ON Saturday, September 8, International Literacy Day was commemorated worldwide under the auspices of UNESCO. The theme for this year’s commemoration was “Literacy and Skills Development.” This theme pointed the way of literacy not merely being concerned with reading and writing, but also with numeracy and skills development.
From earliest historical times, literacy was always associated with power and influence and was confined to an elite, especially priests and those to whom the memory of the society was entrusted, such as the scribes of ancient Egypt. If an ordinary child wished to be literate, it was a costly thing to be adopted by a teacher. Thus, until the 19th century, literacy all over the world and in all languages was confined to a few.
With the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the West, the need for literacy became more and more urgent, with the need to produce and service industrial machines, whether they were used for manufacturing or for building ships and going on ocean journeys; and also to be able to market products, both locally and internationally. With the greater availability of printed books, also, more people began to realise the joy of reading and made every effort to be literate. Education became a new industry, but was open only to those who could pay. It was only in the last quarter of the 19th century and in particular in the 20th century, that universal education became a policy and programme of governments.
In post-Emancipation Guyana, the Christian church provided literacy and primary education and were in time able to found schools over most parts of the country. By the beginning of the 20th century, the colonial state recognised that the church was assuming part of its responsibilities and as such, began to make generous subventions to the education institutions of the churches.
The state aimed at a totally literate population in keeping with the policy of the home government in Britain. Accordingly, school attendance officers were appointed to visit all communities and if it was found that a child had not been sent to school, the parents were prosecuted in the courts. These school attendance officers were particularly active from the 1920s to the 1950s. By 1950, Guyana had become more than 90% literate and ranked with the most developed countries. Reading was widely encouraged and practised and the public library system became very functional. There were many more bookshops than at present and these catered for the large numbers of young and old readers.
Guyanese tend to pride themselves on the belief that they are more than 90% literate, but this assumption is an anachronism, since from the halcyon days of the 1950s to 1970s, there has been a decline and there are thousands who are illiterate or could barely sign their names. And tens of thousands have had no exposure to books as had been the case half-a- century ago. The theme of International Literacy Day, “Literacy and Skills Development,” is therefore relevant to today’s Guyana.
Literacy was used by Guyanese in the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th century as a means of reducing poverty, increasing wealth and as a means of reducing social inequalities. The parents or grandparents of almost the entire professional and business classes were labourers or lower middle- class persons. The late Sir John Carter, one of Guyana’s most distinguished and accomplished diplomats and legislators, had remarked in Parliament that the grandfathers of all of us were shovelmen. There is therefore no doubt that education has raised generations out of poverty and led to upward social mobility.
Education also helped the population to learn more about health and medicine and how to improve their nutrition. The lifespan of Guyanese has been increasing as well as the quality of life. Education would help to keep propelling this trend. Some years ago, when the emigration fever had seized Guyana and about half the population had emigrated abroad, their education made them natural internationalists and they were among the very few immigrant groups that related well with the host populations and without any conflicts. Because of the deficiency of the education system, Guyanese youth emigrating or visiting abroad today, are less cosmopolitan and international and are regarded as “provincial” and are less able to relate immediately with host populations as would have been the case a generation or two ago.
Most important,why it is obligatory to acquire literacy and attendant skills: such skills are basic to understanding the rapid technological innovations which are taking place in the world of today and in particular to grasp the Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). In order to find a place in society, get a job and respond to social, economic and environmental challenges, one must be fully part of the modern technologies, since traditional literacy and numeracy skills are not enough. The “skills development” aspect of this year’s Literacy Day theme is of crucial importance to Guyanese.
It has now become a necessity for the population to involve themselves in skills development and in particular, ICT. In work situations today, the language used tend to be ICT, which is unintelligible to those with the old literacy and numeracy skills and even for those with higher traditional tertiary education. International Literacy Day and its 2018 theme should therefore be adopted by the educational authorities and be used to inform their policies, so that the population could keep abreast with the modern world.