Illiteracy threatens our democracy

As a country, we cannot afford to ignore our poor literacy rates or even delay our response to them. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

As a country, we cannot afford to ignore our poor literacy rates or even delay our response to them. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

What we read as children can tell us a lot about ourselves and the world we live in. The influences of our family, our schoolteachers and the dynamics of our society are revealed by our relationship with books.

To this day, I have a fascination with words that are, roughly speaking, synonyms, but each of which conveys a slightly different sense and which makes the exclusive use of the most familiar synonym impossible if you want to express yourself as accurately as possible.

“Confuse” and “astonish” are decent substitutes for “discombobulate”, but a close study of these words and regular encounters with them in books written by many different authors gives the skilled reader an intuitive grasp of the fine-grained differences in meaning and sense attached to each one.

One of my fondest childhood memories is going through the dictionary with my dad to underline and learn different words. It was then that my enjoyment of separating synonyms from one another — at the level of sense — was developed.

I was also lucky as a child that there was a reasonably well-stocked public library adjacent to my grandparents’ home.
I simply needed to jump the fence, and minutes later I could be sitting and reading for hours in the library. This was in a poorly resourced community during the 1980s but, despite the inherent inequities presided over by the apartheid state, that library never ran short of books for children to read.

Although I could not identify with the privileged world of Boet en Saartjie in grade one storybooks featuring white children who went on holidays, my teachers at St Mary’s Primary School did an excellent job teaching me to read with comprehension. That skill enabled me to read additional books by myself, which I borrowed from the library.

As if these opportunities were not enough, my best friend’s mom was an avid reader, and visiting her house was just as good as visiting my local library. There, I would read everything from Molo Songololo magazine for children, with its wonderfully subversive political subtexts, to The Road Less Traveled by M Scott Peck. I read indiscriminately.

There can be little doubt that being taught to read with comprehension and having access to a public library were foundational pedagogical experiences in my life. Books saved my life. They provided an escape from the cycle of poverty in my community and equipped me to imagine different worlds, different ways of being, and to develop the tools to close the distance between reality and fantasy. As my vocabulary developed so too did my conceptual range, my analytic ability and my capacity to imagine life beyond the confines of apartheid zones.

You cannot study subjects such as legal theory and analytic philosophy later, as I did, if you missed out on a primary school education that included the development of an effective reading ability.

Which brings me to the criminality of the current government. This week we found out that South Africa ranked last in a study that compared the reading abilities of pupils in grade four in 50 countries. At least two African countries, Morocco and Egypt, had better results than us, as did many countries with similar-sized economies to ours, such as Chile and Iran. In fact, they outperformed us by huge margins.

A total of 78% of nine-and 10-year-old South African children cannot read with comprehension, according to the global assessment of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Studies.

The results will generate a week of public discussion before we all simply continue with our lives. That is because the systemic failures in our education system are so many and have been endured for so long that we have failure fatigue. We have known for years now that our children compare poorly with similar economies to our own in maths and science. So why should reading shock us? If children cannot count competently then it is hardly a shocker that they also cannot read with comprehension.

But, if we do not treat these results as a national emergency and as abhorrent as facts about schools without basic sanitation then we will regret our failure fatigue when the legacy of illiteracy and semi-literacy haunt us for decades to come.

Not only the economy will suffer from a labour force that is poorly educated but our democracy itself will also be poorer if citizens cannot enjoy their civil and political rights meaningfully in the absence of a culture of reading, and reading with comprehension.

It is impossible to exaggerate the stakes. A deliberative and participatory model of democracy presupposes a critical mass of citizens who read, and who do so with comprehension. That means the democratic project is fatally wounded without an urgent national plan to teach teachers how to teach reading better and to ensure well-stocked public libraries in all our communities and one in every school, as well as developing and entrenching a culture of reading and of enjoying books, as much as our children love technology.

If the state does not do so immediately then it cannot complain when a comparison is made with the apartheid state.

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