Illiteracy, ignorance are evil's best friends

The Education Beat

Statistic: Afghanistan, the country believed to be harboring suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, has the second-highest illiteracy rate in the world.

September 23, 2001|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THE EVENTS THAT shook the world Sept. 11 occurred three days after International Literacy Day, a worldwide celebration of literacy, which the United Nations a half-century ago declared a basic human right, along with food, health care and housing.

That Saturday - how innocent we were! - we were reminded that a billion people, not quite one-sixth of the world's population, are illiterate. Of these, two-thirds are women and girls, and 100 million are children, mostly girls, who are not in school.

What do these tragic statistics and the terrorist attacks on America have to do with each other? According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Afghanistan, the country believed to be harboring suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, has the second-highest illiteracy rate in the world.

According to UNESCO, 48 percent of Afghan men older than 15 and 78 percent of the country's women cannot, "with understanding, both read and write a short, simple statement on [their] everyday life."

By contrast, nearly 22 percent of Americans function at the lowest level of literacy, another 25 percent to 28 percent score only slightly higher on literacy assessment tests, and perhaps 11 percent are illiterate by UNESCO's definition, said Harold W. Beder, a Rutgers University professor and authority on literacy.

"That's still huge in a country like ours," says Beder.

Tyrants and others up to no good have known for centuries that illiteracy is their best friend. Voltaire, the French philosopher, noted satirically that books "dissipate ignorance, the custodian and safeguard of well-policed states."

A century later, Frederick Douglass, the slave-turned-abolitionist, wrote in his autobiography of the freeing power of reading: "The frequent hearing of my mistress reading the Bible aloud awakened my curiosity in respect to this mystery of reading, and roused in me the desire to learn."

His mistress in Baltimore taught him the alphabet and the spelling of three- and four-letter words "in an incredibly short time," Douglass wrote."[My master] forbade her to give me any further instruction ... [but] the determination which he expressed to keep me in ignorance only rendered me the more resolute to seek intelligence."

The literacy gender gap evident in all Islamic countries is particularly worrisome to UNESCO officials. Women are the first teachers of their children, and illiterate mothers raise illiterate children. "It all depends on the roles people are expected to play in society," says Beder. "The male role requires literacy, while in part of the world the female role still doesn't."

Protestant traditions in the United States required that both sexes be able to read the Bible with understanding, Beder says, "so the disparities here haven't been as great with respect to basic education." (In fact, girls outscore boys in national reading tests and on the verbal portion of the SAT.)

Afghanistan seems particularly well-suited for terrorist operations because illiteracy facilitates the spreading of untruths and propaganda by word of mouth. Illiterate people, says Beder, "are cut off from knowledge disseminated through text, and this leaves them susceptible to the oral word."

We have little knowledge of how ordinary citizens in Afghanistan reacted to the news of Sept. 11, but we know how Americans reacted.

Two displays were posted Sept. 12 in the Wicomico County Public Library in Salisbury. One gave information about dealing with grief. The other suggested ways to understand other cultures and religions - by reading about them.

Stores across America sold out of books about terrorism, Islam and Afghanistan. Many of the customers were teachers. Scholastic Inc., which reaches 25 million teachers and students, said it was flooded with requests for more information about Islam, the Muslim religion, and Osama bin Laden. One of the new features posted Wednesday on Scholastic's Web site: "Who is Osama bin Laden, and why does he hate America?"

Another: "Islam is a religion of peace. Learn what it means to be Islamic."

This was a literate society turning to reading for comfort and knowledge. "Literacy," says Beder, "is knowledge infrastructure. If you don't have it, you're cut off from so much."

And that's what's happening in much of the world. On International Literacy Day, Koichiro Matsuura, the director-general of UNESCO, wasn't optimistic.

Many countries, he said, "as a result of the deterioration of their economic and social status, are losing command of even the basic concepts they had acquired and find themselves relapsing into functional illiteracy. Poverty and exclusion are chiefly to blame."

A final note on the literacy day: Iraq received an award for expanding reading instruction among 10- to 14-year-olds. The jury gave Iraq a King Sejong Literacy Prize, named after the 15th-century Korean monarch and creator of the Korean phonetic alphabet. In awarding the prize, the jury said that Iraq "is continuing along a path toward education for all, in spite of past and current difficulties resulting from the conflict situation."

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