"A tool can grow out of man’s control, first to become his master and finally to become his executioner… There are two ranges in the growth of tools: the range within which they are used to extend human capability, and the range in which they are used to contract, eliminate, or replace human functions."
- Ivan Illich, 1973
Why interrogate literacy?
In conference after conference, declaration after declaration, LITERACY has been projected as necessary for Development and Progress. It is promoted as a ‘universal good’, a powerful and ‘value-neutral’ tool, which can only stand to benefit all those who imbibe it. For those promoting literacy campaigns or pursuing projects to eradicate illiteracy, even slightly doubting this sacred cow may be tantamount to heresy.
But given its complex and multiple dimensions, we feel it is timely and appropriate to investigate literacy — its core assumptions, impacts, values and what it represents. This collection is just a beginning for exploring some questions around the dangers of literacy:
- How is literacy defined, and who defines it?
- How does literacy affect the diversity of languages and expressions?
- What kinds of knowledge systems and wisdoms are facilitated (or obstructed) by literacy?
- What is the relationship between literacy and nation-building? Literacy and globalization?
- What is the impact of the textual mind on identities, relationships, and ecologies?
- What do we lose when we over-emphasize literacy?
In raising these and other questions, we should clarify one point. We are not saying that reading or writing or counting is wrong, or that people should not learn how to do it. Nor are we saying the written word is always bad. (Otherwise, we would not be publishing this booklet!)
Rather, we are trying to shake the lofty pedestal that literacy has been placed upon, as the ultimate form of communication and an automatic tool for empowerment and social justice. We are inviting you to take a more critical look at literacy — not to dismiss it entirely, but also not to wholeheartedly accept its tall claims. We hope that by paying attention to its underlying assumptions and actual consequences, we can encourage more balanced, and nuanced perspectives on literacy. Perhaps in doing so, the door to many more diverse forms of human expression and to new paradigms for living with dignity will be opened.
We look forward to hearing your thoughts, feelings and experiences with literacy. Please share your stories with us on our website <www.swaraj.org/shikshantar>, where you will also find more contributions exploring "The Dark Side of Literacy."
- the Shikshantar family