Literacy - Yet Another Conundrum

Literacy means many things to different people. To the educated it means something more than just the ability to write one's name and is better described as functional literacy. For the illiterate however, the ability to sign his name is an achievement he perhaps thought was never possible. The question is how do we coordinate these diverse points of view? As the target for attaining a hundred per cent literacy rate is 2006, it is important to get this straight. There is also the difference in approach to be considered, as there is a vast difference between educating children into the basics, and transforming adult illiterates into people who can read and write.

The first step to achieving basic literacy must be conquered before Bangladesh can face the challenge of attaining full literacy. But it is important to know that the path to literacy does not stop there and a programme of continued education for new literates is very important. It is only through a process of continued education that we can make sure that what is learned is never forgotten. The absence of a follow up may be the reason for the discrepancy between the official rate of literacy and that revealed in a survey by the Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE).

The latter says the literacy rate for people over the age of 14 is only 42 per cent, whereas the official figure is more than 40 per cent. There is another possible reason for the difference in rates, especially if the government based its figures on the consensus as it has been found that people do not always speak the truth when asked for their educational standards or qualifications. This alone can send figures awry.

Illiteracy is the nation's biggest bugbear. To make sure children do not grow up to swell the ranks of adult illiterates, instead of becoming productive citizens they do need an education. The government of Bangladesh recognises this, but with the gap between intent and practice very wide, their efforts often go unrewarded. Yet it is essential to go on trying if we are to achieve the socio-economic advancement, human resource development and reduction of poverty we aspire to. As a party to the World Declaration on Education for All (EFA) at Jomtein, and in order to fulfil the constitutional obligations of the country there can be no compromise on this.

Although social mobilization activities have helped increase enrolment at primary level from 12 million in 1990 to 18 million in 2000, a similar increase in literacy is not visible. Social mobilisation programmes supported by legislative action, greater financial support, improvement of school infrastructure and introduction of incentive programmes and stipends to help children of poor families, did not achieve enough in raising adult literacy rates. As a result, despite their various programmes for educating adolescents and adults, the government has failed to reach its goals.

It was expected that by 2000, 15 million people would become literate. By the year 2003, 33.4 million are expected to achieve literacy. That is an equivalent of 80 per cent literacy that now, in view of the CAMPE report, does not seem to be very realistic. But raising the level of literacy in the country is no easy task and judging from empirical evidence, the claim that we now have a rate of literacy of 62 per cent literacy seems highly unlikely. Although undoubtedly the level has improved there are still far too many people around who are unable to read or write to lend any credence to this claim.

However this high rate of literacy can be achieved if we channel enough resources into the educational system. If we care to learn from history, we know that the states that achieved full literacy within the shortest possible time spent a large part of their budgets on designing an education system with a modern and scientific outlook.

Japan made nine years of schooling compulsory for all children with the result that it now has one of the best-trained and highly motivated labour forces in the world. Lenin considered education to be the cornerstone of development and used it for moving society forward. Apart from the obvious value education has for a nation, we must not ignore the value it has for an individual, as it opens up avenues and opportunities people never dreamed existed.

Unfortunately, poverty holds people back. Because of its endemic nature, the poor and vulnerable fail to get an education despite the fact that free compulsory education is guaranteed under Article 17 of the country's Constitution. The promise to "leave no child behind" therefore sounds hollow, as the illiterate child of today becomes tomorrow's illiterate adult.

Source: The Independent, 16. 10. 02

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