Arch Nelson Address

What would he have thought? What would he have done?:

Rethinking foundation skills and democratic responsibility with a little help from Arch Nelson

Arch Nelson* Address by Professor Sue Shore

The Arch Nelson Address is an annual address in honour of a man who made a distinctive contribution to adult literacy in Australia, in my humble opinion, was working with many to lead a breakaway movement that would leave a significant social fingerprint on Australian understandings of adult literacy. In an open letter to people who would 'minister' and support the 'inadequately literate' Arch wrote: 'I remain deeply concerned that, at a time when the gap between our 'haves' and 'have nots' is widening, our Australian democracy will become increasingly empty of meaning and purpose unless we give a very high priority to the developmental needs of those who are less literate and much disadvantaged in this and other ways' (Nelson 1989, p. 17).

I began my literacy career in 1979 and some 36 years later, with 3 major international population surveys under our belts and dozens of strategic initiatives, reports, frameworks, training packages, action plans, corporate reviews, ministerial inquiries and millions of 2-ring binders languishing in old storerooms, how do we understand the challenges facing the 'inadequately literate' and their supporters. What does it mean to do 'foundation skills work' in the 21st century and what insights might Arch's writing offer as a way to move forward with a National Foundation Skills Strategy that takes democracy seriously.

Sue Shore, Professor of Education and Director of the International Graduate Centre of Education, Charles Darwin

Professor Sue Shore
Photo CDU

Sue Shore is Professor of Education and Director of the International Graduate Centre of Education at Charles Darwin University. Since 1979 Sue has worked, taught and undertaken research on issues associated with vocational, post-compulsory and higher education. Her research program addresses the ways in which education reform agendas shape educational knowledge practices and the dimensions of racialized theory building embedded in those reforms.

Recent projects include rethinking the national regulation of teacher education as a metrocentric project which excludes and ignores Indigenous communities and the extent to which recognition of prior learning practices are ever able to be decoupled from the more conservative elements of professionalising processes. She is in the process of finalising a co-edited book with US and Canadian colleagues, 'Disrupting adult and community education: Teaching, learning, and working in the periphery' (SUNY Press).

*Arch Nelson AM
Adult Educator 1911-1998

Arch Nelson played a major role in placing adult education on the government and public agenda and he was inaugural Chairman of the Australian Council for Adult Literacy (ACAL). A pioneer of adult literacy in Australia, Arch is remembered with affection as a modest man who combined in his work, vision with tenacity and gentleness.

Arch Nelson

Pic courtesy of the Nelson family

Archibald John Alexander Nelson was born at Scott's Creek in the Adelaide Hills. In reminiscing about his childhood in the Adelaide Hills where "in those days I should say about fifty percent of the population of adults were semi-literate". He also recalled how he was "spurred on by the number of people who approached him personally for assistance (with literacy)".

After graduating with honours in political science and history from the University of Adelaide in 1938, the onset of World War II ended his formal post-graduate study. He became a primary school teacher and then joined the Army Education Service where, he recalls that in some units "at least half of them...were quite illiterate or sub-literate". Arch Nelson had always been interested in adult education and became a part-time tutor with the Workers' Educational Association at Port Adelaide and with the Department of Tutorial Classes at the University of Adelaide as part of the university extension scheme. He returned to Australia in 1949 to take up an appointment in the Commonwealth Office of Education in Sydney and in the mid-50s spent time in Sri Lanka working with the Secretriat developing the Colombo Plan. But in 1955 he returned to Australia to direct adult education at the University of New England, Armidale, because he "wanted to work with people not organisations".

In 1971 Arch Nelson was appointed Professorial Fellow in Adult Education at UNE, in recognition of his distinguished contribution to his chosen field. At that time, this was a unique position which freed him from administration so he could concentrate on research and teaching in Adult Education. He established a post-graduate diploma in his discipline and lectured extensively until his official retirement in 1976. Even then he continued to supervise PhD students while he undertook an active commitment to adult literacy

Erica and Arch Nelson

Pic courtesy of the Nelson family

In 1976, AAACE established a working party on adult literacy which recommended the formation of the Australian Council for Adult Literacy and Arch Nelson was invited to become inaugural Chairman. As Alastair Crombie later recalled "ACAL was an orphan child of a rejecting parent". But, under Arch Nelson's leadership that orphan child was successful in "spreading the message", "inviting all political parties to state their policies on literacy" and "getting people in universities interested" - a special reference to the important role that UNE and Darryl Dymock played in adult literacy.

In 1984, Arch Nelson, who had presided over the formation of the Australian Council for Adult Literacy, retired as Chairman of ACAL. Archibald John Alexander Nelson was honoured by UNESCO at an International Literacy Day Ceremony

    ...for having served with devotion for more than thirty years the cause of international literacy as Director of a University Department of Adult Education, founder and first President of the Australian Council for Adult Literacy, Co-editor of the Journal of Asian and South Pacific Bureau of Adult Education, and having argued with determination and effectiveness for national and international initiatives designed to stimulate and support literacy activities.

The then Patron of ACAL, the Honourable K. Beazley (Senior) responded by stating that,

    'It is the force of Arch Nelson's concern for people, his heart power, which has been the alchemy which has transmuted the lead of official and private complacency in this country, such as the myth that 'we are 98% literate', into the gold of effective action. His have been the labours of Sisyphus, but if there has been an adequate appropriation in the Federal Budget for Adult Literacy then Arch Nelson has not been condemned to see the stone roll back down the hill.'

Those who work in the adult language, literacy and numeracy fields hold dear the memory of such significant people along their educational journey and it is the motivation to 'make a difference' that is celebrated through Arch Nelson's spirit. 

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SACAL South Australian Council for Adult Litearcy