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Recall the provisional statements about adult literacy education based upon Rescher’s “duly-hedged synthesis” as a first-cut resolution to our problem, which fuses elements of learning to read with that of learning to learn.


1. Literacy facilitates knowledge acquisition in the grappling with and mastery of print-based texts.

2. Literacy is enhanced to the extent to which individuals gain the capacity to read and write print-based texts.

  1. Growth in literacy is experienced to the extent to which readers progressively comprehend and draw meaning from texts and appropriate them into their lives.

4. Literacy has a technological component in the mastery of reading, writing and the comprehension of texts and a metaphorical dimension that resides in transactions between the reader and the text in which meaning making and significance lies beyond the text into that of appropriation, however variously that may be defined.


Each of these statements, as working hypotheses of the “duly hedged synthesis” requires additional clarification, including the grappling with new contradictions that may arise as the investigative proceeds. Let us take these statements one at a time.


Literacy facilitates knowledge acquisition in the grappling with and mastery of print-based texts.

· Knowledge acquisition may refer to understanding and progressively attaining the skills and knowledge needed for the technical mastery of reading and writing.

· Literacy may refer to the enhanced ability to read to the extent of providing an independent resource that students can apply to texts that they encounter either in the instructional program or outside of it without assistance from others.

· Knowledge acquisition may refer to the mastery of the content of print-based texts at varying levels of literal and inferential comprehension.

· Literacy may refer to the knowledge needed for such acquisition regardless as to how much or how little a student learns to read.

· While both learning to read and learning to learn are valid indicators of literacy, educators need to determine where priorities should be placed in terms of various student need and ability and what focal points of concentration stimulate what aspects of learning for any given student or groups of students.


Literacy is enhanced to the extent to which individuals gain the capacity to read and write print-based texts.


· If not by definition, it is at least a strong inference among most adult literacy educators and students that literacy includes the ability to read and write print-based texts and may even be its main purpose.

· All things being equal, increased capacity to read and write texts enhances literacy, whether a literal or metaphorical definition of literacy is adopted.

· The extent to which adult literacy students increase their ability to read print-based texts varies widely. Such variability needs to be factored into the reading and writing aspects of a given program and corresponding modes of assessment and accountability regardless of reading methodologies and the instructional content selected.


Growth in literacy is experienced to the extent to which readers progressively comprehend and draw meaning from texts and appropriate them into their lives.


· The capacity to comprehend and draw meaning from print-based texts in a supportive instructional environment does not depend on the ability to read the text independently.

· Students who have enhanced their ability to read and write have gained additional skills in comprehending and drawing meaning from texts in their ability to study independently. As a general rule, this capacity enhances a student’s mastery of the content embedded in printed texts.

· There may or may not be any intrinsic correlations between comprehending the authorial meaning(s) of a text and a student drawing meaning from it. While literacy may be enhanced through either, as a general rule, it is strengthened most so when reasonable inferences between the two can be made.


Literacy has a technological component in the mastery of reading, writing and the comprehension of texts, and a metaphorical dimension that resides in transactions between the reader and the text in which meaning making and significance lies beyond the text into that of appropriation, however variously that may be defined.


· Literacy, in the most comprehensive of definitions includes both the technological mastery of reading and writing, along with that of comprehension and deriving meaning from print-based texts.

· Taking the capacities of students into account, literacy progresses most when all of these dimensions are factored in, in which none of them serves as the privileged foundation of the definition.

· Even adults who remain at beginning levels of reading and writing ability who do not even come to approximating independent fluency can benefit as a result of the progress they achieve in the areas of comprehension and meaning making, although how durable such learning is and its significance requires much research.

· The extent to which even advanced students who progress in their reading and writing benefit in doing so also requires discriminating analysis. The salience to which gains in reading ability short of the GED certification open up opportunity structures for life improvement requires careful analysis in which the separation of variables may prove difficult.

· Even if little in the realm of opportunity structures is attained, being able to read, write, and comprehend print-based texts and appropriating such knowledge for one’s own purposes has a certain value in itself (although how much so remains in question) as a form of self development that may or may not have broader societal impact.

· What is determined as efficacious in relation to adult literacy education may have as much to do with values of individual students and programs that seek to support them as with specific impacts subject to objective forms of direct measurability.

· Literacy is a cultural metaphor of considerable pluralistic range and scope of knowledge acquisition that includes the technical capacity of reading and writing as an important, but undetermined variable of the broader definition encapsulated in the term, “multiliteracies.”

· Definitions of literacy that programs appropriate will be shaped by the sum total of cultural, social, political, economic, and intellectual influences interacting on them. In short, the cultural matrix as a variant in adult literacy education is unavoidable.


