From Opportunity to Responsibility: Political Master Narratives, Social Policy, and Success Stories in Adult Literacy Education
by Jennifer A. Sandlin & M. Carolyn Clark — 2009
Background and Context: The context for this study is the American legislative landscape covering the past 35 years, which witnessed a shift in political philosophies concerning the role of government in ensuring the social welfare of its citizens—from a focus on a “safety net” to a focus on “individual responsibility.” We frame these contrasting political philosophies as political master narratives; these narratives shape the ways particular groups in society are perceived, help craft social policy, and have a profound impact on “local narratives,” which are more restricted in scope, are more contextually bound, and seek to make sense of lived experience in a particular domain. The specific local narratives we considered in this study are the “student success stories” told in adult literacy programs, which are distributed to legislators in hopes of influencing policy and funding decisions. We sought to understand the connection between political master narratives and the local narratives of adult literacy education.
Research Design: Data consisted of 257 stories published from 1978 through 2005. We used Burke’s method of pentadic criticism to examine act, agent, agency, scene, and purpose within the stories. Of special interest was how these elements changed across time, revealing the impact of the dominant political discourse on the telling of those stories. Of particular interest was how actor and agency are portrayed, because political discourse is most visible in the construction of the individual and in how the individual is able to act.
Findings: Four of Burke’s elements remain constant across both sets of stories—agent, scene, act, and purpose; the only one that changes is agency, or the means used to achieve the act. The agent is the adult literacy learner, and the scene consists of his or her particular life circumstances, which involve hardships of various kinds. The act is the achievement of his or her education goals. The purpose of the act is obtaining a better life, employment, and increased self-esteem. It is in agency, or the means used to achieve the act, that we see a distinct change between the two groups of stories. In the earlier stories, agency is clearly and unambiguously the program. In the later stories, however, agency changes dramatically. The programs recede into the background and often disappear altogether; instead, it is the learners who do the work and who are responsible for their own success.
Conclusion: We have shown how adult literacy educators have, in the stories they tell, embraced dominant political ideologies and are currently telling stories focused increasingly on self-sufficiency and the ability of adult literacy learners to “lift themselves up by their bootstraps.” This is a cause for concern because it works to undermine the practice of adult education itself. The challenge to us as a field is not only to understand how dominant discourses speak themselves through us but also, more important, to find ways to subvert them by putting ourselves back into our own narratives of educational practice, thus preserving and serving the interests of adult education.
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