Learning to Read and Write, a cosmopolitan project to make the world better

Fernando M. Reimers

This coming Saturday, September the 8th, we celebrate the importance of literacy. International Literacy Day is a celebration not just of the power of literacy, but of the importance of providing all people the opportunity to develop that skill. We have much to celebrate because in less than a century humanity extended the opportunity to learn to read and write to most members of our species, an opportunity which had eluded most humans during most of the time since a written alphabet was invented five thousand years ago. Such extraordinary accomplishment was the result of unprecedented global collaboration, of a veritable global movement that united humanity in pursuit of the goal of providing every person on this planet the voice and the agency which results from being able to access the meaning codified in written form, and to communicate across space and time codifying one’s thoughts in the same manner. Such global movement transformed the cultural DNA of our species, making us a literate species, a capacity that augments our ability to understand the world in which we live, and to transform it.

The cosmopolitan project to universalize literacy illustrates how much humanity can achieve when we develop and pursue shared goals focusing on our shared humanity, transcending our tribal divides. As we pause to examine what such global collaboration has produced we will gain insight and perspective to critically examine tribalist ideologies emphasizing a zero-sum view of social progress of one’s tribe against the progress of others peddled by demagogues of various stripes around the world. Such tribal views miss the point that as knowledge becomes more important to human advancement and survival than natural resources, collaboration and sharing are more adaptive than competition. While it may make sense to compete for a bucket of coal or a bushel of wheat when those resources are scarce, as there are limits to how many people can benefit at the same time from the same bucket or bushel, it makes little sense to compete for the ability to read or for the development of one’s talent. The literate person loses nothing as others gain that skill, and the world becomes better for all as more people become literate. Furthermore, as more of humanity becomes educated we can collaborate in creating resources to address our challenges, which are significantly more important than coal or wheat to our survival. Knowledge as the engine of social progress makes it possible to shift from a mindset of scarcity to one of abundance. The wider the circle to which we can extend such collaboration, the greater the benefits that we will accrue from it, as exemplified by the global efforts which made humanity a literate species.

For most of human history the ability to read and write was, since a written code was invented fifty centuries ago, the privilege of a small group of people. The skill was so rare in 3500 B.C. in Southern Mesopotamia that those who possessed it demonstrated it in public performances.

The invention of the printing press in 1440, and the reduction in the cost of manufacturing books, supported the development of literacy. It was the invention of public education, however, less than two centuries ago in a few countries, which began to create an infrastructure that would make it possible for most people to learn to read. The global expansion of public education is a remarkable cosmopolitan project, the result of collaboration across national boundaries of people from many different walks of life which exchanged ideas and practices about how to successfully educate all children. Such global project crystalized with the creation of UNESCO in 1945, as a specialized agency to promote global collaboration to advance culture, education and science. When Jaime Torres Bodet, a former Mexican secretary of education, became director general of the organization in 1948, he steered the organization to the advancement of fundamental literacy for all. At that time, only one in two people around the world were literate, a figure that would rise to 87% today. Considering that the world population grew from 2.5 billion to 7.5 billion during the same period, this growth in the literacy skills of humanity is a remarkable achievement.

Celebrated for the first time in 1967, International Literacy Day is an opportunity for all of us to focus on the importance of literacy, and to commit to continued progress in extending the opportunity to become literate to all. Literacy is a foundational skill to participation in society, as I discuss in the recent book Formar Lectores y Ciudadanos (Educating Readers and Citizens). The global nature of the enterprise accelerated progress in the extension of literacy, enabling the transfer across borders of the ideas which would help advance effective practices to help all become literate. Universities played, and continue to play, a critical role in the global advancement of literacy, generating the research which helps inform policy and practice, and educating the teachers, school administrators, and policy makers, who would transform those aspirations and ideas into practices.

Today, scores of organizations and individuals around the world collaborate in the global education movement which has made us a literate species. They include intergovernmental organizations such as UNESCO, governments around the world, governmental development assistance organizations such as the United States Agency for International Development, international non-governmental organizations such as Room to Read and Teach for All, national non-governmental organizations such as Via Educacion in Mexico, Fundacion Crecer con Todos in Chile or Pratham in India, organizations which foster transnational service such as the Peace Corps or World Teach, and international development organizations such as Creative Associates, World Education, the Education Development Center or FHI 360, and professional organizations such as the International Reading Association of Education International. Increasingly, modern technologies enable relatively small groups of individuals to contribute to advance literacy, such as is the case with Pangea Education and their valuable work with local language publishing in Uganda, or the important contribution of Our Golden Hour to maintain heritage languages in indigenous communities in Bangladesh, or the work of the Open Learning Exchange providing education resources to refugees. Similarly, Write the World, supports the development of writing skills providing students a platform and a context that encourages writing, editing and revision and collaboration in student writing projects.

Exemplifying the contribution that Universities make to this global education movement, in this short video some graduates of the International Education Policy program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education describe their work to advance literacy. This book One Student at a Time. Leading the Global Education Movement, discusses such global efforts in greater detail.

International Literacy Day is an opportunity to reflect on how much can be achieved as a result of global collaboration in educating all people. It is time we build on the remarkable achievements of transforming humanity into a literate species, to expand our sights towards broader cognitive and socioemotional competencies necessary to empower all members of our human family as global citizens. History shows this is possible, and it need not take a century to do it.

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Fernando M. Reimers

Expert in Global Education, researching and teaching how to educate children and youth so they can thrive in complex and fluid times.