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Letters and Betters

Writing is one of the most significant achievements in human history. It enabled knowledge to be recorded permanently rather than passed on orally, perhaps inaccurately or only partially, from one person to another. Later developments – movable type, typewriters, word-processors, the internet – made the dissemination of ideas even more effective. But imagine being blocked from this world completely: you can get an idea of this by looking at a text in a script you are not familiar with (written in Arabic, Chinese, Thai, for instance). It is far more disconcerting than looking at something in a language you do not know but written in the Roman alphabet (Hungarian or Turkish, say). And then think what it would mean if all examples of written language were as opaque and meaningless as that.

Importantly, illiteracy is not just a matter of being completely unable to read and write. The concept of functional illiteracy relates to the fact that people may be able to sign their name and read simple texts but not cope with many of the requirements of everyday life (from reading most official documents to filling out forms or applying for a job). Unfortunately, the definitions of this are rather woolly and vary greatly, and it is clearly not a simple either–or notion. Historically – and internationally-based comparisons are therefore difficult.

There was a time when only a very small part of the population were literate, perhaps as few as ten percent in the Roman Empire. As an illustration of this, punctuation was originally developed, from the eighth century CE onwards for English, in order to help people read a text (often a religious one) out loud in days when the vast majority could not read. Naturally the situation changed, though rather gradually.

It is estimated that even in the 1840s only about two-thirds of men in Britain were literate and half the women; but this just means they could sign their names, so many of these may still have been functionally illiterate. Elementary education was unavailable to many, frequently very short, and often of poor quality anyway. The low level of literacy was a bar not just to a better-paid job or personal learning but also to the spread of ruling-class and religious ideas. The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge was founded in 1826 as a way of conveying such ideas to an increasingly literate public, but only lasted just over twenty years. Employers needed a literate and better-educated workforce, and workers also acquired literacy and other abilities on their own initiative at night schools, Sunday schools, mutual improvement societies and Mechanics’ Institutes, though these were far less open to women. Some people learned to write so they could pen letters to a sweetheart.

Literacy rates increased throughout the nineteenth century, but many people were unaffected by these changes. Robert Roberts (The Classic Slum) records that in pre-1914 Salford his mother acted as a ‘village scribe’ communicating on behalf of local people with courts, charities, hospitals and so on: ‘she thought that about one in six of our adult neighbours were either illiterate or nearly so’.

In ‘developed’ capitalist countries, the extent of current illiteracy can be surprising, to put it mildly, especially at a time when the state and other agencies assume that people who come into contact with them are literate, if not computer-savvy. The National Literacy Trust states that over five million adults in England – one in six – are functionally illiterate, having literacy levels at or below those expected of an 11-year-old (similar to the situation Roberts described). In Quebec, according to the Literacy Foundation, one person in five has serious difficulty understanding and using a written text. The US Department of Education reports that one person in seven cannot read, and one in five reads below a fifth-grade level (roughly, the last year of elementary school); and this has hardly altered in ten years.

Globally, the literacy rate (and bear in mind all the qualifications around such a term) for those over fifteen is claimed by UNESCO to be 86 percent. Naturally the less well-off countries have far lower rates: for instance, 38 percent in Afghanistan, and just 19 percent in Niger. Further, women have in general far lower levels of literacy than men: in Pakistan, the literacy rate for men is 70 percent, but for women just 43 percent. War as well as poverty can naturally disrupt schooling, and in many places the main language of education is not the same as the one children speak at home. Getting on for 800 million people worldwide cannot read, and two-thirds of these are female. The number of those aged between fifteen and twenty-four who cannot read is shrinking, though, so global illiteracy may well be set to decrease over the coming decades.

One common theme of the literature produced by organisations aiming to promote literacy is the cost of illiteracy, not just the consequences for the individuals concerned but for the wider society (for the ruling class, in other words). Those who are functionally illiterate are far more likely to go to prison, be unemployed, live on state benefits, and hand their situation on to their offspring; the children of illiterate parents are often illiterate themselves. It is not hard to see the lines of causation here: poverty, poor education, disrupted family life, a home with little if any reading matter, these may well lead to children with the same difficulties as the situation is reproduced. So illiteracy can create problems and expense for the ruling class and their government. It is claimed, for instance, that prisoners who receive no literacy support are nearly four times as likely to re-offend as those who get such support (begintoread.com).

The extent of illiteracy in the world is truly unconscionable. Every human should have access to a good-quality education, and literacy is an essential part of this. Ensuring this happens would imply the dedication of many resources in terms of equipment and the time and energy of teachers and others. But millennia after the invention of writing, illiteracy can and should be done away with, like hunger, homelessness and poor health care.

PAUL BENNETT