Higher Education and the Right to Learn

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Thoughts on International Literacy Day, September 8, 2017

The ability to read and write has never been of more importance than it is now.  The digital age means that there are more cell phones in the world than there are people.  Smart phones, laptops and desktop computers have connected a staggering among of information vital to everyday life via the Internet.  The libraries, museums, newspapers, social media sites of the world are more and more accessible to anyone with digital connectivity.  And the means by which the world functions via digital accessibility is the word.  Connectivity happens through that most basic of skills, reading and writing.  And yet there are according to UNESCO statistics, more than 750 million people in the world who still are not able to read.  And there are hundreds of millions of children who are either not in school not able to stay in school long enough to become fluent readers and writers. And we know that even in the so-called rich countries of the world, millions of people’s literacy levels are below what we would call a functional level for contemporary 21’st Century flourishing.

Our UNESCO Chair’s mandate is on building capacity in the global South and the excluded North for what we call community based research.  We are also engaged in promoting a vision of engaged post-secondary education, socially responsible higher education.  The premise of our work is that present in our communities, our social movements, our spaces of resistance and resilience are young people women and men who are creating knowledge for survival, community building and overcoming the challenges of injustice and exclusion.  We speak often of the ‘right to learn’ but importantly, we speak of the ‘right to know’ and the ‘right to create knowledge’.  But these rights remain hollow in the absence of the most basic skills of reading and writing.

Higher Education institutions have an important contribution to make to the challenges of literacy.  First we need to understand that higher education can most powerfully be explored and developed within a framework of lifelong learning.  And if we are part of the extraordinary continuum of lifelong learning we have a role to play in making sure that the first basic steps of literacy acquisition are supported.  How can we help?  Each of our universities needs to have departments or centres that deal with literacy and adult education.  We need researchers working on these issues, on building literacy in all of our languages, not just the dominant languages, what we might call the imperial languages.  We need to train literacy and adult education facilitators and teachers.  We need to address issues of multiple literacies including digital literacy, the literacy of citizenship, the literacies of power and persuasion.

And our students can be engaged working in communities, supporting already existing literacy organisations, the professional literacy provision structure, in providing literacy instruction to community members.  Long term permanent partnerships can be developed between our universities and the structures of our literacy movement.

This year when you see information about International Literacy Day, think about how your higher education institution might become an active partner in our common dream of everyone being able to participate in making life better.

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