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Spreading the Word, by Samuel Hughes

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, of course.

"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 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 entity: NCAL-ILI.
    "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 unique."
    "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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