UNESCO’s Global Literacy Challenge: The Right to Read

Image from unesco.org

Throughout the 80 or so pages of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization Global Literacy Challenge document, a call to action is clear–ringing in the ears of a well-educated audience through the conduit of the arches and lines of words like “right,” “mobilization,” and “empowerment.”

In UNESCO’s definition of literacy, the skills of reading and writing are survival tools. A pencil becomes a lifeline. Bound pages become a script for a life better lived. The concept of “lifelong learning” is synonymous with living a life of meaning and purpose. To UNESCO, literacy is not just reading and writing–it includes the ability to communicate in a changing world (grasping the importance of digital literacy in a technological age) and the capacity to “make plans and document action.” On a planet where a shocking 1 in 5 adults is illiterate, the need for reform is immediate and dire. UNESCO’s report (a measure of progress done at the halfway point of the UN’s “decade of literacy”) tells us that the illiterate are too dependent. That they have not been given a voice. In many cases, their voices have been stifled by governments eager to maintain blind control. In many corners of this world, the power of knowledge is withheld from the poor, the female, and the many other marginalized groups of society. Though the report is supportive of the progress that has already occurred (namely the steadily increasing literacy rates across the world,) it recurrently claims that these strides are not enough.

In terms of structure for UNESCO’s lofty goal of increasing world literacy by 50%, the “LIFE” (Literacy Initiative for Empowerment) lays an international map toward literacy that supposedly cuts across cultures. Targeting the populations most in need of literacy  aid (women and girls in Africa, Arab States, Asia and the Pacific, and Latin America,) LIFE calls on diverse donors to fund grants for national action plans that include innovative revised national curricula, the placement of “literacy managers,” holistic “community learning centers,” and national advocacy events that aim to involve politics in the literacy issue and spur policy reform.

Though I am impressed with each of these initiatives and forward-thinking steps, part of me remains skeptical. I am glad that UNESCO and LIFE have developed a holistic approach–understanding the need for separate communities to rally around literacy in their own unique processes. And yet, I find myself questioning the method of developing “criteria” for successful literacy development and the notion of literacy as a “right.” I wonder if we even should try to define literacy on a global level. In every culture, the notion of literacy and the skills necessary for successful survival vary (often quite dramatically.) Success in the African Kabre community for example comes with the practice of gift giving and intricate tribal ritual. An oral story holds far more value than one read from a book. Is it fair for the UN to declare this population illiterate and demand large scale reform? Should we try to unify the globe to this extent–demanding a common set of rules for “success” through an admittedly Western model of capitalism? How long will it be before we are all speaking the same language and using the same currency?

I believe that all have a right to education. But I also feel that that education must be catered to the individual and his or her culture (and understanding of the world.) Will we take the time to immerse ourselves in the cultures of this bluegreen planet in a way that does each type of literacy justice? I like to think we could… but still I question our ability to sit still and listen.

As I venture on into the next section of this UN document, I am encouraged.

 Rather than assuming a divide between literate and illiterate, researchers propose a continuum, with differing levels and uses of literacy according to context. Thus, there is no single notion of literacy as a skill which people possess or not, but multiple literacies. We all engage in both oral and written practices and in learning new literacies at different stages of our lives, for example, the literacy demands of digital technologies. The concept of ‘situated literacies’ draws attention to how the social, cultural and political context shapes the ways in which people acquire and use literacy (17).

Through the progressive concept of Literacy Environment, UNESCO does associate literacy with its social context in everyday life. Furthermore, it acknowledges that not every society uses writing or reading to express literacy, stating;

Orality and literacy used to be seen as opposites; now we acknowledge that they are simply different aspects of communication and they can exist in particular contexts to differing degrees. Nevertheless, literacy impacts even a predominantly ‘oral’ society, since people who take decisions affecting their lives do so through written text (19).

This is a step in the right direction when it comes to tolerance and flexibility in global definitions of literacy, but it still argues that meaningful decisions in a modern world occur through written text. In the Western world, where an Irish farmer might be unable to afford his groceries due to an inability to read or write the application for welfare, this association between major life decisions and written language carries weight. However, to assert that this is universal is to marginalize. By claiming that written text is a major component of decisions in all societies might allude to the idea that most (if not all) developing societies are in some way controlled by more “elite” societies that adhere to written forms of literacy.

image from cartridgesave.co.uk

By bringing the power of language and literature to developing nations, are we bringing empowerment and success, or enforcing strict assimilation?

This is where the concept of literacy as a “human right” might come into play. The UN Committee boldly declares:

“Education is both a human right in itself and an indispensable means of realizing other human rights.” UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

As part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Education is now recognized worldwide as a right that paves the way for greater equalities (i.e. gender and class disparities). The question remains, what kind of education are we entitled to as humans?

The UN acknowledges the challenges of demanding “adequate” education for all populations. I am impressed with its recognition that “Ensuring adequate and appropriate provision to diverse population groups will require that improvements in mass literacy go hand-in-hand with sensitivity to linguistic and cultural diversity among minority and indigenous populations.” This sheds light on the complex perspective of literacy and education I am constantly searching for. The solutions are not easy, but are achievable when built in layers or understanding and systems thinking.

One example of this culturally sensitive approach to literacy can be found in the Mother Child Home Education Programme- a program designed for mothers in 1993 that empowers women by giving them the skills necessary to give a pre-primary school course of education to their children from home. This is one effective way to tackle the achievement gap that already exists in children from various socioeconomic and family backgrounds when they first reach primary school (an issue that has been noticed in Westernized countries like the US.)

After outlining examples from several countries of effective literacy policy reform, UNESCO explain what makes a “good” literacy program. It emphasizes recognizing the existing knowledge of adults in a population and building upon it. This example of meeting citizens where they stand is a great image of Vygotsky’s “scaffolding” process. It avoids treating adults like children (a problem addressed in the NALA initiatives looked at last week) and bridges learning with life experience to make it relevant (something that I do believe is truly universally important.) Furthermore, a “good literacy program” by UNESCO definition gives community ownership the the participant–bridging the “real world” with the academic.

This is something I believe needs to happen more in our seemingly exemplar “literate” society of the United States. We need to empower children with literacy in a way that allows them to effectively participate as citizens. The way we currently learn in the factory model of education encourages us to memorize and read and annotate in a way that allows us to get through a series of well-planned steps toward success. We don’t seem to have the time or interest in becoming politically or civically engaged, and our version of literacy grooms us to be too mindless. In changing literacy across the globe, we must remember not to forget the nations that appear to be the pedestal models of “success.” Being literate in the United States (and the Western World) now generally includes digital literacy, but shouldn’t it also include civic and political and cultural and generational literacy?

How might we develop a curriculum for that? How can we bring the rest of the world into the classroom versus attempting to bring our version of the classroom to the rest of the world?

Image from blog.lib.umn.edu

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