What do we really mean by literacy? This is something I have been thinking about a lot lately, both as a writer and as an educator. We know what we mean when we say someone is illiterate. Often, to those of us in the West, that word is used to mean stupid, at worst, and uneducated, at best. If someone is illiterate, they can neither read nor write in their native language, and that must mean they are stupid/ignorant/lazy/unschooled. Right? But in much of the world, being illiterate has more to do with poverty than native intelligence. Poverty and corruption. My work in Cambodia has taught me that. I have met many industrious and intelligent people who, because of war and economics, have lacked the opportunity or even the need to read and write their own language. So when I talk about the importance of literacy, what do I really mean?
I believe literacy is about more than an ability to read and write. Literacy is fundamental to our ability to think – conceptually and critically. Through language we access our thoughts and feelings. Our ability to use language fluidly provides us with the necessary tools to process the exterior world, while also improving our understanding of our own internal worlds. Literacy is the switch that turns on that light of conceptual thought, opening doors to new possibilities, ultimately improving self-esteem and communication.
When I write a poem or a novel, I am trying to communicate, of course, but more than that, I am trying to think. Through writing I access nascent thoughts and develop them. I take disparate concepts and abstractions, link them together and thereby create new ideas, new visions of the world and new visions of myself.
But reading must come first. Reading allows us to walk into a world beyond our own sensations. When we read we access thoughts beyond those in our own brains. We access feelings and impressions beyond our own fingertips.
Literacy is one of those words which we all use but don’t really think about it. Funny that — we are often illiterate when it comes to our understanding of the word itself. How often do we really think about why it is important to be able to read and write? We know it is important, but really, why? Through language we communicate with the world around us. But real literacy does much more than that. Literacy allows us to communicate with ourselves, to understand ourselves and therefore to find our place in the world. The ability to use language to understand who I am and how I connect with everyone else…the more I think about it, the more I believe that that is the real meaning of literacy.