Perspective: Literacy and Development

Language is fundamental to human consciousness. Without language, higher levels of abstract thought and insight are impossible.

Language is also fundamental to human society. Without language, higher levels of social structure and culture are unattainable.

As an extension of language, the written word likewise makes possible the achievement of ever greater intellectual and social accomplishment. It is the repository of humanity's accumulated knowledge and the building block for innovation, creativity, and social and economic development of every kind.

In today's globalized world, moreover, the written word has become essential to our collective advancement. Not only are those who cannot read or write cut off from their own opportunities for advancement, but society as a whole is also deprived of the potential contributions that individuals can make to the good of all.

It is a crisis of the worst kind, then, that nearly a billion people worldwide cannot read or write.

According to the United Nations, more than 861 million adults are illiterate; in addition, some 113 million children are not in school and risk living out their adult lives as illiterates.

The period from 2003–2013 has been proclaimed as the United Nations Literacy Decade. And the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has adopted a simple but powerful slogan for the Decade: “Literacy as Freedom.”

It is a slogan that perceptively encompasses the idea that knowing how to read and write is about more than those simple practical things, such as processing a business transaction, reading a letter, or finding one's way, that are usually given as reasons to banish illiteracy.

The slogan illustrates the way in which illiteracy also prevents an individual from participating in the give and take of democracy and other forms of social interaction that make diverse societies work in the modern world.

The ability to read and write is recognized as a fundamental human right in the Bahá'í teachings. “Knowledge is as wings to man's life, and a ladder for his ascent,” wrote Bahá'u'lláh more than 100 years ago. “Its acquisition is incumbent upon everyone.”

Around the world in recent years, Bahá'í communities have become deeply involved in literacy projects. In recent years, Bahá'í-inspired projects in Bolivia, Cambodia, Cameroon, Chad, Chile, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guyana, India, Malawi, Mongolia, Nepal, Niger, the Philippines, Russia, and the United States of America, among other countries, have addressed literacy in a variety of ways.

The global experience of Bahá'í communities in promoting literacy can offer much as the world considers how best to promote literacy during the UN Decade.

In particular, Bahá'í efforts to promote literacy generally take an integrated and holistic view of the challenge posed by illiteracy. As described in the cover story for this issue of ONE COUNTRY, for example, the Bahá'í-inspired Uganda Program of Literacy for Transformation (UPLIFT) incorporates elements of community participation, practical self-help, and moral development into its literacy curriculum.

Such concepts are part of a much needed redefinition of education that frees it from the traditional focus on economic results and acknowledges its transformational role in both individual lives and social organization. Basic education, literacy, and vocational education, in other words, should not focus merely on the acquisition of a few skills and the grasp of a few simple facts.

Rather, the direction needed for such programs should stem from an underlying realization that all individuals have the right and capacity “to become conscious subjects of their own growth, and active, responsible participants in a systematic process of building a new world order,” as was stated by the Bahá'í International Community in a 1989 position statement on education that was developed for the World Decade for Cultural Development.

One critical aspect of this redefinition of priorities is a realization of the importance of moral and spiritual development in any effort that seeks to uplift and empower the underprivileged and impoverished.

In the Bahá'í view, as the 1989 statement points out, the mind is “the fruit of a spiritual dimension of existence which distinguishes human beings from the rest of creation and endows them with potentialities that become apparent through a process of spiritual and material evolution. While acknowledging the value of material forces in the advancement of civilization, Bahá'ís attribute a central role in this evolutionary process to the religious teachings of diverse peoples which constitute the wellspring of the cultural history of the human race.”

Language plays a key role in the development of the mind — and in the development of spirituality.

In virtually all of the world's great religions, there is an emphasis on the creative power of the “word” — especially the Word of God — as the key to human transformation, empowerment, and advancement.

“The Word of God is the king of words and its pervasive influence is incalculable,” wrote Bahá'u'lláh. “The Word is the master key for the whole world, inasmuch as through its potency the doors of the hearts of men, which in reality are the doors of heaven, are unlocked.”

“When words and actions are not directed by a moral force, scientific knowledge and technological know-how conduce as readily to misery as they do to prosperity and happiness,” the 1989 statement said. “But moral values are not mere constructs of social processes. Rather, they are expressions of the inner forces that operate in the spiritual reality of every human being, and education must concern itself with these forces if it is to tap the roots of motivation and produce meaningful and lasting change.”

The overriding spiritual and moral principle for today is the oneness of humanity. From this principle, which reflects the reality of humankind, comes a whole range of corollary principles — such as the equality of women and men, the equality of all races, and the necessity for recognizing our global interdependence.

These principles are, of course, gradually diffusing themselves throughout the global culture, a result one would expect from the comprehension of such universal truths. However, full comprehension of these principles offers — as suggested in the quote above — the means of unlocking new levels of human capacity, motivation, and development.

It is helpful, then, to draw out how the application of an understanding of humanity's spiritual reality can help in an undertaking like the promotion of literacy on a global basis.

“Some of these principles can be expressed in terms of values and imperatives, such as the compulsory nature of education, the importance of the role of the family, the urgency of promoting an awareness of the fundamental unity of humanity, the necessity of freeing people from religious fanaticism, and the need to abolish all forms of prejudice,” the 1989 statement said.

“Commitment to the unity of mankind implies a balance between a study of one's own cultural heritage and an exploration of those universal qualities that distinguish the entire human race. Awareness of the need to free people from religious bigotry and fanaticism gives rise to a non-sectarian yet spiritual approach to moral education. The zeal to abolish all forms of prejudice leads to policies that favor groups who have suffered systematic discrimination, including women, entire races, and disadvantaged social classes, to help them overcome the obstacles most social systems have incorporated into their structures.

“In connection with this policy, the education of girls is given primary importance, with boys and girls following the same curriculum so that women may take their place alongside men in the sciences and arts, commerce and public administration, and every other field of human endeavor,” the statement said.

In another statement, this time to the 48th session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 1992, the Bahá'í International Community said:

“The effectiveness of any individual grows as he is taught to appreciate through the exercise of his own faculties, the way in which diversity of faith enriches social life. Bahá'u'lláh urges the right of the individual to freely investigate truth for himself as a principle essential to the advancement of civilization. In order to exercise this capacity fully, however, one must be able to read. One great value of literacy, therefore, is the access it gives ordinary people to the scriptures of their own faith as well as to the sacred texts of other faiths.”

Literacy is freedom, then, in many more ways than one.