International Literacy Day: An Opportunity to Think About How Literacy Is Viewed Around the World

September 8th was International Literacy Day (ILD). Reading the ILD coverage over the weekend was an interesting reminder of how literacy is viewed around the world as we head into Adult Education and Family Literacy week in the U.S., which begins today.

The theme of this year’s International Literacy Day 2012, for example, was “Literacy and Peace.” From UNESCO’s ILD page:

Literacy contributes to peace as it brings people closer to attaining individual freedoms and better understanding the world, as well as preventing or resolving conflict. The connection between literacy and peace can be seen by the fact that in unstable democracies or in conflict-affected countries it is harder to establish or sustain a literate environment. (my emphasis)

Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director General:

Education brings sustainability to all the development goals, and literacy is the foundation of all learning. It provides individuals with the skills to understand the world and shape it, to participate in democratic processes and have a voice, and also to strengthen their cultural identity(my emphasis)

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s message for International Literacy Day 2012:

Literacy provides tools for men and women to better understand the world and shape it to meet their aspirations.  It is a source of individual dignity and a motor for the healthy development of society.  International Literacy Day is an opportunity to celebrate this transformative force and mobilize to make the most of it. (my emphasis)

On Friday, South Sudan officially launched a nationwide campaign as part of the “education for all programme”, seeking a 50 percent reduction in adult illiteracy among its population by 2015. A UNESCO official recently claimed that South Sudan had the worst literacy rate in the world, at 27%:

Telar Riing Deng, South Sudan’s presidential advisor on legal affairs described lack of education as an enemy, which keeps a nation in the past.

“Illiteracy is the enemy within. We have to promote literacy that ensures the culture of peace in our societies,” he said, while speaking on behalf of South Sudan President, Salva Kiir.

South Sudan should focus on building a nation of peace and tolerance, while focusing on education systems that provide opportunities for self-actualization of citizens, he said.

Zarina Patel, in an article published in recognition of ILD by Pakistan’s financial daily Business Recorder:

There is a strong relationship between literacy and peace. Literacy ensures development, peace and democracy. It is vital to amalgamate literacy with peace-building processes in order to promote harmony among different sects of a society. Literacy provides youth and adults basic skills they need to live with harmony in a society. (my emphasis)

The relationship between literacy and culture, democratic participation, civil rights, individual freedom, and peace are important to many people who participate in adult education in the U.S., but those themes are largely absent from adult literacy policy discussions in the U.S. Most of the traction we get on this issue from a policy perspective comes from focusing the discussion on adult literacy’s relationship to workforce development, often framed by the perspective of employers (AEFL week statements this week from around the country will likely talk about how adult education programs help people get the skills and credentials required by employers, for example). As a policy tool, AEFL week serves to amplify that connection, but, alternatively, it might be interesting one day to promote AEFL week as an opportunity to emphasize how adult literacy can strengthen communities in over ways, like improving health, promoting conflict resolution, enhancing cultural pride, and encouraging civic involvement.