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Adult Literacy in a New Era: Reflections from The Open Book

reviewed by Kyung-Hwa Yang - March 08, 2016

coverTitle: Adult Literacy in a New Era: Reflections from The Open Book
Author(s): Dianne Ramdeholl
Publisher: Paradigm Publishers, Boulder
ISBN: 1594518491, Pages: 192, Year: 2014
Search for book at Amazon.com

Adult Literacy in a New Era: Reflections from The Open Book is a meticulous documentation of the oral history of The Open Book, a Freire-inspired adult literacy program in New York (1984–2001). Author and former program instructor Dianne Ramdeholl structures conversations among students, staff, and instructors into eleven chapters and discusses their implications in connection with relevant literature. Situated in a liberal paradigm, the book culminates in an argument for learner-centered, asset-based approaches to adult literacy education with an emphasis on student writing and publishing stories. As Ramdeholl points out, few studies have been conducted on the history of adult literacy programs in the U.S. This text should be commended for chronicling a history of The Open Book, which allows adult literacy practitioners to acquire and build knowledge without reinventing the wheel. The book’s core contribution goes beyond that: it offers a penetrating insight into changes in adult literacy education during a period when accountability and workforce investment became a priority in adult education. Adult Literacy in a New Era serves as a wake-up call to rethink the mission of adult literacy education in today’s political climate.

I was intrigued by the concept of oral history as a method to chronicle The Open Book. Paul Thompson (2000) states that oral history “can give back to the people who made and experienced history, through their own words, a central place” (p. 3). By substantiating people’s life experience it can construct “history from below” (Abrams, 2010, p. 155) and challenge the dominant historical narrative. Ramdeholl defines Adult Literacy in a New Era as an oral history, but neglects to place her methodological framework within a larger context, which leads to confusion about the role that the oral history method played in the making of The Open Book’s proverbial history from below. Ramdeholl’s choice of method seems deliberate and she writes that, “Adult literacy students have powerful things to say, which demand to be heard. Oral history is one way for people to tell their own stories in their own voices” (p. 101). She succeeds in constructing the history of The Open Book through the stories of people involved in the program as opposed to relying on so-called official documents or outsiders. The oral history method gives a central place to the people who were there.

The power relationships within the participant group that contribute to the oral history of this organization become a point of contention. The teacher coordinator appears to be the main storyteller and plays an important role in setting the tone for other voices. While several former students add their input, the voices of instructors and other staff members surpass them (e.g., counselors and students who became teacher assistants). Even when former students speak about their experiences, conversations are conducted in the presence of an instructor. While a focus group is advantageous in prompting collective memory and topics not broached individually, group interactions influence the subject matter that can be discussed (Morgan, 1997). This becomes especially problematic when people with different levels of power come together (e.g., instructors and students). Would students have told different stories if they had spoken only among themselves? Whose voice predominates in oral history and which stories are inadvertently left out?

As mentioned earlier, oral history can challenge the dominant historical narrative and leads to an interesting question: What is the dominant historical narrative challenged and what is the alternative narrative brought forward through the oral history method? Ramdeholl suggests that the dominant narrative is a discourse surrounding an “industrialized factory model” (p. viii) proliferating in the field of adult literacy education. The alternative narrative is rooted in support of “community-empowerment models” (p. viii). The author challenges the dominant narrative entrenched in the factory model and demonstrates the vicious impact of the dominant narrative on community empowerment as shown by the ultimate closing of The Open Book group.

However, the focus of the book is the history of one particular literacy program, not adult literacy education in general. What is the dominant narrative of the program and what is the alternative outlook suggested by using oral history? There is a need to think about the politics of dominant narratives within the program. For many reasons, the teacher coordinator and instructors are likely to define The Open Book’s dominant historical narrative (e.g., power imbalance between instructors and students, and differences in time to participate in the literacy program). By focusing on the stories of the coordinators and instructors, the book tells the history of the literacy program from the perspectives of those higher up rather than students. I am thus not fully convinced that Adult Literacy in a New Era constructs the history of the program from below although it offers a critical insight into the dominant narrative in adult literacy education. Documenting the history based on the stories of students who experienced the program and its impact on their life trajectories would be a valuable complement in future editions of this book.

History is an interpretation based on facts materialized through the “a priori decision of the historian” (Carr, 1987, p. 11). Ramdeholl sheds light on the democratic practice of The Open Book and brings scattered facts into fruition as a form of history. Adult Literacy in a New Era demonstrates the significance of democratic literacy education in helping adults experience transformative learning and adult literacy practitioners may find this book useful. It is not a reference book, yet the author’s careful reconstruction of the history of one literacy program can be helpful in seeking changes or alternatives to current practices.


Abrams, L. (2010). Oral history theory. New York, NY: Routledge.

Carr, E. H. (1987). What is history? (2nd ed.). Middlesex, UK: Penguin Books.

Morgan, D. (1997). Focus groups as qualitative research (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Thompson, P. (2000). The voice of the past (3rd ed.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 08, 2016
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 19563, Date Accessed: 1/24/2022 8:16:36 PM

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About the Author
  • Kyung-Hwa Yang
    DePaul University
    E-mail Author
    KYUNG-HWA YANG is a research associate in the Faculty of education at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in South Africa and an adjunct faculty member in the College of Education at DePaul University in Chicago. Her academic interests include community-based adult education, critical media education, and participatory visual methods. Her work appeared in International Journal of Lifelong Education, Visual Studies, Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, and other edited volumes. Her forthcoming book, titled Participatory Video in Adult Education: Cultivating Participatory Cultures in Communities, draws on her multi-year experience teaching adult learners using visual methods.
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