Critical Literacy: the Bottom up Approach's first step!

10 September 2007

Fidel Castro, Cuba's ageing revolutionary, was driven by a dream! Back in 1959 he won control of Cuba and he planned to make his people the leading South American nation. But he faced a serious problem! Yes, Cubans for the most part were poor! And yes, few had much schooling! But poverty and lack of schooling wasn't exactly the problem. There was something much deeper! The problem he faced was clear as the great, big beard on his face: his people were miserably poor at reading and writing! In fact, most were illiterate!

He knew his people well! No matter how deep their yearning for the better life, in spite of them being truly blessed with rich soil, plentiful rain and a wonderful climate, they suffered a profound weakness. Too many of his people couldn't read or write! Basic math skills and a fundamental understanding of the world escaped them. No matter what his plans were, no matter how much money Cuba's sugarcane brought in to government's coffers still little change would take place if this profound people weakness--illiteracy--continued.

Fifty years ago, then, Castro saw the problem and determined to do something about it. Cuba wasn't a rich nation! It had a very hostile neighbor (USA) camped right on its door step and most of its people clamored for a bigger and stronger army, more government jobs, anything but literacy! But Castro stuck to his plans. No, before anything else he set in motion a national literacy project to tackle this national problem. And he succeeded! At this moment, for instance, Cuba enjoys a higher literacy rate than even the United States, twenty times richer!

In fact Cuba, among only a handful of countries worldwide, boasts of almost 100% literacy. We in the Solomons, for instance, in the very near future, this year in fact, will gain from Cuba's high literacy rate. More than 50 Cuban medical doctors will fly into our country to take up two-year residency to practice their medical skills in our many rural clinics. Next year perhaps another 100 more will be at post as well.

What does all this say about our own country! Our current literacy rate is close to what Cuba had fifty years ago . . . about 40% of our people are literate. Yes, over the years we made progress, from 24% for men to 19% for women, in the early 1990s to the current 4 out of 10 persons reading and writing. Unfortunately, the 1999 national census presented an over rosy picture of our literacy achievement. It's hard to accept that in less than 10 years the nation jumped from an average 25% in 1988 to 70% in 1999. No, our current rate is much lower and only slowly is it climbing to where it should be.

Some might think that the secret of Cuba's literacy success was Fidel Castro: the Strongman, the dictator, he forced his people to learn to read and write or else. Nothing is further from the truth! Yes, the Cuban leader made it clear that literacy was a national goal and everyone--men, women and even small children--were expected to learn this skill and quickly so. But the carrot rather than the stick was his favorite tactic! Not force, nor jail or anything like that. Students, trained in national schools, were expected to repay the government for their schooling by teaching their younger brothers and sisters and even their parents on their own time.

Currently, we in the Solomons miss out on our student population helping out in a national-run literacy campaign. For instance, I know of not a single Solomons school--primary, secondary or tertiary level--which teaches its students how to teach literacy. The next two months, for instance, our 4,000 students who recently sat their entrance exam for secondary school remain in class without taking any special training to help them to teach literacy to their brothers, sisters and parents. We have a huge workforce right under our noses waiting to be used to help the nation get on top of our illiteracy problem and we fail to use them.

This week Solomon Islands publicly recognizes the depth of our literacy problem. The first step in solving any problem is to accept that there is one and a serious one at that. Secondly. much like Cuba's Castro, we have to come up with a workable plan which tackles the problem head on using the resources at hand. It took Cuba less than five decades to turn a country around from illiteracy to full literacy. Our government's Bottom up Approach's first step, then, must be in this same direction.

J. Roughan
10 September 2007