Consumers Association of Penang

Giving voice to the little people...since 1970

The burden of literacy

Any knowledge system that does not build on the collective wisdom of the past is bound to fall short of the demands placed upon it.
By Korah Mathen

Let me state at the very outset, in no uncertain terms, that I am all in favour of achieving literacy but not unquestioningly and not without some concerns and reservations.

I neither subscribe to the kinds of ghastly horror story that are associated with the word "illiterate"; nor do I share with  unquestioning optimism that "literacy" per se will usher in a wealthier and healthier society. Let me explain.

For one, we should never confuse "literacy" with "lack of knowledge, understanding or wisdom".

We have seen the instance of a ten-year old tribal boy who could identify 275 varieties of vegetation in and around his village, including 14 different types of grass.

He was illiterate, but his knowledge about the plants, their characteristics, uses etc. was more than worthy of a doctorate in agriculture.

He is not a solitary example, as those of us who have worked in rural areas will testify. This distinction is a critical one.

Secondly, we need to be clear about what literacy is and what it is not, what it can do and what it can't. Theoretically supposed to provide unlimited access to knowledge, information and data, which lowers the potential for being exploited, literacy has led to something quite different. Access has never guaranteed opportunity, availability or exposure. But, even if access does help, what kind of opportunity, availability or exposure results, and for whom?

Thirdly, the mode, manner and method by which we are getting people committed to this campaign, and the haste with which we want to achieve it, raise doubts in my mind.

Powerful sentiments like national pride are being whipped up in this endeavour.
Should such a task be based upon a sense of guilt and shame?
Will the ethics and values of the movement not influence the content?
Should it not be based on respect, understanding and concern for fellow human beings and all life forms?

The literacy campaign is an isolated one that in itself has no bearing on the larger issues of where our society is heading, much less "how" and "why".

I am worried about this style of functioning because it raises serious questions regarding the real objectives — the hidden agenda — behind this drive.

Fourthly, it is vital we acknowledge that the modern economy, globalised and all-consuming as it is, and controlled by a small handful of oversized, unaccountable corporate forces, is wholly dependent upon the existence and propagation of vast bureaucracies.

The purpose of illiteracy-eradication programmes of recent years has been primarily for that end.

In this light, does literacy help, or does it just change the nature of exploitation from an open attack to a silent, subversive type?

We must therefore be aware of the limitations of what we are undertaking, instead of painting rosy pictures of it.

Have we ever paused to consider and reflect on the likely impacts of whatever we are attempting today, and the way we are doing it?

Let me try. Literacy — the power of the written word — has displaced what was largely an oral tradition of knowledge transfer.

When not handled with adequate sensitivity, it leads to the cannibalisation of local wisdom, traditions and practices.

Eroding knowledge-bases which have stood the test of time is extremely dangerous, especially for the poor with regards to their ability to cope with the immediate environment.

And such intervention can and usually does create a superior/inferior ranking among knowledge systems.

In the process, many traditional, ecologically-sound practices will be sacrificed at the altar of literacy, even before we have a chance to assess them properly.

Any knowledge system that does not build on the collective wisdom of the past is bound to fall short of the demands placed upon it.

There are some aspects of this process that need mention here, even if it be in passing.

With the advent of literacy, the human memory is replaced by the book which itself is subsequently computerised. Are we upgrading therefore the capabilities of the individual, or are we increasing his or her level of dependence?

The quality of knowledge itself also undergoes a transformation. From a local-specific, experience-based reality it takes on the quality of an abstraction, generalised and removed from personal reality.

The drab commonalities of the larger environment are substituted for the richness of one's own surroundings.

What was formerly being assimilated and internalised at the individual's rate of learning now becomes an impersonal race to keep up with others. An attitude of co-operation makes way for one of competitiveness.

One could elaborate on and pinpoint various such impacts, but I shall leave that for your introspection.

I would only voice, derived from this, what in my opinion has been the reason why all attempts at illiteracy-eradication have failed miserably over the years.

I believe that any attempt at literacy that is rooted in de-legitimising, denigrating and demolishing a people's knowledge base can never gain open welcome.

We cannot build on the ashes of people's accumulated experience and wisdom, nor trample on thier self-respect and self-confidence. It is not by ridiculing and making them insecure that we gain acceptance.

Strategies that do not incorporate this understanding, which do not respect and honour it, are bound to end up in wasted time and effort.

It is no coincidence, in my view, that of all the avenues into which corporate "charity" is being pumped, illiteracy-eradication is among the most commonly frequented.

Literacy has the potential to be used as another tool for opening up and increasing the reach of consumerism.

Brainwashing people into such a culture, either directly or indirectly, will certainly be disastrous, as the process, by its nature, destroys the diversity of human culture, which in turn reflects the delicate and complex diversity of the natural world.

We ought to be thankful to the developed nations for having shown us what mistakes we need not get into.

If we have not learnt from their mistakes, we will be committing suicide in the long run. It would be wise to remember that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

Can we really cook up a worse scenario for ourselves?

What then should literacy aim at? Primarily, I would say that it should focus on the documentation and preservation of traditional wisdom.

An oral tradition can now be transcribed on paper, as the very first step, before it is lost to posterity.

We could do with a much greater emphasis on scientific understanding, as opposed to the narrow reductionism of today's scientific research.

If we do not have the fore-sight, inclination or desire to build on the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of our people and to lend it the scientific and ecological credibility it so richly deserves, then at least we can refrain from destroying it, and consigning it to the dustbin of history.

We could use "literacy" as a basic tool for documenting it, so that generations yet to come will remain grateful to us.

This is the least we can do for posterity and will establish the scientific and holistic nature of traditional wisdom and practices.

Simultaneously, we must expose the many myths and superstitions on which modern science is based.

Let me close with an example in respect to such alternatives. Assume, for instance, that Vitamin A deficiency is a major problem.

The moment we opt for Vitamin A capsules as the solution we are ensuring divisions among people: Some can afford it, some cannot; others have access to it, others do not.

Even those who can afford it and have access to it become dependent on an industrial complex to deliver it on its terms and conditions. We are opening the gates for exploitation, discrimination and dependency.

If, however, we opt to obtain the same through the humble drumstick, carrot, etc., then it automatically becomes accessible and affordable to everyone. One van grow it locally, thereby remaining independent of external force.

The route one chooses determines the kind of society we end up with; so, to that end, if literacy can provide the tools for discrimination, then it has more than met expectations.

Finally, like most things, literacy carries within it the potential for much good, as well as the seeds of great destruction.

What we choose to do with it will shape our future as humankind. Let us hope that wisdom and far-sightedness will prevail over short-term expediency and personal profits. — The Ecologist