Once you learn to read, you will be forever free. ~ Frederick Douglass
The Sri Lanka Guardian was founded as an online web portal in August 2007 “by a group of concerned Sri Lankan citizens including journalists, activists, academics and retired civil servants. This portal is currently a platform for over a hundred regular writers from around the world”. In other words, it accommodates writers to express their ideas and views and comment on what’s going on in the world, to be shared with the literati who, it is hoped, benefit from the intellectual exertions of the writers. In that context, it is ineluctable that the most important date of the year for both the Sri Lanka Guardian and its readership is 8 September.
International Literacy Day falls on 8 September each year and seemingly passes with the unobtrusive dignity of the message it usually carries – that books enlarge a child’s world and enrich an adult’s vision, knowledge, and wisdom. As the saying goes, reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.
Founded in 1966 and designated as International Literacy Day by the United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) the day is meant “to remind the public of the importance of literacy as a matter of dignity and human rights. International Literacy Day brings ownership of the challenges of illiteracy back home to local communities where literacy begins, one person at a time”.
UNESCO, which has adopted the theme “Transforming Literacy Learning Spaces” for this year’s celebrations, says it will be an opportunity to rethink the fundamental importance of literacy learning spaces to build resilience and ensure quality, equitable, and inclusive education for all, while going on to say: “In the aftermath of the pandemic, nearly 24 million learners might never return to formal education, out of which, 11 million are projected to be girls and young women. To ensure no one is left behind, we need to enrich and transform the existing learning spaces through an integrated approach and enable literacy learning in the perspective of lifelong learning”.
One of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations is “Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning”. Of these words, arguably the most important words are “promote lifelong learning”. Now, most of the world receives basic education in school and those of us who are more receptive and persevering receive university education. But only some of us pursue “lifelong learning”. The Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Columnist Thomas Friedman once said he writes his books and columns to learn about things as, in the process of writing he educates himself. In other words, he acquires knowledge while dispensing wisdom to the world.
Simplistically put, “literacy” means “the ability to read and write”. However, this definitive should not be inhibitive to just reading and writing but expansive to be stretched to all the various stages and processes of our education. Literacy should encompass the five stages of our justification for existence, particularly as literati. They are, reading; understanding; analyzing; creating and innovating. Creating and innovating from a literacy sense is achieved through writing, whether it involves writing books, articles, poems, short stories, novels, columns, screenplays, or theatrical plays. The ability to write is innate in all of us but we can bring it to fruition if only we try. The basic tool for writing is reading, which helps us in applying the range of our knowledge to the depths of our curiosity. It makes us realize that we can rejoice in the richness of common academic heritage and believe that imitation is suicide and creativity is the essence of wisdom. At a time when profound and powerful forces are shaking and remaking the world, and information technology brings knowledge to our doorstep, we are in a world which knows no limits to show us that, in a fast-changing world, our challenges are fearsome, but so are our strengths. The fruits of our own literacy give us the certainty of our judgments and the boldness of our convictions to serve the world and help others who might need our guidance.
As the much acclaimed and Man Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy once said: “the place for literature is built by writers and readers. It’s a fragile place in some ways, but an indestructible one. When its broken, we rebuild it. Because we need shelter. I very much like the idea of literature that is needed. Literature that provides shelter. Shelter of all kinds”.
Another distinct benefit of lifelong learning is that it helps us manage ourselves and shows us the path to leadership in our own professions. Leaders who are moral and ethical would know the Greek proverb “Know thyself” and watch out for their mistakes and improve on areas where they are weak in if they continue to pursue learning. They will be able to fix their weakest parts whether they are in regulation, standardization or harmonization. Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter, in their book The Mind of the Leader, cite four critical factors sought by today’s workforce: meaning; human connectedness; true happiness; and a desire to contribute positively to the world. Today’s leader has to be connected to herself and to those around her and have a sense of purpose. The teleological significance of life and its meaning and purpose comes from learning. A leader should lead the people towards that sense of purpose. Peter Drucker famously said: “[Y]ou cannot manage other people unless you manage yourself first”.
Literacy, if used wisely makes us antifragile, non-traditional, lateral thinkers who take existing usage and change the way things are. The mind of the true literati is not of a one-time solution provider. It is constantly active and therefore introduces a dimension that goes beyond adaptability. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author who introduced the concept of anti-fragility says: “ Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better”.
The literati also think laterally. Wikipedia sums up lateral thinking as “a manner of solving problems using an indirect and creative approach via reasoning that is not immediately obvious. It involves ideas that may not be obtainable using only traditional step-by-step logic”. Lateral thinking goes against the usual “vertical logic”. Edward de Bono, widely acclaimed as the father and guru of lateral thinking, explains clearly with what he calls “the intelligence trap”: “a highly intelligent person can construct a rational and well-argued case for virtually any point of view. The more coherent this support for a particular point of view the less the thinker sees any need actually to explore the situation. Such a person may then become trapped into a particular view simply because he can support it”.
Literacy makes us escape from this trap.