Spreading the Word (continued)
Literacy is not like pregnancy: You can be
just a little bit literate, as millions of Americans can testify. A 1995
International Adult Literacy Survey of eight industrialized nations (including
the U.S.) showed that while their illiteracy rates may be low, they had
what Maamouri describes as "very important problems in low-literacy"
-- significant enough that one of the nations (France) did not want to
make the results public.
"It reflects badly on their education policies,"
he explains. "It also reflected badly on the social policies of their
government, because it showed that a lot of the migrant people were marginalized.
They thought it might lead to unrest and all kinds of problems with some
groups. Literacy leads to those types of strong political repercussions."
Not unrelated to all that is the politically-charged
issue of diglossia, which one dictionary defines as "a situation
in which complementary social functions are distributed between two varieties
of a language, a prestigious, formal variety and a common, colloquial
variety." In the United States, the debate might center on something
like Ebonics; in Arab countries, for example, the "standard"
written Arabic is so different from the many spoken dialects that relatively
few ordinary people know how to read or speak it.
"Diglossia applies to every country," says
Maamouri. "The only difference is whether it's a mild case or an
acute case. The Arabic is really an acute case. One of the characteristics
of the diglossic situation is that people don't see the differences in
the two languages. They really think, firmly believe, that they only have
one language, and that's the language of the nation or of the national
There is also the problem that countries face when
more than one "mother tongue" is spoken -- Spanish in the U.S.,
for instance, or any number of languages and dialects in places like India
and many countries in Africa.
"It's not just a linguistic issue," notes
Maamouri. "It's policy and planning; it's also cost. What's the cost
of literacy if you have to deploy people in x number of languages? At
our literacy forum in Africa, there was a heated debate, because in the
opening session with the Minister of National Languages and Literacy in
Senegal, the whole speech was about the promotion of national languages.
The old, axiomatic position that was taken is that the best way to teach
children, and even adults, is to teach them in their 'mother tongue.'
But what's the 'mother tongue?' Is it a language? A dialect? What does
it do to your whole system of education? It's clear that, for the moment,
there has been no successful answer to that issue."
I ask Wagner if he's willing to give a definition of
literacy, and he demurs. "Literacy is a moving target," he says.
"Anytime you give a definition that constrains, you get into fights.
We refer to literacy as the basic skills of reading, writing, and calculating."
"I define 'literacy' as an empowerment kind of
tool," says Chris Hopey. "You know, if you go to Third World
countries, it's a human-rights issue. People would say that in this country
we're technocrats in terms of how we define literacy -- as reading, writing,
numeracy. But I think in Third World countries, or what they call the
southern countries of the world, it's a human-rights issue. Because it's
tied to the ability to vote, to democracy, women's rights -- all those
things are really important."
Anita Priyadarshini, director of the State Resource
Centre in Jaipur, India, puts it this way: "Literacy gives people
the power to question."
After the ILI was created a few years ago, Maamouri
recalls, he and Wagner realized that in many parts of the world, there
was no place for people to be trained in the teaching of literacy. Higher
literacy-education thus became one of the goals of the ILI. "You
cannot just go to the field with volunteers and 'each one teach one,'"
Maamouri notes, echoing Chris Hopey's observation. "It is a good
idea but you might end up with people who are not trained or not good
teachers. What literacy needs is the credibility of a really well-trained
corps of teachers."
That led to the creation of the Summer Literacy Training
Program, co-sponsored by UNESCO and held in Philadelphia. (The ILI has
also organized or co-organized regional literacy forums in places like
Dakar, Senegal; New Delhi; and Manilla, and plans are being drawn up to
hold another forum in Beijing next year.)
This year, 19 women and nine men from two dozen countries
descended on University City in their saris and suits and t-shirts. The
four-week program featured intensive technology workshops -- the ILI firmly
believes that even countries where the Internet is mostly still a dream
should start preparing for the day when it becomes a reality -- and talks
on topics ranging from "Integrating Health & Basic Skills Education"
to "Literacy and Development: Challenges to Dominant Paradigms."
And before the program had even finished, one could read summaries of
each talk on the ILI's Web site.
"The fact that you have a UNESCO- supported international
literacy institution lobbying for adult literacy -- that has tremendous
impact," notes C.J. Daswani. "People begin to say, 'OK, if China
is doing this, then surely it must be important; if India is doing this,
it must be important.' And if ILI wants to come in and be the lobbyist
or the middleman, that helps a great deal. But it's not just being the
lobbyist and the middleman without the technical resource. We have the
technical resource. We have academic faculty. And by getting people in
from various countries to come together in a different context like this,
a lot of learning takes place outside the formal lecture room. Bonds are
made. And a lot of these people are currently in positions of power. I'm
quite certain that, as they begin to face the problems in their own countries,
they will look at each other and learn from each other."
Dr. Joseph Okedara, professor of adult education at
the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, put it a little more dramatically.
"The people here," he said, gesturing at his colleagues seated
around the conference room in International House, "they will be
Apostles, to carry the message of technology and innovation to fight in
the war against illiteracy."
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