TWO MILLION ILLITERATES: CANADA'S OBSOLETE TENTH
They can’t read and write well enough to hold most jobs, and they can’t learn because in all Canada there is no school for them. Their personal tragedy is beginning to make Canada an also-ran among industrial nations
NOT LONG AGO UNESCO forwarded a questionnaire on
illiteracy to the UN member countries. The one that was sent to Ottawa was returned to Paris with the curt notation that the questions did not apply, since illiteracy was not a problem in Canada.
Yet this winter an attractive red-haired youth from Richmond Hill, Ontario, turned in desperation to the Salvation Army for help. He was only twenty, a married man with two children, and he was out of work. In fact he'd had only six weeks’ work in a whole year. It had looked like a good job—as a sheet-metal worker—but he couldn’t do the simple arithmetic needed for working to specification, so he was fired. All his fellow-workers had completed at least Grade 8 and some had finished secondary school. He had quit school at Grade 6. He came to the Salvation Army to get streetcar money—and a scribe to write letters of application for him to the firms whose names he puzzled out in the want ads. ...
This January an unemployed laborer named Ross Duke admitted, in a television interview, that though he had been round to a number of firms with job openings, he had not actually applied for them. Why not? In each case they had handed him "an application blank and he had walked out rather than admit he could not fill it in. . . .
Recently a guide at Lake of the Woods missed getting a job for which he was uniquely qualified. A diesel-operated landing craft had been donated to a youth camp in the area. The guide not only knew the treacherous, islandstudded lake better than anyone else around; he was also a superb natural mechanic. But he could not be hired. The boat would be carrying large groups and the operator, by law, had to have engineer’s papers. The guide couldn’t pass the necessary exams because he couldn’t read or write. . . .
These are not isolated cases. The complacent assume that compulsory education has long since banished illiteracy. The apathetic assume that the opposite of illiteracy is literacy. But the worst unemployment crisis since the Great Depression is demonstrating, with crude drama, what a few uneasy educators have been saying all along: that Canada suffers from under-education so widespread in the populace that it is clogging the economy and condemning Canada to the status of an also-ran among the industrial nations.
► More than two hundred thousand adult Canadians have never been to school at all.
► Some eight hundred and seventy thousand didn’t get past Grade 4.
► Of not quite four hundred thousand Canadian youngsters
who enter Grade 2 every year, seventy-six thousand drop out before Grade 8 and a hundred and thirty-two thousand —one out of every three—don’t go past Grade 8; this in a labor market where, since 1955, seventy percent of the unemployed men have been those with no more than Grade 8 and where, the National Employment Service now says, men with no more than Grade 8 are ineligible for seventy percent of the jobs.
► Finally, seven million adult Canadians didn’t finish high school. The minimum requirement for on errand boy at General Motors in Oshawa is, for all practical purposes, junior matriculation.
Mass unemployment has revealed the problem as urgent because, though jobs exist, they cannot be matched to the available manpower. In fact the lesson is so obvious that federal, provincial and municipal governments are joining in crash programs of vocational and technical retraining, and educators are suddenly calling for more years of compulsory schooling and drastic changes in the school curriculum to stem dropouts before it is too late.
It is a tragedy of mass apathy, complacency and carelessness that, for nearly two million Canadians, it is already too late. Educators estimate that that number—eleven percent of the population—have so little schooling that they cannot be educated, upgraded, retrained. They are just not literate enough. They are, in fact, functional illiterates.
They can scarcely read well enough to decipher a want ad; they can scarcely write well enough to fill in an application blank; they cannot reckon well enough to follow a blueprint. And there is, literally, no school for them, anywhere in the country, where they can go to learn.
THE ANONYMOUS PEOPLE
They are confined to the rude laboring jobs that are most apt to be seasonal—those in farming, mining, logging, trapping, fishing and construction. Their jobs, as the current unemployment crisis has made plain, are the first to vanish in a recession. Studies of change in the economy also show that the jobs they used to have may never reappear. “They frighten me,” says Arthur Pigott, the new head of the Canadian Association for Adult Education. “They show that, sorted by education, a whole group in modern society can, almost in one generation, get left behind, become surplus.” They are indeed the Obsolete People.
They might also be called the Anonymous People. To a startling degree the rest of the populace remains unaware of them, uninterested in them, doubtful even of their existence.
