Participatory Literacy Education:
This essay explores the issue of participatory literacy education in the strong sense as learners exercising "active control, responsibility, and reward vis-a-vis some or all of program activities" (Fingeret and Jurmo, 1989, p. 18) in light of a case presentation of a program the author directed. While viewing the participatory ethos as inherently desirable, the article points out the problematic nature of implementing a model when neither the learners, the culture of the program itself, nor the sociocultural forces that influence it are strongly grounded in a participatory democratic ethic. Pragmatic strategies are required, then, that come to terms with current constraints while exploring new opportunities for creative growth. Such a process often requires vigorous staff leadership not over and against the needs and interests of learner participants, but in accordance with them. Participatory efforts may best be realized when they are integrated within such contexts rather than imposed from above as an ideal construct.
The above quotes point to some of the deeper problematics among those who make the case for learner participation in the strong sense which "in its most active form...the learner has active control, responsibility, and reward vis-a-vis some or all of program activities" (Fingeret and Jurmo, 1989, p. 18). The paradigm contains an important insight; that participation and direct involvement are intrinsically desirable components of learning. In the process of facilitating what Freire (1970, p. 28) refers to as greater "humanization," educators, therefore, need to find ways to make such activity increasingly possible. Yet, other "truths" also abound which limit the efficacy of the participatory model. Notwithstanding a political culture rooted in the ethos of the American Revolution, a vigorous participatory democracy is clearly "at risk" in the administratively dominated era of the post-industrial society (Curry, 1988). Literacy programs, particularly those institutionally stable, like Literacy Volunteers of America (LVA), are powerfully shaped by an administrative ethos that fosters elitism, hierarchy and the marginalization of the nonreader, despite the development in more recent times, of a progressive instructional program grounded in whole language reading theory, process writing, and collaborative small group learning (Demetrion, 1992). As Freire is well aware, moreover, many literacy learners have internalized dominant values which are not easily dislodged. This points to one of the most troubling dilemmas for the advocates of radical participatory education:
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