Are we really literate?

25 April 2014 04:39 am - 1     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


The late Mr. Athulathmudali was one leader who truly believed in holistic education. To him investing in children’s education was paramount in developing the country. His vision for Sri Lankan children was to become independent individuals with the ability to be literate in its real sense. It is true that today there is more talk about education, while action towards achieving things, including literacy is slow to come by. Hence this article strives to take a crucial look at how effective literacy is in Sri Lanka.

A definition gone wrong
The dictionary meaning of ‘literacy’ is the ability to read and write. Unfortunately we seem to have taken this definition too literally. Today, we take pride in having very high literacy rates based on this definition. However, the primary sense of literacy still represents the lifelong, intellectual process of gaining meaning from a critical interpretation of the written or printed text. Let me first share with you a more comprehensive definition presented by the UNESCO. Literacy is the “ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society”. These comprehensive definitions show that literacy is much more than one’s ability to read and write at a certain age. Aspects of literacy also include problem solving, values and common sense.   Although over 97% of our population claim to be literate, can we claim that we have the above aspects of literacy among these 97 %?
Although our measurement does not cover all aspects of literacy, we still assume a connection between being literate and being intelligent or intellectual. Therefore the expectations from a literate person to behave in a certain way are high. And this is where we face problems, as there seems to be no interrelation between literacy and intelligence. Let me cite some examples.

Taking to the streets
A literate (learned) person is also considered to be a disciplined person. Let’s take a look at our streets. Look at how these literate people drive. There is no respect for other motorists and pedestrians. In a learned society, the pedestrians are number one. Any vehicle driver will give priority to the people who are walking. The simple reason being, that a motorist can reach his/her destination faster than a pedestrian. At least seven persons die on our streets on a daily basis due to traffic accidents and unfortunately some on the pedestrian crossing too.  Even the most literate who complain about corruption in the country are willing to bribe a police officer to get out of traffic offences.  Signs such as “Do not block the entrance” have to be placed as the ‘literate drivers’ do not know where not to park.

Dumping garbage and vandalism
Such a literate society still does not know how to dispose of garbage. We do not know where to dump garbage and where not to. Since we are highly literate, sign boards have to be placed prohibiting people from throwing their refuse.  From the school-going to the executive and to the retired, just throwing refuse out of moving vehicles seems to be a common practice. The amount of vandalism committed in our country is truly unacceptable. It seems that a majority still does not know to go on a trip and enjoy themselves without vandalising. Insensitivity towards others, the environment and a lack of overall concern are the features of the so-called literate society.

Non consideration for elders
One of the new trends in the new literate society of ours is that there is no consideration or respect for elders. I have attended many functions where no consideration has been given for the convenience of the senior citizens. From having to climb stairs to seating arrangements, the organisers seem to pay little or no attention to the needs of the elders.  We come from a generation where respect for age is a deeply embedded value. Standing up and offering our seat to an elder is something which comes naturally to us. But today we see that the older generation is disregarded as unimportant. They are a lot to be laughed at.  Is it merely that we are losing our values, but still we are proud to call ourselves literate?

Decision making
One of the fundamental aspects of being literate is the ability to make sound decisions. Take the case of decisions that are being taken at the highest level, such as felling trees to settle EPF outstandings. The recent decision on the Year 5 scholarship was another interesting one.  The Honourable Minister of Education takes a decision to scrap it, probably without any consultation with anyone including children.

Those who were opposing the elimination of the examination brought interesting theories about how children should learn to be competitive from a young age.
Now a person like Mr. Athulathmudali would have taken a considerable amount of time to study the issue along with a lot of experts, intellectuals and a consultation with children.  This would have definitely been his approach to making a decision on such an important national issue as education. An overnight decision on banning it or lifting the ban is unacceptable in a literate or intelligent society.  

Understanding Development
We the learned think that development is mere concrete structures. Social development is unheard of in this race for setting up concrete jungles. Take for instance the building of highways - have the people in authority given any thought to develop mass transportation systems? A highway will only serve the rich who can pay the toll.  Only about 15-20% of the population has the economic ability to use the highway, it does not solve the issues with regard to mass transportation of human beings and their produce. Railways in Sri Lanka have not developed at the rate the highways have been set up. Lets assume that you want highways as well - then the more pragmatic or prudent transport development mix would be for every mile of highway you need to simultaneously lay at least four miles of rail track; therefore by now we should have laid 600 miles of rail track and the priority should be the other way around - first the rail track then the highway. No one either questions or answers the question with regard to mass transportation; our transport planners are certainly literate.  

Voting the right people in
We lack intelligence and analytical skills when we go to vote and select our ‘leaders’. Even the recently concluded provincial council elections showed that those who spent lavishly won the elections. Giving away food parcels, alcohol, free petrol, umbrellas, sarees, T shirts and even mobile phones seem to be the attractions for the voters. A party’s manifesto, or a candidate’s values and principles or good character do not seem to be of any importance. What is more appalling is that unsavoury characters are voted in and they decide our destiny.  Where in the process of being literate have we taken away one’s ability to question, analyse and be independent in our decision making?  

I have noticed how badly almsgivings are planned. So many dishes are prepared unnecessarily. I am certain that the same menu is being offered everywhere to the priest. In our eagerness to reach Nirvana, the richest and the most unhealthiest of food is offered to the priests. Such lavish offerings will certainly shorten the lives of the priests. Following the almsgiving, the amount of food that is wasted is a clear sign that little or no planning has gone into organising the event. We boast about high literacy rates but our ability to comprehend things seem to be very low.

Lack of patience and Understanding
Sri Lankan society has become  intolerant over the years. Let’s examine some examples. Lining up in a queue is a basic thing in a literate society. It is simply the ‘first come – first served’ principle. But even the most literate take pride in breaking a queue with no consideration for others. I have had to talk to people who have done that while I waited in line, and the audacity of those people shows that they do not have an iota of self-discipline.

At a higher level, we see the same lack of patience when it comes to foreign relations. This is a time I strongly feel that a statesman of the calibre of the Late Mr. Athulathmudali or Lakshman Kadirgamar who can engage in diplomatic discourse is so badly needed in the country.  Although we talk highly of our literacy, we seem to be using it to insult people.  From the senior-most to the Pradeshiya Sabha MP, we seem to be very liberal with our choice of words in the addressing the international community. Even the most learned people in high offices have thought that it was both amusing and right to insult the President of the USA, the Indian Prime Minister and the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights.  As a result, we are now faced with a UN Resolution, we have failed to be patient in this issue and understand what the best course of action is. We do not know the language that the international community speaks in, so we resort to insult them using our language. The result is that we seem to be losing our allies too. Then my question is whether there is any value in our being a literate nation?

We do not understand the reality of the present day context. There are two words that govern our country:  Patriotism and Conspiracy. If you hail the status quo you are a patriot, while if you point out the mistakes you are a conspirator working against the country. Our high literacy somehow prevents us from ensuring the best interest of the country or seeing that the Country and the Government are not the same.

In conclusion I must add that we are certainly able to read and write, but the process has made all of us unintelligent, dependent and unruly. The literacy numbers therefore do not really matter as we ourselves keep pushing the nation to a dark corner. 
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  • LalSilva Saturday, 26 April 2014 11:28 AM

    We all know all of this, and it is all true. Certainly high littracy 50 years ago should not have culminated to the present situation. What we don't know why it happened and what can be done.
    All most all Sri Lankan leaders dye their hair. This is not the the case in other countries. These are small things we can see. We all should get together and find the reason and the solution.

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