Published Friday, September 6, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 5:01 pm
Midlands Voices: Let’s overcome obstacles to literacy

The writer is a volunteer tutor and member of the board of directors for Lincoln Literacy.

UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) celebrates International Literacy Day on Sunday, reminding us that literacy is the foundation for all learning and a basic human right.

Americans recently witnessed a brutal demonstration that literacy is not guaranteed in parts of the world. The courageous fight of Malala Yousafzai to recover from her attack by the Taliban in a Pakistani girls’ school — and the welcome the teenager received at the United Nations this summer when she spoke about the importance of literacy to all people — were powerful reminders that our ability to read and write is a democratic right.

We forget that literacy has not always been a right in the United States. Slaves in the South were denied opportunities for literacy. Slave owners feared a literate slave might learn about opportunities in the North or the West and be better prepared to escape.

Women in our fledgling democracy had little opportunity to learn to read and write well. Most women did not have more than a year or two of formal education; nor did many men, except those of the mercantile, planter or teaching and pastoral orders. The wealthy and the well-born, and some of their wives, were generally better educated, as the letters between Abigail and John Adams attest.

The Puritans and other European Protestants who settled North America brought with them the conviction that men and women must have a rudimentary education to be able to understand the Bible to build a godly kingdom in the new land. In the 1820s, the French observer Alexis de Tocqueville remarked on the literacy among women in the United States. They read the Bible and newspapers. Although none could vote, they were the beginnings of an informed citizenry essential for a democratic society.

That ability to read and form opinions, which Tocqueville believed empowered American women, provokes fear in autocratic societies today. An under- class that can read is enabled to make changes in its status. That is why UNESCO believes that literacy is a basic right.

Today many in our communities do not enjoy that right, thus the importance of the work of Omaha’s Literacy Council, Lincoln Literacy, Humanities Nebraska and libraries, schools and other organizations across our state that educate illiterate citizens, immigrants and refugees.

By 1990, Nebraska was among the top 20 states with the greatest growth of immigrants and refugees. In Omaha, approximately 6,400 Omaha Public Schools students hear one of 99 languages other than English spoken in their homes. In Lincoln, more than 2,100 are English Language Learners, speaking more than 50 languages at home. In Grand Island, 14.2 percent are ELL students, and in Schuyler 45.9 percent are. In my hometown of Crete, I heard Czech spoken on the streets growing up; today, I hear Spanish and Vietnamese.

In 2012, Lincoln Literacy collaborated with Southeast Community College, Lincoln Public Schools, Lincoln City Libraries, churches and other nonprofits to serve 880 adult learners and 305 children in 25 classes a week. Our students represent over 65 countries and more than 50 languages. This is an important investment in the future of our communities and Nebraska.

Workers who can read and write in the hospitality sector, meatpacking plants, construction industries and other enterprises are better employees. Because they can read instructions or warnings, literate workers are less likely to make mistakes or harm themselves and others. Nebraska needs every qualified worker it can get.

The literacy organizations need your help. We need volunteers to teach those who do not know how to read or write English. Lincoln Literacy and others will train you.

As a tutor myself, I can say this volunteer work will reaffirm your faith in our democratic experience and our long tradition of national renewal through immigrants. It will make you glad that you learned English early in life. Our language, with all of its quirky spellings, grammatical exceptions and colorful colloquialisms, is a puzzle to someone from Vietnam, Guatemala or Somalia.

I guarantee you will gain more than you give. Please contact your local literacy organization and join us in giving this basic human right to those who do not enjoy it today.

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