-goal. Ultimately, the establishment of an adult literacy initiative in Scotland is at once a duty and an opportunity we must not shirk and cannot afford to squander.