The Postpositivist Temper


These four hypotheses and 19 related statements presuppose a provisional acceptance of a “duly-hedged synthesis” that literacy is appropriately defined as a transactional relation between learning to read and write and broader content learning stemming from topics within and suggested by print-based texts. While both of these aspects of literacy are critical, neither is accepted as the foundational baseline of the definition. If anything is, based upon the precepts I have lain out, it is the tension between the radical particularity of student need, interest, and aptitude and the broader cultural matrix that gives shape to that which achieves social and political legitimacy through which definitions and purposes of adult literacy education are mediated.


In this respect, whatever value there is in adult literacy as an educational phenomenon, which, on my reading, is a great deal, I am also proposing that literacy, however it is defined, has a semiotic reference, which needs to be grasped as an ecological sign system manifested in a range of psycho-socio contexts (Barton, 1994). This is the case, I am positing even if one defines literacy as mastery of reading and writing in which the technologies themselves possess cultural symbolic reference, which include, but also point beyond their literal meaning. Consequently, there is no “autonomous” literacy outside a contextual frame, but a definition that is socially and culturally shaped all the way down (Street, 1988). On this claim I am radicalizing the logical assumptions of the New Literacy Studies in accepting both definitions of literacy proposed in this paper in symbolically significant mediational terms as pointing beyond themselves into the realm of their cultural significance (Barton, 1994).


To move beyond these core suppositions of literacy (the “duly-hedged synthesis”), including the 19 bulleted statements would be the beginning of shifting into an actual research project. That cannot be undertaken here, but what merits further discussion is the salience of postpositivist research design. In the briefest of terms this mediating school seeks maximum precision consistent with the complexity of the problem under investigation in the quest for truth as a regulative ideal. This is the core definition of “competent inquiry” in the postpositivist mode.


In the scientific pole of this research design, there is a tendency to limit problems to those that are susceptible to “piecemeal social engineering” or “middle range theories” (Pawson & Tilley, 1997; Phillips & Burbules, 2000). Such a limiting propensity contradicts the broader philosophical tenets of postpositivism in which research is designed in accordance to the needs of the problem under investigation, however complexly these may intrude into the cultural matrix, consequently, into the realm of values even at the level of political culture. The provisional statements about adult literacy education proposed in this paper require examination of highly specific (yet complex) matters, for example, on how adults at different levels of reading ability learn, or expand on their ability to read. Some of the statements also require broad cultural interpretations on the construction of meaning mediated via a power/knowledge nexus within the context of the politics and sociology of adult literacy programs and networks. On this assumption, the construction of literacy in the external environment feeds back into the field with obvious consequences for the ways in which programs are shaped and the ways in which literacy is defined in highly specific instructional setting (Demetrion, 2004). This also requires highly competent postpositivist analysis if this school of research is going to gain the credibility it needs to achieve its mediational vision.


In the example provided in this paper, the quality of the research design (stemming from the core definition of literacy, to the four supportive hypotheses and 19 related statements) is in the competence of the set up, including the salience of the problem posed. The issue is not whether the frame that I have provided could be improved, but the extent to which it lays out in detail, sequence, and scope, something of the dimensions of a significant problem and viable pathways toward its exploration and potential resolution at least in the Peircian sense of long-range cumulative research. Assuming these to be relatively sound, at least for the sake of the current discussion, then the research to be undertaken needs to draw on whatever methodologies are required to probe into the relevant content.


Fidelity to the scientific methodology is the key, as laid out, for example, in Popper’s six points, Dewey’s “patterns of inquiry,” and Rescher’s network model. Critical in postpositivist design is a problem focus, the stimulation of imagination in the making of bold conjectures, attunement to the significance of provisional hypothesis formation in pushing an investigation forward, the correlative role of guided experimentation, and the capacity to discern which data in which contexts is relevant to the problem at hand. Also needed is searing and, as relevant, comparative analysis of any given theory or study, acceptance of falsification as a core criteria as subtly defined by Popper and Dewey, a probing into alternative scenarios suggested by the data or a given hypothesis, a drive for problem resolution, and the search for truth, however provisional, as a regulative ideal. These ideals are embodied in Dewey, Popper, and Rescher, whose collective reflections make a substantial contribution to postpositivist design. My purpose in this paper is less to draw out the subtle distinctions and potential points of conflict among these scientifically oriented philosophers, than to illustrate how their collective work contributes to the development of a broad-based postpositivist temper. Any research project on adult literacy that stems from the framework provisionally laid out here will be credible to the extent that it follows along its pathways.



