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Redefinition of literacy

AK Ghosh |

Bill Gates had envisaged that in today’s world of high technology, business would be conducted at the speed of thought. It is amazing how prophetic Mahatma Gandhi was when he said: “The ordinary meaning of education is a knowledge of letters – A peasant earns his bread honestly. He has ordinary knowledge of the world … He understands and observes the rules of morality. But he cannot write his own name. What do you propose to do by giving him a knowledge of letters? Will you add an inch to his happiness?” (Indian Home Rule, M K Gandhi, Ganesh & Co. Madras, 1924, pp 97-8, 100).

The Industrial Revolution marked an era in the evolution of human civilisation and we will soon bear witness to a paradigm shift from the deprived, the downtrodden, the illiterate to a chic cyber world driven by the knowledge revolution. Knowledge will be valued in all progressive enterprises and knowledge-based processes like research and development, process-planning, logistics, market research, public relations and so on will be carried out totally on the e-network. At this crucial juncture, literacy has become both the cause and effect of development. Only a literate society is able to bring about order to chaos.
Ever since the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirmed the right to education, efforts have been made by different countries to implement this right with varying degrees of success. Despite the progress and greater spread of literacy over the past 60 years, the crisis of learning has been aggravated. Without ensuring adequate provisions to meet the basic learning needs, it is hard to imagine as to how it would be possible to equip ourselves to face the challenges of the 21st century. There have been frantic efforts to seek support for a global initiative to meet the basic learning needs, to set a new agenda, and to have a new vision for the millennium.

The formal education system, that was devised by the British administration, was inadequate for mass education. There was no attempt to widen the educational base. More than a hundred years ago, Rabindranath Tagore had realised the need for mass education, and had introduced a parallel non-formal system under his Rural Reconstruction Programme ~ first in that part of Bengal which is not Bangladesh, and then in Sriniketan. To Tagore, education or literacy was not confined to learning the three “R’s”, i.e. reading, writing and arithmetic. It was meant to help people in their daily socio-economic life, particularly those living in the villages.

Literacy is obviously the ability to read and write, but a fuller definition might be the ability to recognise, reproduce and manipulate the conventions of a text-based community. Literacy is a vital factor in any analysis of a developed, developing and underdeveloped society. In developing countries such as India, a major fraction of the population is still illiterate. However, despite endemic poverty, a burgeoning population and technology, India stepped into the new millennium with about 40 per cent of the total population still unable to read and write.  In today's world of high technology, it is the machine that will soon guide people at work and also at home. They will need only the skill to operate the machine and nothing else.  In the essay towards digital India, the ability to read and write will be considered hackneyed, perhaps even obsolete.

The advent of science and technology has brought about a radical change in the definition of literacy. A literate today is virtually a computer literate. Digital technology forms an essential component of our lives. A new technology-driven revolution has taken place and this has led to what is called the information age which has already become a reality to millions in several countries across the world.

In this changed scenario, it is relevant to quote from the Human Development Report 1977: “Poverty has many dimensions: short life, illiteracy, exclusion, lack of material means. And these dimensions can overlap in different combinations”. It is therefore imperative that literacy in the Indian context must be viewed in the larger perspective of fulfilment of basic needs. The case for literacy can hardly apply to the illiterates who are barely able to eke out a hand-to-mouth existence. True, literacy is both the cause and effect of development, but we must appreciate the fact that literacy by itself cannot bring about economic growth which is supposed to be the single driving force to be literate. Also, mere literacy will not ensure the ability to think for oneself. Leaving aside the conventional parameters of literacy, the masses must be made sufficiently aware to realise that they would be the losers if they are illiterate. They need to develop a scientific temperament and understand the economics of development.  Indeed, such literacy programmes must take the form of a people’s movement.

User-friendly technology with the potential of directing employees even without the knowledge of scripted letters should be encouraged. The use of technology that supports performance has been explained by Charles Winslow and William Baramer in Future Work: Putting Knowledge to Work in the Knowledge Economy as “a system that gives a worker a more holistic picture of the work to be done ~ available within the worker’s field of vision ~ to provide a basic interface. The system must be intuitively understandable to the worker”.

By putting into practice what they have seen, some of the learners can be motivated to read and write. But for the majority, visual demonstration and machines translating a particular language into the colloquial version will serve the purpose. The emphasis has to be shifted from imparting skill and information to developing an attitude and ability to learn. Literacy has to be redefined.

The writer is a former Associate Professor, Dept. of English, Gurudas College, Kolkata