Recently a colleague suggested to me that I put together an abstract for an upcoming conference in Cameroon. I’ve never been to Cameroon, so naturally I did some research. Research, of course, leads to more thinking. Here’s a thought-piece on literacy in Cameroon, just because I’m a thinker.
Learning is changing in the 21st century at a global level. There is a rise in the importance and recognition of non-formal and informal learning. This is particularly important in the case of literacy and languages, not only in Canada, but in other countries as well. Let’s take Cameroon as one example. The Republic of Cameroon is located in central and western Africa. Bordered by Nigeria, Chad, the Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and the Republic of the Congo, it is home to almost 19 million people.
UNICEF reports that the total literacy rate for Cameroon from 2003-2008 was 68% of the population, with 77% of the males and less than 60% of the females having basic literacy skills. That’s significant.
I ask myself what countries in the west can do to improve the situation in countries like this? What are the implications for the 21st century if we do not? Literacy today includes more than just reading and writing. It includes thinking skills, technology and information literacy and the ability to communicate with others. Together these skills allow us to work together, build partnerships and continue to improve collectively, rather than having the gap between those who “have” and those who “have not” widen even further. It is time to close this gap, or at least narrow it. This is more possible today than it has ever been in any point in human history. It is a possibility in the 21st century, if we work towards it being so.
There is a movement in the west to link second language learning to leadership. How can people in the developed nations, particularly the youth, use their own skills in literacy and second languages to improve the lives of those in developing nations? There are those who would argue that we must work first to improve literacy conditions in our own country. I don’t disagree. I also know that 20-somethings get itchy feet. They want to travel, backpack and see the world. What would happen if we created a world where literacy was so important and so “cool” that youth with itchy feet from developed nations were inspired, of their own volition, to combine their travels with a deeply-rooted personal desire to help others in developing nations improve their literacy skills? Wow.
Educational leadership guru Michael Fullan states that “leaders learning from each other raises the bar for all”. The youth of today are the leaders of the 21st century. They live in a globalized, technologically progressive world unlike that of their parents and grandparents. How can we, in the 21st century, mobilize youth on a global level to transcend geographical, political and economic barriers to raise the bar for each other, using the improvement of literacy skills as a starting point?
Literacy is the key to improved education, skills, and employment. These, in turn, build the capacity to improve our situation, increase our human dignity, provide for our families and contribute to our communities. I believe that it is the responsibility of developed nations such as Canada and the United States to work together with other nations to “raise the bar” for everyone across the globe. I believe that literacy and improved language skills are foundational skills for leadership in the 21st century, a century where technology will change at rapid rate. I also believe that the youth from western developed nations must be mobilized to use their skills to help others from around the world.
Eaton, S. E. (2010a). Formal, non-formal and informal education: The case of literacy, essential skills and language learning in Canada. Calgary. Retrieved from http://library.nald.ca/research/item/8549
Eaton, S. E. (2010b). Leading Through Language Learning and Teaching: The Case of Gandhi. Paper presented at the Interdisciplinary Language Research: Relevance and Application Series, Language Research Centre. Retrieved from http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/Home.portal?_nfpb=true&ERICExtSearch_SearchValue_0=Eaton%2C+Sarah&searchtype=keyword&ERICExtSearch_SearchType_0=kw&_pageLabel=RecordDetails&objectId=0900019b80400b42&accno=ED508664&_nfls=false
Fullan, M. (2006). Turnaround leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Index Mundi. (n.d.). Cameroon Literacy. Retrieved June 1, 2010, from http://www.indexmundi.com/cameroon/literacy.html
UNICEF. (n.d.). Cameroon: Statistics. Retrieved May 31, 2010, 2010, from http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/cameroon_statistics.html
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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.