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In 2005 UNESCO issued a definition of literacy as the ability to identify, understand and interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts.
Literacy involves a continuum of learning to enable individuals to achieve his or her goals, develop his or her knowledge, and potential and participate, fully in community and wider society (The Global Literacy Challenge, a UNESCO Key Publication in 2008).
Many perceive literacy as merely the ability to read and write a text. In fact, not all literate people can comprehend certain written texts. Comprehending a high school textbook needs higher reading comprehension levels than an elementary school textbook.
Experts believe that literacy skills determine the success of someone’s life either professionally or personally. For example, a company will hire individuals with certain levels of literacy skills such as ability to write a business letter or marketing proposal or to understand job descriptions and company guidelines.
That is why UNESCO stresses literacy as a means for individual development to access new opportunities and to participate in society in new ways. Those with high literacy skills are more likely to get a better job than those with lesser skills.
Literacy is also a key factor for social development and change. The higher the literacy skills of a country’s population, the more developed it will be. Developed countries consist of people with a strong reading and writing culture, a culture that triggers creativity, innovation and productivity. Vice versa, in undeveloped countries low literacy skills hinder the growth of human development.
In the past, literacy for social change was a key idea in the struggle for independence among colonized nations. Indonesia is a vivid example of the use of the power of literacy to gain independence.
In the early 20th century, though only few had access to higher education, some young educated Indonesians successfully laid a strong intellectual foundation for the struggle toward independence through the establishment of organizations such as Boedi Oetomo, Taman Siswa and Perhimpunan Indonesia. Sukarno, Mohammad Hatta, Sjahrir, Sutomo, Cipto Mangunkusumo, Ki Hajar Dewantara were among other prominent figures behind these organizations.
At that time, magazines and newspapers such as De Locomotief, Pemandangan, Utusan Hindia, Indonesia Merdeka were popular channels for disseminating the nationalist spirit, ideas and propaganda. Hatta is a fine example of a brilliant nationalist and economist who unflaggingly expressed his thoughts on nationalism, economic and social development through the print media, from when he was still at school until his exile.
It is evident that his love of books and countless writings were his powerful intellectual weapons.
Now, we are an independent state. However the challenges facing our nation are much more complex than ever before.
Even though we now have more literate people, we are still struggling to enhance our human development index, according to the UNDP report in 2011 which saw Indonesia lag behind its ASEAN neighbors. Poverty, unemployment, inadequate access to health care and quality education remain deep-rooted problems facing Indonesia.
In the academic world, we lack qualified university graduates, research projects and scientific publications. The latter has spurred debate since the Ministry of Education and Culture enacted a new policy that obliges all university students (at bachelor, master and doctorate levels) to have articles published in academic journals as a final requirement for graduation.
Education has always been a strong catalyst for individual and social development. This means we need to reform our education system if we are to enhance our human development index. To reform the education system means to reform literacy education as literacy is the heart of the learning process.
Literacy education is not just a part of the curriculum, but the heart of it. We learn literacy in Indonesian and English lessons. We are taught how to read a text and answer a set of questions regarding the text. We are also taught how to compose writing through certain writing steps.
In developed countries, reading and writing are everyday activities attached to most subjects. For example, while learning about fish and coral reef, second-year students will be assigned to read any kinds of book about the life in the sea. Then they will be asked to write a mini journal on a specific sea animal they may choose by themselves; what the fish eat, how they survive from predators, their physical traits etc. Rich reading resources are a major factor that support these literacy activities.
Therefore, we may infer that countless scientific publications issued by universities in developed countries result from good literacy programs implemented throughout the school years.
Indonesia will consist of people with high literacy skills only if all education stakeholders share a strong will to reform literacy education. At its simplest, strong reading skills will lead people to knowledge, and with writing skills we will see more people share their ideas, thoughts and knowledge through books, articles, journals and any other written texts. With these skills, people can improve their life quality as well as contribute to the community betterment.
The power of literacy has successfully led this country to a historic awakening moment in the past. With the same power of literacy, we are looking forward to seeing a glorious and prosperous Indonesia in the future.
The writer is an English teacher at Sekolah Permata Harapan kinderfield primary school, Jakarta.