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Book Extract: Right To Read

The social and political mobilization carried out by the Communist Party in China contributed to an awakening of consciousness of the importance of education

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Asignificant part of the population in Western Europe could read and write even by 1800. In fact, this is a case where demand for literacy/schooling (and individual and community attempts) preceded the provision of schools by the state. The more advanced and industrialized countries of Europe witnessed improvements in mass literacy between 1800 and 1860. Burnett et al. (2005) note that only a minority of adults in industrializing countries lacked rudimentary literacy skills by this time. Substantial sections of the population in Scandinavia had acquired the ability to read even before 1800. Schooling for the affluent sections or even for sections of the working class depended on two sources: families and the church. Private schools that depended on parental expenditure played an important role.

There were also schools supported by different denominations of the church. The enactment of compulsory education (which provided a greater role for governments) came later, in the late nineteenth century. The people who migrated to the US from Europe were driven by the developments in their home countries that determined their demand for education. Home teaching was also an important mode of instruction in the US. In the Nordic countries too, literacy development preceded the expansion of formal schooling. Religious (Protestant) attitudes and pressures seem to have played an important role here. Protestant churches encouraged compulsory education (not necessarily schooling) and literacy development from the seventeenth century onwards in Nordic countries, German principalities, and the US (Burnett et al. 2005). Dutch provinces and Swiss cantons had started formal schooling by the eighteenth century.

Though reading and writing have a longer history in Europe, the events after the French Revolution are interesting particularly in creating awareness among the rural peasantry on the importance of educating their children (Meyer 1976). Until then, teachers in counties or rural areas had been very much part of the church. County teachers in the early nineteenth century were subordinate to the church and the priest. This determined their duties and the way they spent their time.

A major part of the classroom time was used for religious instruction. Preparing children for their first communion was an important activity of the teacher. The heavy emphasis on religious and moral training in schools inevitably reinforced the teacher’s subordination to the church and the priest. The overall quality of teachers was also very limited.

According to government reports quoted by Meyer, most teachers in the early 1830s were only semi-literate.

Two social pressures started operating then. On the one hand, the church became unhappy with the intrusive role of the ‘modern’ government in the education scene of rural France. Though it tried to thwart the attempt of the government through different means, it faced setbacks in the 1830s. It started attacking the state’s educational powers.

This tussle with the state encouraged the church to turn against the rural schools and teachers. It considered these teachers as less-educated laymen. The government (especially the ministry of Francois Guizot) also started to become concerned about the lack of competence among the teachers. This led to a number of efforts to improve teacher competence and knowledge through the expansion of the normal school system, the use of summer school refresher courses, the introduction of a more difficult licensing exam, and the creation of a school inspectorate to report on teacher conduct in the classroom. These efforts to upgrade teacher quality gave an unforeseen legitimacy and dignity to teaching, enhancing the self-image of the teachers and their interest in acquiring education, as well as possibly attracting more educated people to the position of teachers. Nearly 27 per cent of primary grade teachers were graduates in 1848, and 50 per cent in 1863.

However, what is most striking is that the teachers’ effort to change themselves led directly to efforts to change the society around them. They demanded autonomy from the church. Their salaries were lower (at or below poverty levels) before 1850. The low salary and the career and recruitment patterns of teachers determined and reflected their low prestige. Teachers who found it impossible to live on such wages were often forced to look for additional work. It encouraged them to take concrete steps to demonstrate to parents the potential usefulness of schooling. They organized night school courses for adults. Many teachers subsidized these courses by teaching without remuneration, even paying the costs of heating and lighting out of their own pockets. These night schools also gave some form of agricultural education to both younger and adult students. The teachers adopted other strategies too to improve their prestige: they worked as clerks in town councils, and they communicated the value of education to their community. This enabled constant interaction between the teacher and the community. This interaction facilitated the teachers’ involvement with the general societal process of modernization, outside as well as inside the classroom.

