The Culture of Literacy

Some people may argue that funding literacy programs abroad, sending Western books overseas, training teachers, or building educational infrastructure will inevitably further export Western culture and contribute to Western cultural imperialism. Others may argue that literacy programs in places like Latin America, Asia, and Africa will ultimately tamper with indigenous cultures by flooding them with materialism and capitalist propaganda, transforming charming native peoples into willing consumers fluent in Western values. I remember reading the transcript from an interview with a prominent American politician who claimed that the U.S. economy will benefit from the economic and educational betterment of developing countries, be it through the buying power they will later hold or the human talent they will produce.

I backpacked throughout the former communist bloc of Central and East Europe in the mid-1990s. Particularly in rural Romania, the landscapes were dotted with subsistence farmers, and horse drawn carriages far outnumbered cars. Foreign influence was difficult to find from what I saw, and I remember seeing only one “Western” business (McDonald’s, of course) in the downtown district of a mid-sized city. Although official numbers indicate high literacy rates in Romania, the economic despair of the countryside meant the lack of opportunity written as anguish on the people’s faces. People of the same age as I, with the bulk of their lives ahead of them to establish self-worth and enjoy personal achievement, faced an immediate future of high unemployment, poor infrastructure, corruption, and limited access to resources enjoyed by highly-industrialized countries.

If “the West” brings its educational resources to a country in which they previously did not exist, a footprint is forever left on that culture. Whatever your opinion of these effects may be, they snowball in an influence to be felt for centuries. Contemporary German, for example, is loaded with technical terms and colloquialisms imported from America. Assuming the anecdotal story I heard is accurate, contemporary English is approximately 40% French in origin, all of this as the result of a relatively short Norman occupation. Imported culture may not only influence language, but with the deepest personal values of a people. Asian youth are repeatedly accused of rejecting traditionalism in favor of “Western” ideals. One may argue that a culture takes millennia to develop, but is irrevocably changed the second it comes in contact with foreign influence. But who is to say these transformations should be considered negative? Are they infections or simply a dialogue with other world cultures?

When returning to rural Romania again several years later, I noticed the economic progress the country had made in the short time I was away. More cars filled the streets, shops slowly filled empty historic districts, and tractors worked a few fields. I was surprised by the considerable progress that had been made. Yet I overheard several other tourists commenting about how sad it was that rural Romania was modernizing, and that they were not having the kind of authentic Old World experience they had years before. I listened to them with disgust for their selfishness. As I have discussed with a few individuals from Better World Books before, I wonder how people can be so self-centered as to say to a people, “Stay in the past so we can have a more enjoyable vacation.”

Importing literacy and education does not mean the death of a culture, but rather the birth of a Culture of Literacy, one that embraces the future while honoring the past. Respecting a culture does not mean resisting progress and rejecting a higher standard of living; respecting a culture involves documenting it as best as we can in its full integrity and vigor, while marrying indigenous traditions and values within the scope of a more capable culture progressing with the rest of the world. Literacy gives individuals the tools to record their own history, experience new ones, and join the world on its march towards an ever-increasingly higher standard of living. It’s astonishingly selfish to curse anyone to forever sweat with hand tools while sitting in an air-conditioned rail car bound for a 4-star hotel.

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