True Meaning of Literacy (cont'd...)
I would like our understanding of what literacy is, and what it does, to be framed by the realization. The 885 million inhabitants of this globe who cannot read and write suffer across an immense range on the scale of poverty, oppression, and disadvantage. All of them, from casualties of civil conflict in remote places who have never seen a book or a schoolroom, to the children of privilege who fall through the cracks of our best public schools and never learn to read-all are prisoners to their own limitations and have not the power to shape their own futures.
I would like us to remember that literacy is the obvious key to certain kinds of freedom. One of the radical, distinguishing features of this nation's founding, for example, was its putting the reigns of government in the hands of the people. But that experiment in democracy absolutely depended upon the supposition that we would have a critical mass of citizens sufficiently enlightened and educated to make self-governance possible. Political freedom, in other words, depends upon individual education. This is why Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the great early advocates of women's rights, argued that education was the key: and the most perfect education, she wrote, "is such an exercise of the understanding as will render the individual independent.
Similarly, the connection between literacy and economic independence is almost too obvious to mention-at least it has been ever since Booker T. Washington mustered the resources of Tuskegee Institute, in his words, "to reach and improve the condition" of some of the millions of post-Civil War African Americans living in abject poverty. Of the many transformation in the lives of individuals who have learned or improved upon basic reading and writing skills, the most tangible-the most visible-are often the increased prosperity and dignity associated with economic independence. One of the most satisfying aspects of literacy work is seeing such dramatic fruits that come from improved literacy.
These are perhaps the most conventional ways of thinking about literacy: Literacy is the key to education, and education can awaken us politically, it can free us economically, it can empower us professionally. But to fully appreciate the scope of what we are accomplishing in the literacy cause, we must see literacy as even more than competence to pass an employment interview or to read a ballot. Our dignity as human beings demands that we be able to feed our children and clothe our families. But fully realized freedom also demands that we be able to go where inclination whispers. This is why I call literacy the power to follow the interests of our mind and the inclinations of our heart.
True literacy answers this need. If we see literacy in such terms, we will have an enhanced appreciation of the great literacy project now sweeping the globe. We will see it as a world-wide project that includes-but transcends-economic, political, and social freedoms alone. We will see it as the power to decide what kind of people we will be, what kinds of lives we will lead, and under what circumstances we will live them.
Today we are here to honor a woman who shares this vision and who has given such power to innumerable men and women, both directly and indirectly. In the years immediately following World War II, as refugees flooded into the United States, a number of Americans rose to the challenge of providing them with the physical resources necessary to sustain life. An inspired few also recognized that without the language skills necessary to function in their new country, these people would enjoy physical freedom yes, but little freedom to enjoy the "pursuit of happiness" that we have come to associate with life itself. One of those few was Mildred Gilman, who opened her heart and home to many of these refugees, over four decades ago. She generously provided a place under her own roof for many of these refugees to live and to eat. But beyond mere room and board, Mildred taught them English language skills they would need to prosper in their new home. And she taught them without any formal training or support from any organization or group.
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