To put into context the worthlessness of marking the UN mandated National Literacy Day, the same institution puts Cuba top of the tree in its ranking of world literacy at 98.8%. Having lived in Havana for a number of months, I can categorically deny the validity of this, based upon the simple fact that a worryingly large number of the people I met were unable even to write their own name. Given that this was the major city, I hold little hope for real rates of literacy in the countryside.
Interestingly though, many of the poorest in Havana were able to speak a plethora of different languages, learnt not in the classroom but on the streets: essential in selling all manner of black market product and disreputable service to tourist so they can get hold of those precious greenbacks. The moral of the story? If you really want your children to learn foreign languages, dump them on the streets of Havana. Perhaps not. But it does go to show that human ingenuity adapts even in a heavily distorted market.
Rather than to simply celebrate literacy and condemn illiteracy, the key point to consider is how it is achieved. It certainly helps if economic development is at a point where literacy is itself as essential to being able to function as having German, French and English as second, third and fourth languages is on the streets of Havana. However, we also need a good and competitive education system, especially for the poorest in our country. The former we have, but the latter we don’t; and this accounts for the embarrassingly high levels of illiteracy among UK adults, because of – not in spite of – government interference.
For a proper understanding of literacy and all matters related to education, you could do no better than to peruse the excellent work coming out of the E.G. West Centre based at the University of Newcastle. They also have blog that can be accessed here.