Horatio Alger and the GED (General Education Development) Diploma: Narratives of success in adult literacy education

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Jennifer A Sandlin


This article presents a qualitative analysis of stories of successful students told in adult literacy education. These stories follow a similar narrative, beginning with a protagonist who must overcome life obstacles, makes a conscious decision to change her life, rejects dependency, is of high moral character, remains optimistic despite challenges, and who ultimately succeeds through determination, perseverance, and hard work. After presenting these stories I argue that they are the latest manifestation of a genre of stories told for centuries in the United States and that comprise what many have called the ‘American Myth of Success’. This myth, which has its roots in seventeenth-century Puritanism, states that every person, as a result of hard work and effort, can create the life they want for themselves. While these myths might provide hope for some adult literacy learners and teachers, I conclude that unquestioningly telling these success stories help to perpetuate the assumptions of this myth of success, and results in blaming adult learners for their own failure while ignoring social and structural factors that impede success.

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Author Biography

Jennifer A Sandlin, Texas A&M University

Jennifer A Sandlin is an Assistant Professor of Adult Education, in the Department of Educational Administration and Human Resource Development, MS 4226, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX, 77843-4226. Her research interests include the politics of curriculum in adult education, welfare-to-work education, adult literacy education, and consumer education for adults.