Last Monday was significant for quite a few reasons. For many of us it marked our first Monday classes of the semester. For some of us it may also have marked the first classes of the year we attended hungover. No judgment, it was a rough weekend to be a Wolverine.
And for others, including myself, we went to check our Tumblr and learned that Monday also marked the UN’s annual International Literacy Day.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization first proclaimed Sept. 8 as International Literacy Day in 1965. Since then, UNESCO and other partners have worked together to advocate globally for the importance of literacy to individuals, communities and society as a whole. The critical point of UNESCO’s mission with International Literacy Day is that literacy is a human right and a basis of education.
According to UNESCO, some 781 million adults are illiterate. That’s nearly 16 percent of the world’s population. Women make up 64 percent of the adult illiterate population, and those living in conflict-affected areas face even greater barriers to education. Poor literacy rates are directly connected with increased levels of severe poverty, poor health outcomes and prejudice against women.
Even within the United States the numbers don’t look good. According to a 2013 study by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, 32 million adults in the United States, or 14 percent of the population, demonstrate a “below basic” literacy level.
Internationally and domestically, the benefits of literacy are vast. For example, literate individuals are more likely to participate in the democratic process, contribute to sustainable economies and advocate for better healthcare and education opportunities for themselves and their children.
While the numbers paint a disturbingly clear picture of just how much is at stake, they don’t quite express the heart of the issue. To be illiterate is to be disenfranchised from one of the most powerful forms of imagination. It is to be denied the critical thinking and comprehension skills that enable one to make sense of the world and one’s place within it. It makes language a prison when it should in fact be a site of transformation, of transcendence.
In “A Dance With Dragons,” George R.R. Martin writes, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” Books can fill our lives with so much more: more time, more color, more intensity. Think of your favorite book. Think of the places, the characters and the emotions. Now imagine that you had never read that book, that you couldn’t read that book. It’s like a piece of you would be missing.
Who would I be if I never fought against the Dark Lord with Harry?
How else could I take a turn about a regency ballroom and trade witty barbs with a handsome gentleman?
How would I know about the rolling green hill of Hobbiton, the underground Dwarven city of Moria, or the white city of Minas Tirith?
Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolstoy… the list goes on and on with authors and works that have not only delighted and entertained me, but challenged me and profoundly informed who I am today.
I can’t imagine my life without being able to read a good book and I don’t think anyone else should have to live without being able to either. And I’m not alone. Countless writers, including Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison and Amy Tan, have all contributed to UNESCO’s literary mission to promote the importance of the written word and the power of a literate society.
International Literacy Day may have already passed this year, but there’s still plenty you can do to make a difference. I encourage you to donate your time or your money to literacy outreach programs, like the Residential College’s partnership with Telling It, a children’s literacy community service program. You can be sure that your efforts will go toward improving someone’s quality of life. And remember just how lucky you are the next time you crack open a book.