Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The New Illiterates

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The New Illiterates

Article excerpt

IN the beginning there was illiteracy. Over the centuries and thanks to God, light gradually dawned, until today we have compulsory primary education. Most people, including many teachers, would agree that the acquisition of literacy skills, or rather the ability to read, marks a frontier so clearly defined that it divides humanity into two totally different groups.

On one side of the divide is the anonymous mass of unfortunate people who are unable to penetrate the mysteries of the printed word and remain on the outside, for all the world as if they were standing on the shore of a sea across which they could be borne to marvellous lands, if only they had a ship to sail in. On the other side are the legions of the privileged, who have had the good fortune to achieve that blessed state in which they know for certain that c and o make co, that c and a make ca and, thanks to this knowledge, can decipher the posters which proclaim the magic words: "Coca Cola".

Yet I must confess to harbouring serious doubts about the authenticity of this rigorous division of humanity into literates and illiterates and, in particular, about using it as a yardstick with which to evaluate people.

Not knowing how to read and write is natural-, all of us come into the world that way. No one was born educated. I mean by this that man in the natural state, at birth, is illiterate; but insofar as he is able to learn to read, he is also potentially literate.

For various reasons which I will not go into here, society decides to turn this potential into reality. In other words, to transform man's innate capacity to understand letters and signs into mastery of the art of reading. This is achieved by means of a complex process which begins with a primer and ends goodness knows where. At the end of these efforts, referred to as primary education, the subject is proudly declared to be literate, a person of superior distinction-which he undoubtedly is.

So far, so good. But the ability to read is in itself only a potential state. To know how to read is one thing, but actually to read is another. if the newly-literate person does not exercise his reading skills, what is the point of learning to read at all?

We now come to the next stage in this analysis of the true value of literacy. Let us assume that the potential reader takes the next step and actually becomes a reader. Does this mean we can say that the objectives of literacy have been attained? By no means, because at this stage a new scenario unfolds. The illiterate person has become literate, the literate person has become a reader, and the reader is reading. But what and how does that person read?

The same question arises again. Every reader is potentially a good reader. But will he or will he not become one? if the answer is yes, we can say that the aim of literacy has been achieved: the ability to read well, in such a way that the word becomes spirit and texts come to life.

It is clear that the objective of literacy is rarely fully attained. We must recognize the existence of those whom I call the neo-illiterates. These are people who, although freed from the hell of total illiteracy, have not yet attained the empyrean of reading, but hover in a limbo somewhere in between.

I am not referring to those who cannot read because of a lack of books or libraries. This kind of practical problem is relatively easy to solve.... I am thinking rather of those who can read but do not do so, for more profound and complex reasons than the fact that they do not have a book at hand.

I would suggest that two types of illiterates should be recognized.

First, there are the "pure", classic, natural illiterates who for some reason do not know how to read. Such people may be tragic insofar as they have the potential to achieve excellence but lack the mental stimulus to realize their potential, which remains dormant for lack of knowledge and culture. …

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