Book Review: Learning care lessons – Literacy, love, care and solidarity

by Gwen Redmond

Learning care lessons – Literacy, love, care and solidarity by Maggie Feeley (The Tufnell Press)

Maggie Feeley’s book Learning care lessons – Literacy, love, care and solidarity is the result of a period of longitudinal etfeeleyhnographic research with survivors of the industrial school system in Ireland. Feeley spent some years as a voluntary literacy tutor at an education centre for ex-residents of Irish industrial schools. Over the years she gained the trust of those attending and, in her capacity as a researcher, some agreed to share their stories. What results is a book about her methodology, her understanding of the changing nature of literacy education under neo-liberal policy making  and, the imperative to validate ‘care’ in the learning process. The book examines, what can only be described as, the inhumane treatment of children under the supposed care of the state. Feeley posits, through the voices of her participants, that state neglect, but also the lack of care on the part of individuals involved in the running of the homes as well as a care-less complicit society, need to be challenged to ensure affective inequalities are recognised in future policy making in education.

Using New Literacy Studies (NLS) as her theoretical framework, alongside radical,  libratory theories of literacy education such as Freire’s, Feeley  initially travels back through the past landscape of literacy and observes the power always enmeshed within it. Those who have literacy and the ‘authority of the written word’ have always had more power, not only within educational frameworks but socially and economically also. Feeley is particularly interested in equality and structures of power. Neo-liberal policy-making links adult literacy learning with social inclusion and economic improvement, however it places the responsibility to learn on the shoulders of the individual. Feeley drives home the importance of the affective domain for learning and how structural variances lead to putting some sections of society at a disadvantage from birth.  Literacy is not just a set of reading and writing skills, it is an interpersonal event, a communicative event. In reducing it to a set of measurable skills, to be acquired by the adult learner,  nothing is done to reveal the reasons why those skills were not gained as a child. Naming the many learning care domains in which a child needs to feel safe in order to learn, the home, school and community, Feeley argues the existing structural inequalities means that some children will always be at a disadvantage and that interventions such as family literacy programs can only go some way to addressing the problem.  Furthermore, that learning care, especially in the case of adults with unmet literacy needs, needs to be part of the lifelong learning process.

Through the generosity of the adult learners revealing their childhood stories, the reader gains an understanding of the compacting inequalities which led to their not only missing out on literacy learning but the injustices of a society which saw some individuals as worth less and so powerless, and the state took advantage of this power inequity. Their stories make for heart-breaking reading. These are extreme cases of abuse, and it is easy to see that learning under such conditions was next to impossible. Those who did manage to learn stated that either they may have had some skills prior to entering the homes or learned as a means to escape the horrors around them. The lack of care was astounding, but it is the intentional institutionalised abuse of these children, already at a disadvantage in their primary care homes, which makes for much soul searching when reading the book. Who has responsibility to fight for those more disadvantaged? One of the participants put so eloquently when she said “it might sound simplistic but it is every adult’s responsibility to ensure every child is educated”, the truth is often that simplistic.

This book will be of interest to anyone in the field of literacy, social work, sociology and psychology. With Ireland’s past history of abuse of its most vulnerable, and current UK revelations of abuse of those in care homes and hospitals, by not only the carers but celebrities in positions of power, Feeley’s book will demonstrate the lifelong effects of those who most are vulnerable to structural inequalities and powerlessness. Her plea for the state to recognise its neglect in not recognising the value of ‘care’ to mitigate inequalities is a powerful one.

Gwen Redmond is studying for a Master of Education degree in The Department of Adult and Community Education at Maynooth University, Kildare, Ireland. Working in the field of Adult Literacy education for ten years, her studies and practice are informed by Critical Theorists.

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