Massive conference boosts world literacy drives

Cuba News

A conference titled “Pedagogy 2005” was held in Havana, Cuba, Jan. 31-Feb. 4, in conjunction with the first World Congress on Literacy. Over 5,400 people from 51 nations were on hand, 1,300 of them from Venezuela, to talk about educational goals and methodology for teaching millions of people how to read and write.

Most participants seemed to agree that the United Nations’ goal of eradicating illiteracy by 2015, first projected in the 1980s, would not be achieved.

Angel Guerra, a journalist associated with the Mexico City daily La Jornada, recently wrote that in Latin America and the Caribbean alone, 40 million people are completely illiterate, and another 40 million are functionally illiterate, unable to read, write or use math to perform basic survival functions.

Opening the congress, Luis Ignacio Gomez, Cuba’s education minister, predicted that over 800 million of the world’s people will still be illiterate by 2015. They could all become readers, he said, if the necessary money was budgeted to teach them. He estimated it would take $8 billion, the equivalent of four days’ worth of military spending in the world, to accomplish this task. The U.S. spends 56 times that amount every year on its military.

Participants in the congress took in 1,500 presentations, workshops, and special lectures, and they visited Cuban schools.

The meeting’s final declaration took note of the enormity of the world’s educational problems. It paid tribute to Jose Marti, the national hero of Cuban independence, and his concept of a continuum from literacy to cultural equality, resistance and social justice. The statement characterized education as the fundamental tool for social transformation.

The document noted that children’s learning begins early and is dependent on support and protection for families, and schools ought to serve as cultural centers in their communities. It called for respecting indigenous languages and histories.

Educational “nuts and bolts” were reviewed: reducing the number of students per teacher, providing extra resources for children with special health or social needs, and stepping up the quality and availability of schools for teenagers. According to Jose Marti’s teachings, education has to do with values and, as such, is good news for young people’s personality growth and their development of humanitarian ideals.

The final declaration also weighed in on the side of Latin American integration. Teachers throughout “Our America” — Marti’s words — were called upon to “struggle tirelessly for Latin American unity and peace everywhere.” The assumption is that people who are literate, cultured, and committed to the elimination of inequalities will be on the side of unity. It cited the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), the cooperative trade agreement signed in mid-December by Venezuelan and Cuban leaders, as a harbinger of things to come.

Speakers praised Cuban methods for promoting literacy. These methods are now being applied, or are in the planning stages, in 19 countries, five of them in Latin America. Cuban assistance for Venezuela’s “Mission Robinson” has been instrumental in converting 1.3 million adult Venezuelans into readers. New Zealand educators have used the Cuban approach to enable many of the one in five New Zealanders who are illiterate to read.

Education minister Gomez suggested that Cuba’s methods for reaching the 2015 goals of universal literacy and primary education would be far less costly than those envisioned by UN agencies, which could cost $150 billion or more.

The fight for education looms large in Cuba’s so-called “Battle of Ideas.” Cuban President Fidel Castro has devoted much time and effort over many years to advocacy for the idea that culture and education are essential for fixing a world undone by greed and injustice. Castro attended the congress throughout, commented on the discussions, and made two presentations. The ability to read and write, he declared, is also a sure cure for political illiteracy.