Not long ago Frank Clute, director of the guidance branch of the Ontario Department of Education, said. “Wc haven’t anything here on reasons for early dropouts. It’s a very small percentage, you know.” More than twelve thousand students drop out of Ontario’s elementary schools every year. Leonard Coulson, the Ontario employment officer of the National Employment Service, says, “I’m sure there aren’t many with as low as Grade 4 or 5. And there’d be something mentally wrong with the majority of them.” C. R. Ford, director of the vocational training branch of the federal Department of Labor, says, “People with under Grade 8? We’re not dealing at quite that level.”
Consequently, who the functional illiterates are, where they live, how they live, how they got left behind, how they feel, what can be done for them—these things can only be inferred from surveys on other subjects, pieced together from situations where their handicap outcrops.
It’s assumed they include the two hundred thousandodd who report no schooling at
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continued from page 23
Two million illiterates
He couldn’t read, but he got through high school
all, and the eight hundred and seventy thousand who report only one to four years’ schooling. The 1951 census shows that in general they are distributed throughout the population, but there are a few regions of higher density: notably Newfoundland, the Maritime provinces, and backwoods Quebec, plus the Yukon and Northwest Territories and the remoter northern parts of other provinces.
And there are a few localized spots: the Gloucester-Restigouche area in New Brunswick; the area around Hull, Quebec; the Cornwall area; Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie, Port Arthur and Fort William in Ontario, and Gimli, Manitoba. The concentration is much higher among the Indians and Eskimos, for obvious reasons, and it tends to be somewhat higher among those of Asiatic or Russian-Polish origin where, presumably, there is no strong tradition of literacy. It is higher among men than women.
The functional illiterates thus located are the predictable ones. But, failing nation-wide aptitude tests, no one knows how to uncover those who went to higher grades but whose schooling just didn’t take. At least one Canadian student who was virtually unable to read was promoted right through high school. The standard check on reading aptitude is oral classroom reading. This lad was a stutterer, and successive teachers, had simply funked forcing him through such embarrassing tests.
Functional illiterates also remain anonymous because, in a society that casually assumes universal literacy, they work at it. Some develop a very high degree of cunning at hiding their handicap. The owner of a sawmill in Bertrand, New Brunswick, reports that he has a number of semi-literate workers and on paydays, when they line up to sign for their wage packets, these men seize the pen and sign like all the rest. Afterwards the signatures prove to be nothing but
scrawled lines. A major automobile company reports that illiterate workers deface their time cards in order to pick them out without hesitation when they clock in and out. An illiterate may avoid reading by saying his eyes are bothering him, and he may avoid writing chores by taking them home and returning them the next day, completed by some relative. One twentysix-year-old from Ottawa, who worked as a handyman at a Toronto YMCA, went so far as to carry a pair of spectacles from Woolworth’s in his breast pocket, to prove he needed glasses. But they were “the wrong pair.” Whenever he had to make out a requisition slip or look up a telephone number he would ask for help saying he had left “the right pair” at home.
Most illiterates are ashamed or defiant. Francis Eady, education director of the National Union of Public Service Employees, recalls tramping through eastern Ontario and stopping at a pub in a small town. An old gaffer eyed him for a while, accosted him. made sure he was a stranger and then produced a letter and asked if Eady would read it to him. He would not admit illiteracy to anyone who knew him. Sometimes this fierce pride can be tragic. In World War II one eager, intelligent recruit worked his way up from Stoker 2nd Class to Stoker 1st Class. He was in line for his Leading Stoker’s papers when he deserted. Achieving the papers required classroom work. He ran away rather than risk being called up to work at the blackboard in front of his mates.
The functional illiterate is helped in hiding himself by the sorrowful fact that most people imagine illiterates to be dullards. mooncalves. So they do not recognize a “normal” illiterate when they see him.
There is, of course, a group of such lew aptitude that they would simply be unable to master the three Rs. About two percent of the population, for one reason
or another, can learn — or operate at all — only in a protected environment. But six percent of the population reports less than five years’ schooling; eleven percent is presumed functionally illiterate. It is obvious that most of them ought to have been taught and could have been taught. “It may be expensive to teach the underachievers among them.” says educator Pigott, “but they have a right to literacy and they should not be spewed out by a callous schooling system before they have achieved it.”
It is interesting to note the experience of two U. S. researchers who, in 195J, examined thirty men whó had been rejected by the U. S. Army as below minimum literacy.
“On inspection.” they reported, “these thirty men were indistinguishable from those who passed.”
They were all attractive and neatly dressed. With two exceptions they had been steady workers. Most came from farms, but among the others were an electrician’s helper, a truck driver, a railroad employee, a hunting guide and a rock miner. The crucial difference between them and the successful registrants was that they were such halting readers that they couldn’t complete the tests. They simply needed teaching.
