Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Does literacy really work?

Elections were approaching fast in India, and suddenly you were being inundated by all kinds of rhetoric, propaganda and analysis. Among the many issues being discussed to death, one of the noisiest is literacy. Governments are being judged on how much of it they have managed to achieve, it is being touted as the sole hope for progress, others who are more understated still consider it a major factor in the overall development of India.

What no one seems to be asking is how literacy is defined here, and whether that’s level and kind of literacy achieves anything. In most cases, in India, literacy is defined as the ability of a person to sign his or her name. Now while this might be a great improvement for someone who basically didn’t know what reading or writing was all about, the question is how much of a difference does just being able to sign your name make in your life? Unless you also learn to read and write properly, learn basic arithmetic, and learn to think and apply what you know, just signing your name is merely an exercise in avoiding humiliation.

While having to put your thumbprint on everything requiring documentation is now a really embarrassing and humiliating experience, just the ego lift of not having to put your “angutha” to things does not make a huge difference to your life on a reality based, day to day basis. Governments of many states make a huge noise about the levels of literacy they have managed to achieve. We keep hearing about what percentage of this or that state is now “literate”. In most cases this is basic literacy. Adult literacy programs give up after the person has learnt the alphabet, that too just in their own regional language, and have learnt to write their name.

So, basically, how does that help? It does not prevent the person from being cheated out of their wages. It does not make them more aware of their rights or more capable of fighting for them. This is merely another example of aiming too low. Where the aim should be basic primary education for each and every citizen, child or adult, states are happy with literacy. If they aimed for primary education for all, they may achieve a certain percentage of it at least, and make up the rest with literacy. As things stand, they don’t even manage to achieve literacy for all.

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