One of the limitations with the way the question of low literacy is raised in our society is that it is often done so in a technocratic, rather than a democratic, manner. The difference is that a technocratic approach sees society as a series of problems to be solved, while a democratic approach sees society as a number of individuals that we must live with.
One of the fundamental ways that we live with other individuals is through a process of communication. The degree to which we communicate is the degree to which we can say that we are living in a democracy. Literacy is integral to this process; it increases our capacity to act as citizens.
The problem is not that some individuals can’t read or write; the situation is that our society doesn’t value reading and writing as a means of communication, but treats it rather as a tool to control, to dominate, to gain advantage, to retreat, or, what is more commonplace, to simply ignore, other people.
But when members of our community are low in literacy their capacity to act as citizens is diminished. And, as a democracy is predicated upon the equality of all its citizens, then this also diminishes our democracy. And that, in one way or another, diminishes everybody.
Perhaps this is why even the more literate among us tend to react to the question of low literacy in a technocratic manner.
The situation that we have created is this. According to a national survey done in 2011/2012, 48.8% of Tasmanians, aged 15-75 years, were below the minimum level of literacy required to fully function in a modern society. The results of that survey were measured along a 0 to 5 point scale, with level 3 being the minimum level, below which (levels 0-2) people are said to be low in literacy.
Although this survey was completed six years ago, it is still the best benchmark we currently have. It comes off the back of two previous national surveys, done in 1996 and 2006, which yielded consistently similar results. So this is a long-term, relatively stable situation that we have created.
Such surveys, statistics, and measurements are important. We can’t do without them. We can use such figures as a way to put the world into perspective. It would be wrong, however, to confuse these figures with the world, as if they were identical, as if the world were static or fixed, and in so doing, to lose our perspective.
But this is exactly what was done when these 2011/2012 results first came out. The national media response was to compare the figures across all states, and to argue that Tasmania had the worst levels of literacy in Australia. Various experts and associations in Tasmania at the time replied to this charge. They chipped away at the statistics, parsed the results, and argued that the levels 0-2 are on a sliding scale, so it didn’t necessarily mean that these people couldn’t read or write at all, it just meant that people within these cohorts have varying degrees of being able to read and write. Low literacy therefore became simply a problem to be managed. One Tasmanian newspaper even ran an article under the header: “49% literacy ‘not as bad as it looks’” (July 11, 2012).
Already, following the previous survey in 2006, the Tasmanian government had put a policy in action with the aim of shifting the statistical needle by 10 percentage points in ten years. And, because the survey covered ages 15-75 years old, they targeted adult literacy. The goal posts have since shifted, however, to now want to achieve a nearly 12 percentage point shift among adult literacy by the year 2025. The aim is to have 40% of the Tasmanian adult population below the minimum level of literacy required to fully function in a modern society.
At least then we could say we had the ‘best’ literacy rates in Australia.
But that would not be as good as it looks.
Let’s consider more closely these figures, through a democratic lens, the better to see past them, at the ever-shifting reality on the other side. The national average for levels 0-2 from that last survey was 44.2%, which suggests that Tasmania was, and is, being used to avoid dealing with what is a national crisis in literacy. Queensland, for example, had the relatively ‘best’ levels of literacy, with 42.7% of their population existing below the minimum level required to fully function in a modern society; that is, without the required capacity to be citizens in a democracy.
So what really is the difference between ‘best’ and ‘worst’ in this situation? The difference is between a technocratic approach that trades in percentages, and a democratic approach that deals with people. Now look again. In 2012, Queensland had 1,429,900 people below the minimum level of literacy, while Tasmania had only 181,500 people in the same situation. In reality, Tasmania has the fewest number of people with low literacy in Australia. But this also means that we have less reason to excuse ourselves from the responsibility of addressing this reality comprehensively.
But such a perspective shouldn’t make us too complaisant.
At first sweep, it looks like shifting 12 percentage points before 2025 would require converting close to 1500 individual adults each and every year to a level of autonomous, functional literacy. But that would only be true if no new functionally illiterate adults were being created during that same period. And Tasmanians are giving birth to around 5800 babies each year. According to the relatively stable levels of low literacy since the first survey in 1996, this suggests that around 2800 of those newborns, each and every year, are fated to be potential clients for our adult literacy services. And if those services – with good people working hard, but already stretched to the limit – are even managing to convert close to that figure, then we are, at best, maintaining the status quo. At worst, we are going backwards. It is like bailing floodwater with a thimble.
And that would only be true if those individuals who have successfully worked through an adult literacy program, keep up their reading and writing, which is an ongoing, lifelong commitment, and don’t backslide.
Of course, it would seem that what is required is that our existing strategies need to be complemented by a series of comprehensive strategies for all Tasmanian babies and infants below school age, then throughout formal education, as well as ongoing, lifelong support structures for adult reading and writing. And that requires a society that values reading and writing as a means of communication, of building community. It requires citizens. And, as a democracy is predicated upon the equality of all its citizens, then such a comprehensive set of policies and public action would also enhance our democracy.
Matthew Lamb is founding editor of Review of Australian Fiction and former editor of Island magazine. He is currently writing a biography of Frank Moorhouse. Here he writes for Communicating: The Heart of Literacy – find more at chattermatters.com.au.