X marks the spot

One of the greatest sources of joy for me is reading and writing. I have always loved the chance to disappear into another world, courtesy of a well written book. And writing has been a creative outlet for me for longer than I can remember. Reading and writing is a form of escapism and fuels my imagination.

I have taken my literacy and education for granted for most of my life, because everyone around me is literate and had the opportunity to go to school. And because a life without the ability to read and write seems unfathomable.

However, not everyone is as fortunate as me. And throughout history, literacy and education have been the great divider between the haves and the have nots. Literacy literally lifts individuals out of poverty. It not only enriches an individual’s life, but also then creates opportunity for an enhanced education. That education provides countless opportunities to be self-sufficient.

Global literacy levels

According to The World Bank[1], nearly 14% of the global population is illiterate. That means that over one billion people lack access to information that affects their lives. The World Population Review lists 38 countries where less than 75% of the population is literate. In 13 countries, more than 50% of the population is illiterate. That affects over 125 million people in those areas.[2] 

Even in the United States, the National Assessment of Educational Progress says that only 35% of 4th grade students are proficiently literate.[3]  And from a gender perspective, 15 million girls around the globe will never have an opportunity to learn to read and write in primary school.[4] 

A personal perspective

Sometimes it is hard to personalise those statistics though – they are just numbers. This is especially true for those who live in environments that are abundant with resources and opportunity. But for me, the concept of literacy recently had more of a personal impact. 

I have enthusiastically embarked on a quest to find out more about my Scottish ancestors.  My co-pilot on this journey, Isabel the brilliant genealogist from Bute, continues to find more twists and turns in our family story than I could ever have anticipated. Slowly but surely, scandal, intrigue, romance and tragedy have emerged.

It was a decidedly unhappy discovery to understand that some of my female forebears were completely illiterate. One of the saddest tales involves my great, great grandmother, Mary Woods.  When Mary married William Morris on the first of July in 1878 in Rothesay in Scotland, Mary was unable to sign her name. Instead, she made a small cross, which someone else noted as “her mark”. Although this was not uncommon for that time, to see it was strangely confronting.

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Not surprisingly, her options in life were far reduced as a result of being illiterate – prior to her marriage, she worked in a factory.  No doubt back then, options for a woman born into modest circumstances were fairly limited regardless. After a very difficult life, Mary passed away at the young age of 38, leaving behind 6 children. 

The very real impact on business and society now

Times have changed significantly since the 1800s and the world is different to the one that Mary Woods inhabited, as literacy rates have vastly improved. Overall, the global literacy rate is now much higher than it has been before. The literacy rate for all males and females that are at least 15 years old is 86.3%. Males aged 15 and over have a literacy rate of 90%, while females lag slightly behind at 82.7%.

Despite the increase in literacy, in Australia 14.1% of our population have very low levels of literacy and over 40% have literacy levels below what is considered sufficient.[5]  

This is important for businesses to understand, as it means that a reasonable percentage of our population are not as literate as we perhaps think they are. In a time when there is a war for talent and a skills shortage, this is a problem.  

As poverty is so often associated with illiteracy, this creates the need for an expanded welfare state.[6]  Breaking that cycle by providing the right opportunities for education is the key. And breaking the stigma associated with illiteracy (at any age) is important.

Companies that lead the way to literacy

One of the reasons why I have always enjoyed supporting The Smith Family is because they have a huge focus on education as a way of creating opportunities for disadvantaged Australian children.  If children are provided with an opportunity to be literate and have an education, this gives them a fighting chance to break the cycle of poverty.

There are also many global firms that have recognised the need to focus on literacy and are leading the way:

  • Toyota sponsors literacy in American communities through its Toyota Family Literacy Program. These programs connect children to spread literacy.
  • The U.S.-based retailer Target sponsored literacy programs in connection with the Annie E. Casey Foundation. This non-profit focuses on children and at-risk youths to address illiteracy early.
  • Facebook sponsored a research grant that focuses on innovative ideas for solving illiteracy.

As organisations become more aware of their responsibilities around ESG, understanding the social impact on communities, particularly in developing economies is vital. This includes literacy.

A final reflection

Today, I feel enormous gratitude for my education and if you are reading this, I encourage you to do the same. I am very much aware that education is such a huge differentiator in life – it provides you with choices, gives you freedom and helps you to dream.  For me, a love of learning has helped me to carve out a life that many of my ancestors could never have dreamt of.

Ps.  This article includes an excerpt from my blog about my adventures in Scotland: www.thekylesofbute.com

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[1] https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.ADT.LITR.ZS

[2] https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/literacy-rate-by-country

[3] https://business.tutsplus.com/articles/literacy-worldwide-why-its-important–cms-37947

[4] https://plan-uk.org/blogs/the-importance-of-education-how-literacy-improves-lives

[5] https://www.informationaccessgroup.com/literacy_levels.html

[6] https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED321032