Standing at the gate is a Jalq’a farmer, his distinctive white bowler-like hat in his callused right hand and a torn scrap of wrinkled paper in his left. He looks nervous and anxious, a little impatient. When he sees me, he is obviously pleased, though to me he is a complete stranger.
He immediately shows me his piece of paper. On it I read a few scribbled numbers. These are the prices he has been quoted for the two cattle he butchered that morning. But he wants to know if they are fair and tells me the price per kilo he should get. “Could I please do the calculation?” He tells me their weight and hands me the stub of a lead pencil. I multiply the data at least three times, feeling a sense of responsibility that draws his anxious look into my eyes. I hand him back the paper and tell him the price he should ask for. He shakes my hand in thanks and turns to leave. I shake my head in wonder and turn to thoughts of the complexity of the literacy question!
For people seeking first-class citizenship within our post-industrial and new information age, it is hard to argue anything but a case in favour of literacy training. For states wanting to compete in a globalized, now digitized world, the advantages of advanced literacy levels are obvious. For farmers needing to read the labels of dangerous chemicals, literacy, for at least someone on the farm, is a both a necessity and basic right.75 While black and white on the page, the reading and writing of text is hardly that. There is, therefore, nuance in my critique of its deified status.
It is when illiteracy is treated as a disease and equated with ignorance and stupidity that there is a real problem. When we claim that civilization itself rests on this narrow set of skills and fail to recognize other forms of literacy, such as the capacity to read exceedingly complex landscapes, Western literacy objectives are misplaced. Reading or writing alone are never agents of social change.76 The broader socio-economic and political context must be addressed in a substantive way, if literacy education is to be a choice and a basic human right.77
And as stressed earlier, careful discernment about the need for literacy education is essential. Have we looked at the knowledge already present in a society before we pass through the farm gate with our gift of pencils and workbooks? After a never-ending day of work in her fields and within her homestead, should a woman with incredible ecosystem literacy be asked to learn to read text under the light of a kerosene lamp in the late evening so that she might acquire the basics?
The most nagging question of all for me, although not easily answered, is this: could the very linear, compartmentalized way that basic literacy is taught work against such a farmer’s inclination to look at the world as an interconnected and complex web rather than a straightforward and predictable road map?