Why Literacy Matters

In any society, the growth of libraries and literacy is a sign of enlightenment, an obvious aspect of which is “the idea of progress, of not only self-improvement, but also the improvement of the world for others” (McGarry 1991). The eighteenth-century Western Enlightenment , for instance, was a cultural phase that expressed “the idea of light flooding into dark places hitherto darkened by ignorance,” drove the growth of library and literacy (McGarry 1991, 127).

It is interesting that in Indonesian context, the essential role of literacy to represent Enlightenment in the West is not considered public knowledge.  Considering the fact that Indonesia has the biggest Muslim population in the world, in the Muslim world, the importance of literacy instead is represented by the first five verses of the Qur’an that Allah handed down to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). The first revelation declares, “Read in the name of thy Sustainer, Who has created created man out of a germ-cell! Read for thy Sustainer is the Most Bountiful One who has taught (man) the use of the pen taught man what he did not know!” (QS 96: 1-5).  The position of these verses is so powerful as to transform a culture from orality to literacy. Allah sent down the Qur’an and require people not only to read again and again, but also to create conditions which “would encourage the people, who had hitherto lived in primarily an oral society, to abandon their myth making habits of mind and instead cultivate habits of mind that would put them on the course of reading the world in a scientific way, albeit with reference to Allah” (Kazmi 2005, 23).

Islamic discourse emphasizes that, much earlier than the Age of Enlightenment, Muslim renaissance in the Middle Ages placed Baghdad and Muslim Spain as the center of knowledge.  In the early ninth-century Abbasid era, Baghdad had its Bayt al-Hikmah (House of Wisdom) as the centre of learning, a library and research centre that attracted medieval western scholars to the East. Later on, Andalusian Spain placed Cordova as a metropolitan city with an enormous public library with a collection of over 440,000 books.  Under the rule of ‘Abd al-Rahman III (r. 912-929), Cordova grew to be a centre of learning, with the numerous mosques as educational centres.  In fact, between the ninth and the fifteenth centuries, Muslim civilization achieved its zenith in Spain, with Grenada, Seville, and Toledo as the great houses of Arab Andalusian Spain (Chejne 1974, 163-64).

The power of literacy in identity transformation has been frequently represented in popular culture. The theme of individual literacy crisis can be traced through the character of Hanna in The Reader and of Celie in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982). Celie finds literacy as self-empowering and enables her to break from silence and find her own voice. Williams and Zenger considers “triumph-of-literacy” films such as Educating Rita (1983), Dangerous Minds (1995), Nanny McPhee (2005) and many others of similar theme as echoing a notion of literacy as a tool or a skill required for personal transformation to occur and to be part of the dominant society (Williams and Zenger 2007, 147-48).

While literacy is a powerful tool for individual transformation, it is more than just an individual matter, but lies in the centre of social problem called literacy crisis. There has been growing concern about the development of literacy, with an assumption that literacy crisis is taking place around the globe. Yet, the definition of literacy crisis varies from one nation to another. In developing countries, for instance, literacy crisis refers to a condition in which literacy plays a crucial role in the economic development in the face of lack of literacy skills in the society and limited access to education (Verhoeben and Snow 2007). Based on this notion, Indonesia falls into this category. With very limited number of teachers, lack of educational facilities, including books, and remote locations of schools, a large number of school-age children are endangered of being illiterate.[1]  In East Java alone, about 4.5 million people over the age of fifteen, comprising 11.97 percent of the whole population in East Java were still illiterate (Jawa Pos, 19 May 2008).[2]

Literacy crisis is a social problem in a way that it creates a vicious cycle with poverty and backwardness, and education is perceived by many as the only way to break this cycle. It is in this context that many Indonesian Domestic Workers (IDWs) brace themselves to work overseas, leaving their families to make possible better education for their children. Those who already have children do not want their daughters to end up like their mothers. Ani Ema Susanti, an IDW returnee from Hong Kong and now a documentary film director, beautifully portrays this in her short film, Helper Hong Kong Ngampus (Hong Kong Helper Going to Campus). Through two IDW returnees as the casts, the movie speaks about the importance of clear vision for women who decide to work overseas in domestic sector. One was an ex-IDW who was studying to become a teacher, and the other was a mother who was determined to give her son a good education (Susanti, 2009).

Realizing the importance of knowledge through books for personal enhancement, a number of IDWs are determined to foster reading habit among IDWs’ community. It was not an easy task, considering a very low level of reading habit among them. This, in general, may well represent the equal condition in Indonesian society. There has been a growing concern on the low level of reading habit in Indonesia. With a population of 225 million people, Indonesia only published 8,000 new books per year, as compared to Vietnam, a country with the population of 80 millions, which published 15,000 new titles per year. This is an embarrassing condition, given that Vietnam gained its independence 23 years later than Indonesia’s independence (Kompas editorial, 31 January 2009, cited in (Gong and Irkham 2012, 9).

Sadly, as a number of Indonesian scholars believe, Indonesian society is still oral-driven, and is a long way to transform itself to a literate society, with some prominent characteristic as perceiving written thoughts as additive rather than subordinate. When texts exist, they tend to be considered non-existent, as many turn first to ‘what people say’ more than ‘what written words state.’ Another characteristic is an oral society being more agonistically toned, in which verbal expressions are perceived as inviting combat, not critical engagement (Ong 2002).

One of the biggest challenges faced by Indonesian society is to transform itself from an oral society to a literate one. In a literate tradition, Indonesian society would be able to distinguish between opinion and facts, fiction and reality, and lies and truths (Suparto, 2009). Furthermore, Gol A Gong believes that there should be a revolutionary movement to change Indonesia from an orality-driven society to a more literate community. Being literate here does not merely mean being able to read, but is more about putting literacy (reading and writing) as a new cultural habit. As an author and movie scriptwriter, Gol A Gong represents young Indonesian authors with great concerns in fostering community-based literacy. He is currently the coordinator of community-based libraries and had been invited to talk about creative writing and community libraries. Gol A Gong and Agus Irkham noted that in the past four years, Gerakan Indonesia Membaca (Indonesia Reading Movement) has flourished in various cities and towns. This movement is basically a sustainable cultural movement that aims to educate the society by spreading nodes of information access, and facilitating participatory space for the community to foster reading habit. With the spirit of educating the nation, such movement fosters literacy practices, including local library establishment at local levels (Gong and Irkham 2012, 6). With respect to Indonesia Reading Movement as a community-driven activism, it is also appropriate to also include IDWs’ literacy practices as a good example of literacy movement.

[1] The Directorate of Higher Education’s SM3-T program has been placing new graduates of education study programs to teach in the most remote areas in Indonesia. In the outermost regions, these new teachers face a high rate of lack of literacy, yet a deep hunger for books. The narratives of these teachers were recorded in books published by the SM3-T program at the State University of Surabaya.

[2] This data was reported by the Institute of Research Social, Politic, and Democracy Surabaya, and was published in Jawa Pos, 19 May 2008.

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