Culture Is Conversation; Illiteracy Silences Voices

Each year since November 17, 1965, UNESCO reminds us of the status of literacy and adult learning globally with International Literacy Day. Currently the state of illiteracy is alarming:

* one in five adults is still not literate
* two-thirds of those are women
* 75 million children are out of school
* many more children attend school irregularly or drop out

As I do not posses the concise elegance that Gabriel Zaid and translator Natasha Wimmer have, I’d like to illustrate the importance of literacy with another quote from So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance:

Culture is conversation. Writing, reading, editing, printing, distributing, cataloguing, reviewing, can be fuel for that conversation, ways of keeping it lively. It could even be said that to publish a book is to insert it into the middle of the conversation, that to establish a publishing house, bookstore, or library is to start a conversation — a conversation that springs, as it should, from local debate, but that opens up, as it should, to all places and times.

Culture, in the anthropological sense of “way of life,” manifests and reproduces itself live, but it is also a collection of works, tools, codes, and repertoires that may or may not be inert text. The same is true of culture in the limited sense of “cultural activities.” In both senses, what is important about culture is how alive it is, not how many tons of dead prose it can claim.

How much of our culture — of other cultures — are dead or dying due to illiteracy? How many tons of text dead because no one can claim it?

How many conversations void of voices, their owners unable to crack the codes to participate in them? If you blog, how many people are missing from your published conversations? And how many conversations do not even exist because people are unable to start them?

I don’t think we can afford such losses.

Here are six simple things we can do to increase literacy:

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