Thursday, September 11, 2014

Pluralize literacy – and be damned!

What led me to think about literacy was an invitation from a school to give a talk on literacy for sustainable development on World Literacy Day. The occasion led me to review the traditional idea of literacy as well as reflect on literacies of different kinds we are called upon to develop in a changing world. With unexpected results.

“Literacy” is a loaded expression: it keeps adding more and more senses to its original meaning. Or, it keeps expanding, adding more and more layers to itself. Originally, the word “literary” only meant the ability to read and write. Over the years, its meaning has expanded to include various other types of literacy: information literacy, political literacy, technological literacy, media literacy, cultural literacy, multicultural literacy, visual literacy, environmental literacy, digital literacy, financial literacy, and what not. If you look up the word ‘literacy’ even in the latest edition of a dictionary, the dictionary entry will say that “literacy” is an uncountable noun – meaning you can’t pluralize the word and say “literacies.” But, in the real world, language doesn’t quite function according to the dictionary; we talk about literacies because the word has enormously outgrown its original sense.

The idea of sustainable development has added new meanings to literacy. The Brundtland Commission defined sustainable development as ‘the kind of development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ Achieving this kind of development calls for not just action guided by an ethical sense but the skill of critical inquiry. One must learn to develop the skill of critical inquiry and use this literacy to view the things that are happening in front of oneself.

That is what I am going to do here.

Every Monday, I travel from Vijayawada to Gudlavalleru via Vuyyuru and Pamarru. On the way, I see on both sides of the road hundreds of acres of farm land being converted for commercial ventures. This reckless conversion started when Vijayawada becoming the capital of Andhra Pradesh was a mere rumour two months ago. Now that the rumour has come true, the destruction has intensified. The conversion is certainly for the sake of development – for developing commercial complexes and residential areas. But, at what expense? Where is this so-called development going to lead us?

During the Vinayaka Chaturthi celebrations, my wife and I were going home from Patmata through some residential areas. On each big road, we had to take a diversion because the road was blocked. There was a temporary shrine for Lord Vinayaka in a tent right on the road itself with people were sitting round it offering worship. We saw half-a-dozen such tents on our way. It set me thinking. If a Hindu or a Muslim community pitched tents on the road and conducted prayer service, would the majority community keep quiet? Is this not a vulgar display of majoritarianism and cultural illiteracy? Does this bode well for our development?

There is a book called The End of Growth written by Richard Heinberg. It is written in simple language and is available for free download on the internet. The book says something interesting about our economic growth. We live on a finite plan. The earth with all its resources being infinite is faith. Om poornamadah poornamidam poornaat poornamudachyate / Poornasya poornamaadaaya poornamevaavashishsyate,’ says the Upanishad. It means ‘Brahman is poornam or whole. This world is poornam. This poornam came from that poornam. Take poornam out of poornam. What remains is poornam.’ This would have us believe that the earth with all its resources is infinite. But this is not borne out by reality. The resources are getting depleted, and alarm bells have started ringing already. But, we have an economic system based on infinite growth. At some point, when we have reached the limits of our natural capital, our growth story will come to an end. Heinberg argues that we have almost reached that point – the point of the end of our growth. A doom of this kind has been predicted by a few other philosophers before. But, what happened in the story, ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’ in Aesop’s Fable, may happen in our economic growth story as well. In the wolf story, the wolf eventually arrived. So will the end of our economic growth. This calls for a review of our economic system and the literacy underlining it.

The world is becoming more and complex with foundational changes taking place all around us. The social and economic needs of today are emerging within a digitally networked society. According to an estimate I came across on the Internet, 65% of school children will end up doing jobs which have not been invented yet. How can students prepare themselves for jobs that have not been invented yet? How can teachers prepare their students for jobs which have not been invented yet? What kind of literacy does this preparation call for?

And then the media. The media act in a devious way. Unless you know how to demystify media language, you are apt to be influenced by what the media say. A few years ago, the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA), which functions from Washington, published a damning report about the media called ‘Cash for Coverage: Bribery of Journalists around the World.’ The report was written by a journalist! As a long-time user of the media and a freelance journalist, I can recognize paid news and planted stories when I find them. And I do find them even in newspapers which make tall claims to honesty. But, demystifying media language demands literacy of some kind. Perhaps, I must run a workshop on demystification of media language with telling examples from local editions which will make enormous sense to the participants.

I asked the children to reflect on these five situations and develop the literacies the reflection will demand. ‘There lies a possible path to sustainable development,’ I said. 

The children asked interesting questions some of which led me to talk about the quirky attempts of pseudo-historians to discover aircraft in ancient India and search for the mythical river, Saraswati. 

The children were amused. The organizers thought I was a communist. A fellow-speaker asked me at the end of the programme if I was an atheist. I said, 'I wish I was one.'