The Illiterate Underclass: Demythologizing an American Stigma

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Teaching and Leadership


Manfred Stanley


Illiteracy, Dignity, Competence, Social isolation, Oral subculture

Subject Categories



This is a study of competence and illiteracy. It is not the usual call-to-arms for a crusade against ignorance and injustice. Rather, it is an exploration of some of the implications of one deceptively simple premise: human beings inherently possess dignity, by their very nature of being human. Such a concept of dignity rests on the assumption of an intelligible social world, created through language, in which all participants are potent. Competence, in this study, refers to the extent to which illiterate adults are able to resist social pressures to see themselves as less than fully human, unable to claim full status as citizens, parents, and workers. Competent adults perceive their inherent dignity and engage in efficacious action in the social world.

The problematic nature of contemporary illiteracy is assumed to be self-evident; after all, research shows that there are between 50 and 60 million illiterate American adults. Illiterate adults are assumed to be "different" in some fundamental ways; they are depicted as separated from the social world. Previous research has been quantitative, primarily, reinforcing notions of social isolation.

Illiterate adults must be viewed within their own subcultural milieu, and their actions must be understood with reference to their own framework of meanings, attitudes, values, beliefs and traditions. Therefore, I use qualitative methods for this study. Data were collected in a northeastern urban setting; interviews and observations with 43 adults were conducted over a 12-month period in 1981 and 1982.

I find that illiterate adults live in an oral subculture and that they are potent. The literate society's traditional downgrading of the oral subculture, combined with assumptions of illiterate adults' functional disability and the stigma of ethnic and class differences all contribute to the reification of literacy and to the acceptance of ethnocentric stereotypes of illiterate adults.

Questions about literacy and illiteracy must be placed in a broad social perspective. Both literate and illiterate adults today are questioning the intelligibility of our shared social world. An approach to illiteracy must be framed by the larger issues of potency for all American citizens.


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