This is borne out by the one documented Canadian experience of a sizable group of functional illiterates. In February 1942 the Department of National Defense was advised that army training centres were being clogged with men who could not absorb the normal instruction. In April of that year the army established a special Basic Training Centre at North Bay. Ontario, for those whose difficulty was illiteracy or semi-literacy.
The centre operated until January 1945, and in that time some thirty-five hundred men were sent to it. They took courses in reading, writing, arithmetic and social studies aimed at explaining Canada’s role in the war. The objective was functional literacy. Harold Hedley, one of the instructors, explains: “As applied to a recruit, it meant that he must be able to read and write letters, to read and complete forms, to read newspapers, instructions and orders.” Though the men stayed only sixteen weeks, and in that time covered the normal eight-week basic training as well, sixty percent were graduated into advanced training as fully functional members of the army.
How had they escaped literacy in the first place? Hedley. in a doctoral thesis on the work at North Bay, lists the typical excuses in order of importance. They were:
Family economics ...... 28.2 percent
Distance from school .... 24.6
Didn’t get along at school 17.6
Father incapacitated .... 12.6
Foreign education ...... 8.5
Moving too often ....... 2.0
Other reasons.......... 6.5
These were the reasons given by the men themselves, and obviously they are not a complete account. For example, in Ontario today more than half the primary school dropouts are aged sixteen and over. The normal age for completion of Grade 8 is thirteen, so these are pupils who have repeated anywhere from one to four grades. Nowadays they are called under-achievers, in belated recognition of the fact that the content of primary school should be within almost everyone’s grasp — as it is considered everyone’s right. But the pupil must be taught properly, kept interested, given special attention if he is a slow learner and not subjected to what Dr. T. H. W. Martin of the Toronto Board of Education calls
“that awful experience of being two feet taller than anyone else.” Overcrowded classrooms and teacher shortages do not help. (For quite a few years in Ontario, permits to teach were regularly granted to people who had flunked their teacher’s college finals.)
Many of the other Ontario dropouts left with special permission to take jobs or to help at home. “It’s a matter of economics," says Dr. Gil Schonning, an economist with the research division of the Department of Labor. “In a typical situation, the old man leaves to work in the bush. They have a poor farm, a couple of cows. The boy’s the only one at home, so he stays home from school to help out. He misses two weeks of school, then five weeks, then he’s so far behind hq quits altogether.”
Murdoch C. MacLean claims that the illiteracy or semi-literacy of the parents is the most decisive factor. MacLean, in a study on Illiteracy and School Attendance, based on the 1931 census, noted that larger families show more non-attendance than smaller, and that the highest proportion of non - attenders came
Vancouver fellow was walking his girl home from the movies when she cried gaily. “Race you to the front door!” He took off after her and had just
started to close the gap when he was seized by two husky youths sauntering the other way. He struggled furiously but they hung on tight, and one of them shouted after the racing girl, “Okay, lady, you’re safe. We’ve got him!”
from families where the father was in fishing, hunting, trapping, logging, farm labor or other unskilled work. And the parents’ marital status had an effect. “Almost one third of the children not at school may be said to be kept out by the lack of either or both of the parents or the illiteracy of the parents, regardless of compulsory attendance laws and public opinion,” he concludes.
It’s most probable that the background in almost all cases is boredom or discouragement at school — with no one at home who cares whether they keep at it. But whatever the cause the student who leaves school at, say. Grade 4, has little equipment for later life except such muscle as he may develop. He will have learned to print, and started to write by linking his letters, though he will not yet have used pen and ink. He has been taught to recognize and use about three thousand words. He has been introduced to addition, subtraction, multiplication and short division, but not long division. He has been told about fractions, Canadian money up to $100, the system of weights and measures and how to tell the time. As soon as he leaves school most of this knowledge will start to decay.
“An adult with only Grade 4 wouldn’t be able to put more than two sentences together in writing,” suggests W. T. Mac-
Skimming, chief inspector of elementary schools in Ottawa. “His reading would be limited to comic strips. He couldn’t read the front page of a newspaper. His arithmetic would certainly decay.” MacSkimming adds. “From Grades 4 to 6 the pupil’s skills are being consolidated. But it isn’t till Grades 7 and 8 that he’s beginning to have independent mastery of his tools.”
What’s to become of youngsters who leave school without making the elementary facts and techniques their own? What has become of the adults who did so long since?
One of them is living in Toronto now, sleeping and eating at a Salvation Army hostel when he can’t get casual labor for a day or two. He is forty-eight and he was born in Fredericton. When he was six his father died and his mother took him to England. He didn’t start school until they got back, when he was nine. They lived with his uncle on a dairy farm and he was expected to help out before and after school. When he was thirteen he got sick of working without pay and left home. He had got as far as Grade 3.
