“Literacy is essential for the success of the new global agenda. It provides men and women with skills to shape the world according to their dreams and aspirations,” UNESCO's Director-General Irena Bokova told the two-day anniversary event, titled Reading the Past, Writing the Future, which is also this year's theme for the Day.
“In a world under pressure, literacy is a source of dignity and rights. In a world changing quickly, literacy is the foundation for inclusive and resilient societies,” she said. “Literacy is a transformational force, to combat poverty, to advance gender equality, to improve family health, to protect the environment, to promote democratic participation.”
Worldwide there are 758 million adults who cannot read or write a simple sentence, two thirds of them women and with the greatest bottlenecks to progress in Africa, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.
The event will review achievements and lessons learned over the last half century and identify challenges and fresh solutions.
She said that considerable efforts countries made with partners had raised the global adult literacy rate from 61 per cent in 1960 to 85 per cent in 2015 and that global youth literacy had reached an encouraging 90 per cent in 2014. But, she added, much work remained to be done. (From UN News Center, September 8, 2016)
Separated from the rest of the many conflicts around the world, these statistics are commendable. Linked to the many conflicts, however, one has to wonder whether the rise in literacy brings with it a new and much higher benchmark for world leaders, given the much higher expectations of those who can read, who can express their deepest hopes and fears, and who can also make a significant contribution to the way the world works. That is not to say that there should be any let-up in the efforts to generate a 100% literacy rate. It is rather, an acknowledgement that with growing numbers of literate citizens there is far less wiggle room for political leadership to seek and find impunity from obvious and completely understood lapses in governance.
While it is an axiom of public discourse that the publlc has a very short memory, and politicians have ridden that axiom for centuries, both through the timing of the disclosure of less than positive results in the delivery of campaign promises, and through the swamping of bad news with stories that push bad news to the sidelines of the front pages, and the main newscasts, there is also no doubt that increased literacy generates a larger and more articulate and more demanding citizenry. It doesn't mattter whether the story emerges from Montreal with the illicit contributions to political campaigns from subsidized employees of SNC Lavelin, or from the capitals of a developing African country where corruption through the application of public funds to private ambitions, the corruption is the same, and the public understands that it is unacceptable,and that those who pilfer have to pay a price.
A literate citizenry also reads beyond the headlines. A literate citizenry reads for connections of people, of events, of how stories are connected, although the first glance would not provide adequate support for such connections.
A literate citizen is more likely to read the hidden agendas of the most upright public servants as well as to more fully experience and realize the import of reasonable and articulate positions advanced by credible and authentic leaders. Literacy, while amenable to statistical measurement in numbers, is also far more significant than statistics can demonstrate.
Literacy in a community raises the level of debate among the people at their workplaces, in their coffee shops, and in their kitchens. It also imposes a different standard on those writers, actors, directors and producers who seek to create films, documentaries, literate magazines and websites. Propaganda is much more likely to be exposed as the fraud it really is in a more literate community or nation, whether or not the political opportunities are available and accessible to make changes to the agents of such propaganda.
So with the rising level of global literacy, it is even more puzzling and disappointing that in some of the more "developed" countries (thinking here of both the United States and Russia) the political debate has devolved into a mud-wrestling kind of competition. Trump, for his part, has so driven both the language and the volume into the gutter, making people around the world shake their heads in disgust that he could have captured the nomination for the presidency. Putin, for his part, is also a highly manipulative agent of the public information and so successful is he that his level of public approval, according to opinion polls that he probably controls, remains surprisingly high.
From a technological perspective, there is no doubt that these laptops and pads and cell phones have played and will continue to play a large role in the evolution, even revolution, in the rise in literacy around the world. No longer does anyone who can afford the least expensive device have to stay in the "dark" of ignorance, and thereby of innocence, as to what is going on in his near environment as well as across the world. Just yesterday, when asked what he would do about "Aleppo" if he were to become president, the Libertarian candidate for the White House instantly disqualified himself when he responded, "What is Aleppo?" Knowledge that Aleppo is a city under seige in Syria is known around the world, and a failure to be able to respond by one seeking high public office is a sign that the candidate is simply not paying attention where attention must be paid. It was a highly publicized piece of information that, when then Governor's wife, Hillary Clinton began investigating the education system in Arkansas at the time her husband was Governor, she found teachers teaching students about World War ELEVEN, simply because the teachers did not comprehend the Roman numeral II, for World War TWO.