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from Bertrand Russell's The Problems of Philosophy

HAVING now come to the end of our brief and very incomplete review of the problems of philosophy, it will be well to consider, in conclusion, what is the value of philosophy and why it ought to be studied. It is the more necessary to consider this question, in view of the fact that many men, under the influence of science or of practical affairs, are inclined to doubt whether philosophy is anything better than innocent but useless trifling, hair-splitting distinctions, and controversies on matters concerning which knowledge is impossible.

This view of philosophy appears to result, partly from a wrong conception of the ends of life, partly from a wrong conception of the kind of goods which philosophy strives to achieve. Physical science, through the medium of inventions, is useful to innumerable people who are wholly ignorant of it; thus the study of physical science is to be recommended, not only, or primarily, because of the effect on the student, but rather because of the effect on mankind in general. This utility does not belong to philosophy. If the study of philosophy has any value at all for others than students of philosophy, it must be only indirectly, through its effects upon the lives of those who study it. It is in these effects, therefore, if anywhere, that the value of philosophy must be primarily sought.

But further, if we are not to fail in our endeavour to determine the value of philosophy, we must first free our minds from the prejudices of what are wrongly called 'practical' men. The 'practical' man, as this word is often used, is one who recognizes only material needs, who realizes that men must have food for the body, but is oblivious of the necessity of providing food for the mind. If all men were well off, if poverty and disease had been reduced to their lowest possible point, there would still remain much to be done to produce a valuable society; and even in the existing world the goods of the mind are at least as important as the goods of the body. It is exclusively among the goods of the mind that the value of philosophy is to be found; and only those who are not indifferent to these goods can be persuaded that the study of philosophy is not a waste of time.

Philosophy, like all other studies, aims primarily at knowledge. The knowledge it aims at is the kind of knowledge which gives unity and system to the body of the sciences, and the kind which results from a critical examination of the grounds of our convictions, prejudices, and beliefs. But it cannot be maintained that philosophy has had any very great measure of success in its attempts to provide definite answers to its questions. If you ask a mathematician, a mineralogist, a historian, or any other man of learning, what definite body of truths has been ascertained by his science, his answer will last as long as you are willing to listen. But if you put the same question to a philosopher, he will, if he is candid, have to confess that his study has not achieved positive results such as have been achieved by other sciences. It is true that this is partly accounted for by the fact that, as soon as definite knowledge concerning any subject becomes possible, this subject ceases to be called philosophy, and becomes a separate science. The whole study of the heavens, which now belongs to astronomy, was once included in philosophy; Newton's great work was called 'the mathematical principles of natural philosophy'. Similarly, the study of the human mind, which was a part of philosophy, has now been separated from philosophy and has become the science of psychology. Thus, to a great extent, the uncertainty of philosophy is more apparent than real: those questions which are already capable of definite answers are placed in the sciences, while those only to which, at present, no definite answer can be given, remain to form the residue which is called philosophy.

This is, however, only a part of the truth concerning the uncertainty of philosophy. There are many questions -- and among them those that are of the profoundest interest to our spiritual life -- which, so far as we can see, must remain insoluble to the human intellect unless its powers become of quite a different order from what they are now. Has the universe any unity of plan or purpose, or is it a fortuitous concourse of atoms? Is consciousness a permanent part of the universe, giving hope of indefinite growth in wisdom, or is it a transitory accident on a small planet on which life must ultimately become impossible? Are good and evil of importance to the universe or only to man? Such questions are asked by philosophy, and variously answered by various philosophers. But it would seem that, whether answers be otherwise discoverable or not, the answers suggested by philosophy are none of them demonstrably true. Yet, however slight may be the hope of discovering an answer, it is part of the business of philosophy to continue the consideration of such questions, to make us aware of their importance, to examine all the approaches to them, and to keep alive that speculative interest in the universe which is apt to be killed by confining ourselves to definitely ascertainable knowledge.

Many philosophers, it is true, have held that philosophy could establish the truth of certain answers to such fundamental questions. They have supposed that what is of most importance in religious beliefs could be proved by strict demonstration to be true. In order to judge of such attempts, it is necessary to take a survey of human knowledge, and to form an opinion as to its methods and its limitations. On such a subject it would be unwise to pronounce dogmatically; but if the investigations of our previous chapters have not led us astray, we shall be compelled to renounce the hope of finding philosophical proofs of religious beliefs. We cannot, therefore, include as part of the value of philosophy any definite set of answers to such questions. Hence, once more, the value of philosophy must not depend upon any supposed body of definitely ascertainable knowledge to be acquired by those who study it.

The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophize, on the contrary, we find, as we saw in our opening chapters, that even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given. Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.