He went to work in the bush cutting logs for $1.50 a day, and he liked it. Over the years he worked his way up, both in skill and in pay. Then one day he was laid off. Why? "Same as those factories,” he says disgustedly. “They got all these automatic machines. They got these buzzsaws.”
He has been in Toronto since 1946. He has no trade but the one that vanished, so up till this year he has been working here and there as an unskilled laborer. Now he picks up a couple of dollars from time to time distributing handbills. He says, “I can read the paper a little bit. No, I never made out no
income tax forms. I had to pay someone to do it for me.”
His story has been repeated all over the country as mechanization and automation have moved in to transform logging, mining, fishing and farming — the primary industries that used to require brawn, and lots of it, but no particular book learning. In the last decade alone, employment in coal mining has been cut roughly in half and in gold mining by about a quarter. The agricultural work force has dropped from twenty to twelve out of every hundred people, and the requirements for those twelve are correspondingly higher. In the Canadian Federation of Agriculture’s brief to the Senate committee on manpower and unemployment this year, David Kirk, the federation’s secretary, said, “Most farmers have acquired new machinery and equipment at high prices — machines which need constant care in their operation and maintenance. The hired men who arc available, however, often know little or nothing about modern implements. ...”
A lineman should have Grade 12
In a brief to the same committee, economist F. T. Denton listed the industries where employment was expanding fastest. They included air transport, trucking, radio and television, the telephone industry, the utilities, wholesale and retail trade, finance, insurance and real estate. The only apparently undemanding set of jobs represented in the list — those as laborers in the utilities industries — are still far beyond the capacities of the functionally illiterate. The Ontario Hydro Commission requires Grade 10 standing even for a laborer, and prefers Grade 12 for a lineman.
“I have a nightmare,” William Thomson, director of the employment service of the Unemployment Insurance Commission, said recently. “I have a nightmare that in five years’ time we’ll have two hundred and fifty thousand young people out of work, and two hundred and fifty thousand vacancies. And never the twain shall meet.”
It has already begun to happen. At the height of this year’s unemployment, the Unemployment Insurance Commission compiled a list of jobs continuously available in twenty-two local Ontario offices. The list, in order of frequency of occurrence, ran: stenography, upholstering, domestic work, bookkeeping, dataprocessing - machine operation, diesel maintenance, sign painting, welding, meat cutting, retail selling, barbering, cooking, dry cleaning, silk-screen cutting, medicalrecord -library work. All but domestic work and, possibly, cooking required complete literacy plus special training. At almost the same time there were a hundred and twenty-five applicants for every single unskilled job in Ontario.
What’s to be done? In large areas of the economy, the requirements for entrance into the labor force have already nosed upward from Grade 8 to Grade 10. Now they are climbing toward Grade 12. Most leaders in industry and education, anticipating this, have long since turned their worried attention to secondaryschool dropouts and have started calling for more years of compulsory education, daring innovations in the curriculum to retain high-school students longer in school, elite technical and vocational schools in the European tradition. As a short-term emergency measure, the federal government, under Schedule M, has offered to pay seventy-five percent of the cost of retraining programs anywhere
in the country, to upgrade workers’ skills.
But no worker with less than a Grade 8 education is eligible.
The functionally illiterate are obsolete not only because the jobs they can do belong to another age but also because they are so far behind that another group — whose need seems more urgent and whose chances seem better — has intervened.
“There’s nothing being done for the functional illiterates we’ve got,” says Arthur Pigott of the Canadian Association for Adult Education. One school. Jesse Ketchum in Toronto, gives night classes in Grade 7 and 8 subjects twice a week, and it will admit adults without formal Grade 6 standing — if their reading aptitude is sufficient. An adult student can upgrade himself to the equivalent of Grade 8 through correspondence courses but obviously this too requires literacy to start with. L. M. Mackenzie, head of the correspondence branch of Ontario’s Department of Education, says. “Below Grade 6 their only hope is to get some missionary-minded person — maybe in their church — to help them along.”
A few lucky ones in bush camps, road gangs and trailer camps encounter a laborer-teacher from Frontier College, an organization whose unique mission for sixty years has been to send university undergraduates to sign on with hinterland work crews every summer so that at night they can bring education of any sort to any man who wants it. But only seventyfive laborer-teachers go out across Canada each year, and no camp can couni on getting one two years in a row.
“An adult functional illiterate today gets no second chance,” says Pigott. “All we can do now is see that their children don’t, under any circumstances, miss their first chance.” it