These are such glaring example of a failure to read, from sources upon whom the public places an expectation of literacy, as a sign of both comprehension and of competency to grapple with the issues required address in the respective arena, that they demonstrate a level of public expectation in all public figures.
Poetry, too, can and will flourish in a culture in which literacy abounds. The linguistic devices that provide the spice, the colour, the flavour and the evidence that the writer/speaker has an intimate grasp of the nature of the culture from whom s/he has emerged, and to whom s/he "speaks" are simply unavailable to the illiterate. Indeed, in some quarters, the use of irony, paradox, metaphor and simile along with onomatopoeia, along with literary structures like balanced sentences is considered a sign of intellectual snobbery. It is such reverse snobbery that is fueling Trump's political rise, along with other factors such as the "awe" of a stunned media that even while breaking all the conventional rules of the presidential campaigns in two hundred plus years of American history, he has still "defeated" a large slate of opponents. In the United States, the "east" is considered snobs, in much of the "west" (the frontier) in that country. So there is definitely a dark side to a rising literacy rate, especially among those who consider a less than nuanced vocabulary and world view, (remember George W. Bush's, "I do not do nuance!") to be more "salt of the earth," and "less high-fallutin'".
It is the art of those writers like Steinbeck and Hemingway (in the U.S.) who thread the very fine needle in their work finding a "sweet spot" that expresses timeless and profound truth in language that speaks to a very wide range of both intellects and educational backgrounds. In Canada, writers like Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence, and Raymond Souster have also found a large audience for their sophisticated fiction and poetry, where the literacy rate has remained relatively high for many years.
There is a real danger too in those tech devices, especially with the reduction of many communications to a minimal 140 characters. While such communication may make itself accessible to a large population, the nuance of those messages has to be omitted. And so, while literacy in its raw form gathers more people into its welcoming fold, we also have to guard against a potential decrease in readiness and in willingness to READ and to reflect on what is being read and to check out what one has read with others who are themselves committed to a full comprehension of whatever has been read.
Reading then, while a worthy goal for those engaged in enhanced literacy numbers, is also a responsibility for those who have acquired the ability to read. It means that we all continue to use language that expresses our most profound and compelling truths; it means that we continue to read and to talk to our circle about what we are reading; it means that, in effect, we are all teachers and agents and propagators of a literate culture. And that responsibility is one that is often derided but a large segment of the population especially in developed, and therefore also "literate" cultures.
Sound bytes, and headlines and tweets and four-letter belches, while all forms of communication and part of the arsenal of "literacy" are never going to be adequate to express the many complexities and subtleties of so many situations, especially as we more fully realize and accept that there is nothing that is not connected to everything else. And so, as academic disciplines' boundaries and languages merge in the academic analyses of issues from the biochemical lab to the political-economic theories to the history and the culture of music, art, literature and even theology, the need for the capacity and willingness of all people to integrate multiple forms of literacy far beyond the basic literacy that is needed simply to function grows.
So, our grandchildren will hopefully have measuring devices that probe the depth and the sophistication of world literacy that include various levels of language acuity, grace and flexibility. Northrop Frye's little work, The Educated Imagination, pointed out the difference between the language of "practical sense" and the language of "literature"...The former greases public discourse; the latter unites all things, through the linguistic devices of the simile and the metaphor. And the openness to these vast yet overlapping levels of language, including the freedom that can come only from a discernment of their relative importance and appropriateness, and an appreciation of the richness of both is a gift as valuable, if not as hotly pursued as clear water, air and land. That is the freedom that gives and enhances and sustains the life of the human spirit.
And it takes a whole world, not only a dedicated and honourable institution like the United Nations, to honour the access to that freedom through every communication no matter the device, the culture or the historic period.