Two small centers at Penn are taking on the giant task of bringing
the three R's to the nation and the world. In a high-tech, academic way,
"I've often asked myself a question,"
the gentleman from India was saying. "Is literacy really necessary?
If you look at the subject in a Western context, writing is only 4,000
years old. There was no writing before that time, so obviously there was
no literacy. Was mankind less intelligent than it is now?"
There was an intriguingly subversive quality to those
questions -- not exactly what I was expecting to hear when I asked if
I could have a few words with him on the stairs of International House.
His card identified him as Dr. C.J. Daswani, a consultant for UNESCO,
and given that he was in Philadelphia to speak at the International Literacy
Institute's Summer Literacy Training Program -- a month-long talk-and-tech
jam session that brings together highly-placed literacy advocates from
around the globe -- I was expecting to hear something more blatantly propagandistic.
But I could tell that Daswani, a former linguistics professor who was
recently in charge of planning the education of 70 million Indian children
outside the school system, was leading me somewhere interesting. Especially
after he looked down at my notebook and observed that "the human
organism is not built for making these little squiggles on paper, or sitting
before a screen and typing."
He continued: "So should we say, 'This is all
bunk and let's do away with it'? No. Because literacy does something.
How it does it I haven't yet discovered, but literacy gives you a very
different perception and hold on time and space. You begin to see time
and space very differently from when you were illiterate."
He illustrated the idea with a few points that I was
still digesting by the time he brought his argument around full circle:
"In a benign human society, literacy would not be necessary. You
need literacy in a society that is full of conflict and self-interest
and people trying to do each other out. Literacy is the only way that
you can safeguard your interests, through these complex laws and rules
Š And yet the concept of egalitarianism, for instance, also comes through
literacy. That is why I think that literacy is important."
The narrow, three-story Victorian building at 3910
Chestnut Street in Philadelphia is an unlikely-looking spot for some of
the planet's most cutting-edge, high-tech disseminators of the Word. The
gold lettering above the door identifies it as the home of Penn's Literacy
Research Centers, which includes the National Center on Adult Literacy
and the International Literacy Institute (as well as their embryonic high-tech
offspring: the Penn Technology and Education Learning Lab, or PennTell).
The two organizations are somewhat incestuously entwined, their staffs
hopping from the national to the international fronts and back again with
deliberate abandon. Dr. Daniel Wagner, the professor of education who
serves as director of both organizations, often refers to them as a single
"What's fascinating about NCAL-ILI," he says,
"is that there is an NCAL-ILI. It's unique in the world, and
certainly in university life, to combine a center located in a university,
doing major work on the national level, with one that [works] with other
countries in the world. They both synergistically benefit from the other.
NCAL-ILI focuses not only on research but on practical applications. It's
got the backing of the UN and the federal government. That's really
"What you have now in this building is really
the two faces of the same interest in adult literacy education,"
says Dr. Mohamed Maamouri, associate director of the ILI, who came to
Penn from the University of Tunis. "You have a national center, NCAL,
which has a very, very definite focus on technology -- and the international
program, the ILI, which over the last three years has become a recognized
label in various parts of the world."
The two organizations are not fieldworkers in the traditional
sense, so do not expect to read heartwarming stories of NCAL or ILI staffers
sitting down with the illiterate and teaching them to read and write and
count. But they can provide fieldworkers with some pretty sharp tools
and research to do their jobs. As NCAL's mission statement notes, in unabashedly
academic prose, the organization's purpose is: "a) to enhance the
knowledge-base about adult literacy; b) to improve the quality of research
and development in the field; and c) to ensure a strong, two-way relationship
between research and practice."
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Gazette Last modified 9/1/98