What is man’s greatest discovery or invention? Twelve people in a room trying to answer this question would probably come up with no less than thirteen answers – fire, the wheel, electricity, television, the internal combustion engine, penicillin would be some ideas touted, with so many others, that agreement on any one would be well nigh impossible.
Allow me to propose what my contribution to the debate would be. I would, without hesitation, say that man’s greatest creation, paving the way for many and greater successive breakthroughs, was writing. Through the visual and permanent representation of sounds in meaningful strings, man achieved the ability to communicate across time. Through writing, communication, the two way process involving receiving and imparting information, became possible with people who had lived previously, and with others who were as yet still at the stage of being a naughty sparkle in their parents’ eyes. Writing lasts. And with its lasting power, it became possible for man to accumulate knowledge.
The learnings and discoveries of one generation did not any more need to be re-learnt from scratch. One generation could pick up and build on what a previous had left off. Parchments, scrolls,manuscripts, pamphlets and books all became depositories for acquired knowledge. Instinct in man the animal started to take second place to learning, and as the latter could grow and accumulate, so the former became more and more vestigial. Civilisation happened.
One could chart how over the millennia, writing and reading were the conduit and small steps through which mankind’s giant leaps became possible, but that is not the object of this piece. From the earliest rudimentary forms of writing, literacy today has taken on vastly wider meanings and connotations. In our societies, we have seen an ever stronger evolution of the notion of literacy.
A Shakespeare today would face difficulties without possessing the basic computer literacy skills, while social interaction between our youngsters has become dependent on texting, social media and other means of being connected, which all require a particular literacy skill. Literacy shapes and moulds our societies in all their aspects, but is also in its own right shaped and moulded by them. The importance of writing in our development and history is only meant here to introduce today’s celebration of International Literacy Day.
For over 40 years, UNESCO has been celebrating International Literacy Day by reminding the international community that literacy is a human right and the foundation of all learning. The theme for this year’s International Literacy Day is ‘literacies for the 21st century’, to highlight the need to realise the goal of basic literacy skills for all, as well as equip everyone with more advanced literacy skills as part of lifelong learning. Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director-General stated that ” Literacy is much more than an educational priority – it is the ultimate investment in the future and the first step towards all the new forms of literacy required in the twenty-first century. We wish to see a century where every child is able to read and to use this skill to gain autonomy.”
Malta still boasts the highest level of illiteracy in the European Union, although perhaps boasts is not exactly the right word to use in this regard. This negative first place should give us an automatic aim and target. From the highest level of illiteracy we should aim to rank first on the highest level of progress in this area, an aim which is not that hard to achieve when considering that the harvest is plentiful. To quote what Matthew (9:37) wrote two thousand years ago, and we can still read today, in the greatest best seller ever, we just need to ensure that the workers are not few.