Saturday, September 08, 2012

Happy International Literacy Day

Celebrated: Worldwide since 1965, as declared by UNESCO

The first sentence on that UNESCO page begins with the simple assertion, "Literacy is a fundamental human right." Hard to believe, but that is a fairly recent and radical idea.

For most of human history, literacy has been something reserved for the wealthiest or the holiest members of a community. Reading took time and money, and the things recorded in writing were secrets. Secrets are power. Restricting the ability to read and write was — and is — as effective a method of amassing and preserving power as physical warfare. Even now, limiting access to education is a means of oppression in too many countries. Freedom begins with information, and literacy is its most basic tool.

The good news is that the number of literate people in the world has never been higher, now approaching four billion. The bad news is that the global adult illiteracy rate remains just over 16% - about one in six adults worldwide - and is well over 50% in many of the world's poorest nations, particularly in Africa. The correlation between illiteracy and poverty is no coincidence, and economic development is simply not possible without a literate workforce.

That's true in the United States as well, where the literacy challenges are a little more complex. In industrialized nations, basic reading and math are just the beginning of the skills the market wants. Some people argue that we're living in a post-literate society, a society in which the availability of video and audio technology makes the written word less important.

This is nonsense. For one thing, video and audio media assume universal availability of 1) electricity, 2) compatible technology, and 3) people who know how to use that technology. (I spent most of a day this week trying to upload a video to a client's website, and can tell you that even the most user-friendly systems require specialized knowledge.) For another, the surge of self-publishing (including blogs like this one) shows us the depth, breadth and power of people's need to be heard and seen — which still, for most of us, means to be read. Even people who don't read much have stories they want to tell, and the easiest, most accessible, most permanent way to do that is to write those stories down. Are we going to be watching YouTube videos twenty years from now? Maybe, but I can guarantee that the important books on library shelves in 1992 will still be there in 2032.

So anyway, back to literacy. I realized years ago that it was my only marketable skill, and because of that my only real wealth. I don't have much money to give away, but I have time, and I choose to give that time to the Literacy Volunteers of Greater Augusta. If you're reading this, and you have an extra hour or two a month, I urge you to consider finding a program of your own to help. Community centers, shelters, correctional institutions: these places all need tutors, and you can make more of a difference than you could possibly imagine.

A personal note: friends and family know that Dizzy, my 13-year-old pointer mix, is struggling. I'd planned to take him to the dog beach in Portland this morning, but the weather's crummy, so we're going to try to do that tomorrow. He's okay today — in pain, but he ate some breakfast and a bunch of treats, and we'll try to get to the Augusta dog park in an hour or two. Thanks for all the good wishes. Dizzy loves you all, especially if you have bacon.

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