Friday, February 17, 2012

Literacy and Democracy


The link between literacy and democracy in contemporary Papua New Guinea needs our attention at this time. The general election is around the corner few months away. Papua New Guineans will vote their favored leaders to represent them in the National Parliament.

The election process is both cumbersome and challenging for most people. The educated ones will find the voting exercise meaningful and easier to do, but the majority of Papua New Guineans living in our rural villages will need more than a helping hand to participate in the election process.

More than 50% of our people have no basic literacy to help them with the election process. Most times we assume they understand the meaning of, democracy, election, voting system, and what makes good leaders. Most people who vote do so because of what they understood as an important exercise in citizenry.

Last Christmas students in some of our tertiary institutions used their vacation period to educate and inform their communities about the election process. That was responsible citizenry at work. I commend the students for the excellent initiative.

I would like to take the time to reflect on what it really means to be fully literate in our society. I draw from E. D. Hirsch, Jr.’s book Cultural Literacy: What Every Americans Needs to Know (1987). The book is an important reference in our discussions of literacy and democracy in Papua New Guinea. Hirsch explains in his own words the following remarks, which I thought are relevant insights that we can gain from as we think about literacy and democracy: “No modern society can hope to become a just society without high level universal literacy. Putting aside for the moment the practical arguments about the economic uses of literacy, we can contemplate that even more basic principle that underlies our national system of education in the first place—that people in a democracy can be entrusted to decide all important matters for themselves because they can deliberate and communicate with one another. Universal literacy is inseparable from democracy and is the canvas for Martin Luther King’s picture as well as for Thomas Jefferson’s.”

This passage has affected my thinking about literacy in Papua New Guinea for a long time. It is impossible to separate the observation and practice of democracy with how literate a nation is in counting itself as a member of world democratic nations. The inseparable link between literacy and democracy influences the way a nation sees, defines, and asserts itself as a vibrant democracy.

The word democracy is a big English word that needs explanation and elaboration to those who have never heard of it, let alone write it. What does it mean? How easy is it to explain the word to our village people with no literate skills and experience?

In his attempt to explain the word ‘democracy’ Raymond Williams makes several distinctions. Democracy is a word that came into English in the 16th century in Europe. Since then it has changed in line with historical developments in the world. There are two modern arguments on democracy, according to Williams: “In the socialist tradition, democracy continued to mean popular power: a state in which the interests of the majority of the people were paramount and in which these interests were practically exercised and controlled by the majority. In the liberal tradition, democracy meant open elections of representatives and certain conditions (democratic rights such as free speech) which maintained the openness of election and political argument.” In PNG we follow the liberal tradition of democracy as much as we can by observing open and free elections.

“The mode of choosing representatives is more important than the proportion of the people who have any part in this,” is how Williams desribes it. The right to vote for representatives clearly establishes the modern usages of the term in Papua New Guinea. Yet, this right is sometimes held to ransom in PNG when elections are riddled with violent intimations and covert manipulations that end up in courts or never at all.

The link between democracy and literacy is understated at times. Democracy is fully appreciated once nation states enable levels of literacy to rise to the level of a literate society. The measure of a literate society is where all citizens are able to read newspapers as a source of useful information. A measure that Thomas Jefferson described so elegantly in his often quoted remark: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”

I am reminded here about what Professor OttoNekitel once said about the role and use of language in PNG’s trilingual Parliament: “the informational needs of about 80 per cent of the country’s citizens are not met by those responsible for discharging such services. Arguments put forward to date tend to support the view that access to the most vital information that people need for them to better their lives and that of the nation is far from adequete…In essence…the average Papua New Guinean knows little about what is happening in the country, especially in regard to many of the important public issues. Communication problems of one type or other that impede or impair packaging, handling, and dissemination of vital information by various informational sources to different target groups at various levels of society need a close examination and suggestions on how the problem can or may be alleviated.”

“With the majority of the nation’s citizens so ill-informed,” Nekitel continues, “democracy becomes a privilege of an elite and a mockery of the rights of the majority. Papua New Guineans have no need to be reminded of the spillover effects of this lopsided state of affairs, as many are very familiar with the negative effects of communication processess prevalent in society—this despite improved communication and print media technology.”

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