Apart from its utility in showing unsuspected possibilities, philosophy has a value -- perhaps its chief value -- through the greatness of the objects which it contemplates, and the freedom from narrow and personal aims resulting from this contemplation. The life of the instinctive man is shut up within the circle of his private interests: family and friends may be included, but the outer world is not regarded except as it may help or hinder what comes within the circle of instinctive wishes. In such a life there is something feverish and confined, in comparison with which the philosophic life is calm and free. The private world of instinctive interests is a small one, set in the midst of a great and powerful world which must, sooner or later, lay our private world in ruins. Unless we can so enlarge our interests as to include the whole outer world, we remain like a garrison in a beleagured fortress, knowing that the enemy prevents escape and that ultimate surrender is inevitable. In such a life there is no peace, but a constant strife between the insistence of desire and the powerlessness of will. In one way or another, if our life is to be great and free, we must escape this prison and this strife.

One way of escape is by philosophic contemplation. Philosophic contemplation does not, in its widest survey, divide the universe into two hostile camps -- friends and foes, helpful and hostile, good and bad -- it views the whole impartially. Philosophic contemplation, when it is unalloyed, does not aim at proving that the rest of the universe is akin to man. All acquisition of knowledge is an enlargement of the Self, but this enlargement is best attained when it is not directly sought. It is obtained when the desire for knowledge is alone operative, by a study which does not wish in advance that its objects should have this or that character, but adapts the Self to the characters which it finds in its objects. This enlargement of Self is not obtained when, taking the Self as it is, we try to show that the world is so similar to this Self that knowledge of it is possible without any admission of what seems alien. The desire to prove this is a form of self-assertion and, like all self-assertion, it is an obstacle to the growth of Self which it desires, and of which the Self knows that it is capable. Self-assertion, in philosophic speculation as elsewhere, views the world as a means to its own ends; thus it makes the world of less account than Self, and the Self sets bounds to the greatness of its goods. In contemplation, on the contrary, we start from the not-Self, and through its greatness the boundaries of Self are enlarged; through the infinity of the universe the mind which contemplates it achieves some share in infinity.

For this reason greatness of soul is not fostered by those philosophies which assimilate the universe to Man. Knowledge is a form of union of Self and not-Self; like all union, it is impaired by dominion, and therefore by any attempt to force the universe into conformity with what we find in ourselves. There is a widespread philosophical tendency towards the view which tells us that Man is the measure of all things, that truth is man-made, that space and time and the world of universals are properties of the mind, and that, if there be anything not created by the mind, it is unknowable and of no account for us. This view, if our previous discussions were correct, is untrue; but in addition to being untrue, it has the effect of robbing philosophic contemplation of all that gives it value, since it fetters contemplation to Self. What it calls knowledge is not a union with the not-Self, but a set of prejudices, habits, and desires, making an impenetrable veil between us and the world beyond. The man who finds pleasure in such a theory of knowledge is like the man who never leaves the domestic circle for fear his word might not be law.

The true philosophic contemplation, on the contrary, finds its satisfaction in every enlargement of the not-Self, in everything that magnifies the objects contemplated, and thereby the subject contemplating. Everything, in contemplation, that is personal or private, everything that depends upon habit, self-interest, or desire, distorts the object, and hence impairs the union which the intellect seeks. By thus making a barrier between subject and object, such personal and private things become a prison to the intellect. The free intellect will see as God might see, without a here and now, without hopes and fears, without the trammels of customary beliefs and traditional prejudices, calmly, dispassionately, in the sole and exclusive desire of knowledge -- knowledge as impersonal, as purely contemplative, as it is possible for man to attain. Hence also the free intellect will value more the abstract and universal knowledge into which the accidents of private history do not enter, than the knowledge brought by the senses, and dependent, as such knowledge must be, upon an exclusive and personal point of view and a body whose sense-organs distort as much as they reveal.

The mind which has become accustomed to the freedom and impartiality of philosophic contemplation will preserve something of the same freedom and impartiality in the world of action and emotion. It will view its purposes and desires as parts of the whole, with the absence of insistence that results from seeing them as infinitesimal fragments in a world of which all the rest is unaffected by any one man's deeds. The impartiality which, in contemplation, is the unalloyed desire for truth, is the very same quality of mind which, in action, is justice, and in emotion is that universal love which can be given to all, and not only to those who are judged useful or admirable. Thus contemplation enlarges not only the objects of our thoughts, but also the objects of our actions and our affections: it makes us citizens of the universe, not only of one walled city at war with all the rest. In this citizenship of the universe consists man's true freedom, and his liberation from the thraldom of narrow hopes and fears.

Thus, to sum up our discussion of the value of philosophy; Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.


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