ABC's of Failure

Brass Tacks

ACCORDING to United Nations statistics, fifty per cent of the world's population was illiterate in 1950, in 1960 the figure was forty per cent. But the statistics are far from encouraging, for in absolute figures the number of illiterates increases by 25 to 30 million every year. There are now about 800 million who do not read or write at even the most elementary level.

These are the statistics of failure--a failure as drastic as it is widespread. The immediate reason for the failure is, of course, the increase in the birth rate along with the fall in the death rate. But this does not explain the problem, since almost all countries with critical illiteracy problems have introduced compulsory elementary education. In fact, such laws are usually among the first passed when a former colony gains independence.

The problem is essentially political: to be really effective a country must decide to channel a very large proportion of its national resources into education. Even then, policy-makers are faced with an almost impossible choice. On the one hand, programs could concentrate on educating the young and attempt to wipe out the problem in one generation. On the other hand, most of the underdeveloped nations do not feel they can afford to wait a generation.

It is obviously difficult to make the first steps toward industrialization or implement more efficient agricultural techniques if a majority of the adult population can not read. "We just can not afford to write off the present generation," says Tanzania's President Nvrere, himself a teacher before he became a politician. "Those who are 15 today [compulsory schooling ends at 15] may still be members of the working population in the year 2000. Furthermore, the decisions affecting the future of the country-- its social structure, economy and politics--are not taken by children, whether they have gone to school or not."

The answer is an unhappy compromise. There are not enough teachers or schools and efforts toward educating adults have been generally spotty with discouraging results. One of the greatest problems has proved to be "the follow-up." People may attend the sessions, but, as with the Long Island house-wife after her flower arranging course, there is serious doubt that much will be remembered six months later.

TO a great many, reading and writing seem essentially irrelevant. Father and grandfather did perfectly well without literacy, and their own lives are little different from that of their ancestors. Thus, drop-outs become another major problem, especially among women and girls.

An illiteracy campaign must, therefore, take on some of the aspects of a crusade. This is no new discovery; Luther made literacy a matter of religious significance in 16th century Europe; and, more recently, Castro, declaring illiteracy an issue of prime national significance, brought book learning to Cuba's 700,000 illiterates within a year.

Cuba is really the only country to boast a campaign so successful. The rapidity of its success is particularly remarkable. (The other outstanding example of progress is the USSR, where advance was slower, but the problem was also of a very different magnitude.) The Cuban campaign began in January, 1961, with an appeal to secondary students to "help in the battle." Thirty-four thousand professional teachers trained and directed the student volunteers. Castro mobilized 268,420 of them for what UNESCO estimated was a fantastic student-teacher ratio of three to one.

For the last two years, UNESCO has concerned itself closely with the problems of wiping out illiteracy. A 1965 Teheran Conference marked the start of a six country project. The six countries-- Iran, Mali, Algeria, Ecuador, Guinea, and Tanzania--were chosen from the 50 applicants for their "readiness": they all more or less had successful literacy programs under way already; and the governments were willing to apportion a good deal of energy--and money (60 per cent of cost)--to the program.

The UNESCO projects use a different tactic for "motivating" their students. Instructors play on what they call "the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses syndrome." For instance, Farmer A learns to read so that he can learn how to use the bag of fertilizer the government has provided. The fertilizer doubles the autumn crop. Farmer B sees that his neighbor is getting more fruits for the same amount of labor. Farmer B determines he will learn how to read. The lesson is simple, the UN's experts conclude: give a man some reason to learn, and he will not only learn but remember.

This approach has led to what is known in the jargon as "functional literacy." The literacy campaign focuses on people who will benefit most from knowing how to read. Schools are established either in growing industrial centers or in areas where new agricultural techniques are being tried.

UNESCO has only a few centers in each country. It does not pretend it will alphabetize the country. This is the "lightening" approach. More than anything, it aims at developing the most effective ways of teaching illiterates. The language problem enormously complicates the task. In Tanzania, most of the tribes speak or understand Swahili, a written language, but in Mali the predominant language, Bambara, has not yet been transcribed. Also, there are strong arguments for teaching people to read in either English or French, since few bags of fertilizer come with instructions in Bambara.

UNESCO obviates these difficulties by refusing to enter a country that does not have a written language. Another criticism levelled at the organization is that by taking on only the most educable in any country, it is not really addressing itself to the most difficult problems of a successful illiteracy campaign.

Last fall, at a small ceremony in Paris, UNESCO awarded its annual prize for combatting illiteracy to a young Tanzanian girl from the Tabora Girls School. At the initiative of the Headmistress, a Swede, the pupils had undertaken to teach illiterates in the area. It is as unlikely that present programs will wipe out illiteracy in the rest of the world, as that these girls will alphabetize Tanzania. The projects are driving home the twin lesson of the failures of the last 15 years--the magnitude of the problems and the magnitude of the resources that will have to be devoted to their solution.