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close this bookAction Research Report on «Reflect» - Education Research Paper No.17 (DFID, 1996, 96 p.)
close this folder1. Introduction
View the documentClaims & Counter-claims
View the documentPolicy makers & donors
View the documentRe-framing the questions

Claims & Counter-claims

From the past literature on adult literacy one would be excused for thinking that literacy is a "wonder-drug". With a simple dose of literacy adults develop logical abilities, become politically aware, organise to solve their problems and increase their productivity. As a result of this miracle cure, women are empowered, the rate of population growth is reduced, immunisation coverage is increased, infant mortality declines, community organisations are strengthened, countries become modernised and governments become more accountable and democratic.

In recent years these claims have been increasingly challenged and many myths have been exploded. Rogers (1993) stresses "In truth we do not know the effects of adult literacy programmes on the quality of life or the power nexus of the poor." Wagner (1995) emphasises that there is insufficient evidence to show that adult literacy leads to modernisation or changed attitudes, to democracy or to increased productivity. There is a "lack of solid evidence undergirding the claims". Particularly there is a lack of research that separates out literacy acquired by children through formal schools and literacy acquired through adult education. The conclusion Wagner comes to is that "literacy work contains no magic answer for any society".

As the myths surrounding adult literacy have been challenged the very notion of what "literacy" is has also come into question. Street (1993) argues that "to understand literacy requires detailed in depth accounts of actual practice in different cultural settings" and he urges an "ideological approach" because "literacy practices are aspects not only of culture but also of power structures". This is a big shift from the traditional cognitive or "autonomous" approach which either explicitly or implicitly regards non-literate people as "backward", "primitive", or "the other"- with literacy being seen a fixed set of techniques which will improve their mental abilities and transform their lives.

In the ideological approach we need to speak about "literacies" rather than "literacy" - because different literacies serve different independent purposes (see Scribner and Cole 1981). Literacy is defined by each society not by some universally standard independent mark. Rather than just talk about how literacy affects people, the focus should equally be on how people affect literacy:

"individuals in a newly literate society, far from being passively transformed by literacy, instead actively and creatively apply literacy skills to suit their own purposes and needs." (Kulick and Stroud in Street 1993).

Whereas before people spoke of a great divide between orality and literacy, now these are more often regarded as being on a continuum. This is consistent with the challenging of past myths: there is no magical transition or transformation that takes place with the acquisition of reading and writing. There is nothing inherent in literacy which changes people's way of thinking or their outlook on the world. Moreover, literacy in itself will not change social structures or promote economic or political development.

These debates, whilst sometimes becoming abstract and academic are of crucial importance. If literacy is not a magical cure to the "disease" of illiteracy; indeed if illiteracy is not to be regarded as a disease at all, "India's sin and shame" as Gandhi called it, then why bother?