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Celebrating International Literacy Day

The UN declared September 8 International Literacy Day back in ’96 in order to celebrate the achievements of activists and new readers across the world. Because literacy is a broad concept mostly centered around critical thinking, literacy is positively linked to community health, maternal health, and family health. It’s also difficult to teach in an educational setting post-NCLB, when teacher training might include paying attention to and encouraging individual students, but teacher evaluation is based on standardized testing. 

Teaching literacy in the US is something some have described as an “orphaned responsibility.” This has historically been something  low-income communities of color have challenged as institutions, parents, activists, and teachers. Because of the race and class dynamics associated with generational illiteracy, being able to read and process particular types of information becomes one of the unmarked educational legacies of class and race privilege. 

You’d think this would be something progressives would get. Not so! Last week, an older blogpost from Psychology Today began making the rounds of my Facebook friends list. This blogpost, “Why Liberals Are More Intelligent Than Conservatives,” argues that liberals generally have higher IQ scores than conservatives. I don’t really want to spend much time talking about how IQ tests — which generally are short pen-and-paper tests that measure knowledge and not aptitude — are flawed, how their results more accurately reflect consistent access to educational structures, food, and training in particular modes of thought. I do, however, want to highlight the classism (and latent racism) of a progressive movement that so quickly embraces racist rhetoric about IQ tests, particularly when we KNOW that some of the researchers spouting that crap are overtly racist themselves. I mean, how can we, as progressives, as activists, go about forming serious political alliances with marginalized groups when we’re relying on classist and racist educational standards to bolster our own egos?

Wait… back to literacy! Critical thinking is a teachable skill, one often under-funded and under-taught in American school systems, and the legacy of “each one teach one” remains a stirring reminder of the power of literacy to change a life, a government, a nation.  So, for this year’s International Literacy Day, let’s celebrate the secretly radical worlds of progressive librarians, teachers, and administrators, as well as those activists making use of “activist literacy” to challenge structures of power. 

5 thoughts on “Celebrating International Literacy Day”

  1. Sam says:

    Random tall white guy chiming in again with a random response.

    Really at some point there needs to be an initiative worldwide that makes it totally non-optional to allow anyone to be uneducated. It should be something more basic than a human right, it’s key to the survival of the species.

    It’s complicated I know, and everyone’s definition of educated is a bit different, the idea of some baseline is impossible to define, but all folks should be at home in a library and be able to compose an email that clarifies how they feel about this comment in the language of their choice.

    1. Maria says:

      Hi Sam!

      That actually is part of UNESCO/UN’s goal, which is why you’ll notice that a lot of the “Year of…” and “Decade of…” projects they have on now include media, health, technological, and financial literacy in some way or another. I feel like Obama’s education reform project mirrors some of the goals of this project, but he’s being really careful not to call attention to that, because of how pundits like O’Reilly call the UN anti-American.

      I kinda wish Mona Sutphen ( was on board as one of his ed consultants. AFAIK she talks about the “innovation engine” of the American public school system in the book, but doesn’t really work on ed stuff.

  2. Jennifer Kesler says:

    Huh. The idea that conservative = less intelligent is also faulty because it’s just not true. While I do find that critical thinkers tend to find conservative ideas generally unsatisfying (because they rest on the irrational idea that traditional=good), you don’t have to be smart to be a critical thinker, and some very smart people I’ve known can’t think critically. Like you said, critical thinkers are made, not born.

    1. Maria says:

      It’s all kinda of messed up — particularly because “conservative” in terms of the test they’re describing isn’t the same as “conservative” politically. Surprise surprise! POC, particularly black people, show up as being SOCIALLY CONSERVATIVE (the def the test is using), and POC in generally are ill-served when using IQ tests as a metric of intelligence… even tho that group is more likely to vote Democrat!

  3. Anonymous Coward says:

    Every once in a while Psychology Today makes some justification for why liberals are smarter than conservatives.

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