Of Reading-lamps and Literacy

Last week I received a publicity shot from a company selling top-of-the-range reading lamps. Printed on the back of the envelope were the words: The person who does not read books has no advantage over the one who cannot read them – Mark Twain. A little naff for reading lamps perhaps, but an important truth which focuses thinking about Morocco and many other societies, ‘developed’ and ‘developing.’ It makes us ponder what literacy actually means, and whether in its minimalist definitions it is actually very useful. While the world may have moved on a little, and Twain’s notion of books may need a little expansion, it is clearly true that literacy is a skill which needs to be exercised in society if it is to have any meaning; and that to be exercised it needs an environment in which that is imaginable, and encouraged.

Literacy, at one level, is a crude business. Measured by the World Bank, it takes as its benchmark the UNESCO definition of 1958, the percentage of the population aged 15 and above “who can, with understanding, read and write a short, simple statement on their everyday life.”World Bank figures tell us that in 2011 67% of Moroccans were ‘literate,’ which means simply that 33% were totally illiterate: the 67% could as a minimum cope with “a short simple statement.”

In the three preceding years (since 2008) these figures had risen from 56% ‘literate’ and 44% ‘illiterate.’  (Moroccan government figures state that illiteracy was down further, to 28% by 2012/13.) On the face of it, this is a triumphant advance for literacy. But what does it actually mean? Of course there are a fair number of deeply literate Moroccans, but the point here is that a great many fewer than 67% are literate in the sense of reading printed material for profit or pleasure. One might guess that 15-20% of Moroccans are literate in that latter sense of the word – the rest being what Twain calls persons who do not read books. Or, as one friend at the World Bank put it to me, “literacy generally means signature literacy – in other words, people can write their names.” The Persepolis Declaration of 1975 stated that “literacy creates the conditions for the acquisition of a critical consciousness of the contradictions of society in which man lives and of its aims; it also stimulates initiative and his participation in the creation of projects capable of acting upon the world, of transforming it, and of defining the aims of an authentic human development. It should open the way to a mastery of techniques and human relations.”

There’s a big leap from the Bank’s simple statement to this huge aspiration, profoundly influenced by the Brazilian educationalist Paolo Freire; and it’s into that gap that literacy programmes run the permanent risk of tumbling. Obviously it’s no bad thing for people to learn to manage a short simple statement. It allows them to begin to cope with road signs and even simple official forms. It marks them out as ‘educated’ in a generally illiterate rural society. It gives dignity and self-esteem. It allows them to sign documents and possibly even perhaps to manage the headline on a newspaper.  But does it lead on to reading articles and books, to the creation of cultural capital, the pursuit of education, to familiarity with the written heritage of Morocco and the world?  Or beyond, “to the acquisition of a critical consciousness of the contradictions of society in which man lives?”

Any society needs to work at literacy, because literate men and women are the red blood corpuscles of society, carrying ideas, questions and aspirations from limb to limb. But to do so effectively means living in an oxygen-rich environment: red corpuscles are no use in a vacuum. So the creation and sustenance of the structures that support, feed and enrich the literate man and woman are vital if they are to become thinking citizens. This requires a quite different infrastructure of publishing, education, library provision, journalism, debate and intellectual freedom; and a quite different prestige accorded to what one might call ‘middle-level’ literacy, the literacy that allows one to read with enough fluency to get pleasure from a simple but well-expressed book, to browse a newspaper and to write letters.  Reading and writing a short simple statement about everyday life is to literacy what killing a goat is to binding a book.

Literacy is fundamental to the functioning democratic system that Morocco is striving to build. People who can’t read depend for all their knowledge of the world on intermediaries – TV, imams, caids, bosses, politicians  – and find it hard to form independent judgements. The lesson of this dependency was read differently in the last century, but today Morocco is committed to “la démocratie citoyenne et participative,” the Constitution of 2011 (article 1). To get there, not only must attitudes to reading change – more books, more book programmes on TV, more prizes for reading and writing – but the whole question of language must be addressed honestly and sensibly.

Because if literacy is defined in fus7a, Classical Arabic, which is not the mother tongue of Moroccans (important though it is in the cultural and religious heritage of the elite and the pious), and if Arabic continues to be as badly taught as it is today, then Mark Twain’s gloomy comment will hold true  in Morocco for many years yet to come.

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