We can observe the different stages of literacy development in the experiences of France and other European countries, and this may have relevance in developing countries. The first stage was the spread of literacy pioneered by the church, probably with the intention of enabling people to read the Bible. This led to church or religious dominance in education at this stage. Then there was a shift from such religion-controlled schooling towards a more secular and modern outlook.
This could have been driven by different forces. The emergence of relatively ‘secular’ governments and their push to make education free of religious dogma could have been an important factor. The attempt by teachers to resist the control of the church over their professions could be another such force. However, from the perspective of what encouraged society to expand education or to create an interest in education among its people, both these stages played an important role, and this is important in understanding the relative failure of India in this regard.

However, in both Europe and the US, there were sections who had been marginalized from home teaching or ‘private’ or church based schooling. Legislation on compulsory education helped expand schooling to these groups. The institutional provision for compulsory schooling came into existence in Europe and North America by the late nineteenth century or early twentieth century. By the middle of the twentieth century, compulsory schooling became a practice in many East European states under totalitarian socialist regimes. However, even in those regions where the majority became literate, one could see some minority social groups falling behind in this regard. For example, the expansion of education among two groups in the US—the African-Americans and the American Indians—took place at a much slower pace. These minority groups lag behind in educational attainment even today. The lack of adequate demand for education, and the social factors that we have discussed in the context of India, could have played a crucial role in this regard in the US too.

In general, the spread of literacy was slower in the southern and Catholic parts of Europe until the beginning of the twentieth century. The Latin American colonies (established by the south European powers) also lagged behind in this regard. However, by the middle of the twentieth century, a number of Latin American countries—Argentina, Cuba, Costa Rica, British Guyana, etc.—had witnessed marked improvements in literacy. Political independence had led to an increase in adult literacy levels, but with a lag, in the twentieth century (Burnett et al. 2005). Though compulsory schooling legislations had been passed in a number of South or Central American states by the beginning of the twentieth century, enrolment did not go up immediately afterwards.

Hence, legislation for compulsory schooling may not be the important determinant (Ramirez and Ventresca 1992). The social factors that encourage parents to use the schools (or other means of education, if schools are not adequately available), on the other hand, could be playing a more important role.... Among the countries which were relatively better off in Asia and Africa in terms of schooling before 1940 were Japan, Ceylon, Thailand, Philippines, Seychelles, Lebanon, Lesotho, Malawi, and Mozambique (Burnett et al. 2005).

Organized campaigns were successful in enhancing literacy and developing an interest in schooling in many parts of the world where people were not attuned to formal schooling or reading and writing.

These campaigns were usually carried out by governments controlled by socialist or communist parties. One such case is China.

Efforts to Enhance the Demand for Schooling in Socialist States.

The social and political mobilization carried out by the Communist Party in China contributed to an awakening of consciousness of the importance of education. Night schools and literacy classes as part of communist party mobilization were widespread even before the establishment of communist China. Women’s and peasant associations of the party played an active role in spreading literacy in the countryside.

These movements improved literacy, which had been very low until the communist mobilization. Only 2 per cent of the female population aged 7 years and above had ever attended school, and of that only 1 per cent could be called literate (minimally), while 45 per cent of males had attended school and 30 per cent were literate in the 1930s (Buck 1937: 373 quoted in Chakrabarti 1998). After the emergence of communist party rule, massive literacy campaigns were launched.

Such campaigns involved people from all walks of life, including employees of central and local government institutions at various levels, workers and staff members of factories, mines, and other industrial enterprises, members of rural cooperative teams, craftsmen of cities and towns, and urban residents (Rosen 1992). This had an impact on schooling too. The proportion of girls among primary school children which was only 28 per cent in 1952, had increased to 45.6 per cent in the 1980s. Currently, 91 per cent of the country has instituted compulsory primary education, and nearly 99 per cent of school-age children are enrolled in schools (Naiqing 2013).

It is not that China did not encounter resistance in this regard. Patriarchal attitude was a major constraint prevalent in different fields. Very often male heads of families objected to the idea of women working in experimental fields, as it affected their income. Sometimes, cooperative farms refused to sell fertilizers to women because they felt that they would not know how to use them effectively (quoted in Chakrabarti 1998). Literacy campaigns seem to have helped to overcome such ‘knowledge constraints’. Propaganda campaigns aimed at literacy activists as well as neo-literates were carried out through radio, film shows, posters, banners, etc. Village-level meetings served as places to discuss the strategies of the literacy programmes.


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