Literacy for democracy
Imagine a mother reading to her daughter just before she puts her to sleep, the child responding excitedly to every line as if the story were true. If only this were possible in every home, all children could learn to read and write, and maybe live a free, meaningful life.
Collectively, perhaps we can appreciate the true essence of being free if every Filipino is able to understand the words and phrases that have come to define our democracy. When the framers of our Constitution decided on what qualifications a president should have, it was obvious that they wanted to give every Filipino a chance to lead the country. Hence, any qualified citizen can be president as long as he or she is able to read and write.
The ability to read empowers people, especially the poor and the oppressed. It gives them an opportunity to learn and understand their basic rights, which include the right against unlawful searches and seizures as well as the right not to be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. To be able to write reinforces the exercise of basic freedoms such as speech, of expression, and of assembly.
But knowing our rights and liberties is just the beginning. Reading and writing open the door to a formal education. It cannot be stressed further how they have changed the fortunes of many who have, in turn, inspired many more to overcome their hardships and poverty through education.
Our Constitution provides that the state shall protect and promote quality education, give priority to it, and ensure that it is accessible to all. Notably, education has one of the biggest allocations in the national budget passed by Congress annually. However, while we appear to have a sound national policy for education, reality will show us otherwise. The results of the 2018 Program for International Student Assessment test conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to measure, among others, the reading skills of students sadly shows that the Philippines is ranked last in reading among the 79 participating countries.
Clearly, something is amiss, and timely intervention from the state is critical. In their 2012 book “Why Nations Fail,” authors Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson argue that “the low education level of poor countries is caused by economic institutions that fail to create incentives for parents to educate their children and by political institutions that fail to induce the government to build, finance, and support schools and the wishes of parents and children.”
Although the government has recognized the “urgency of addressing the issues and gaps in attaining quality of basic education,” the root cause of the problem must be dealt with: Schools as well as parents must focus on teaching children how to read and write as soon as they are able to learn. The quality of basic education in general will only improve if we can address our students’ ability to read and write and thus comprehend intelligently.
Unfortunately, while preparations to address our shortcomings are underway, we are suddenly confronted by a pandemic. Still, despite these challenges, we should find ways to resume learning outside the classroom and alternative means of teaching through technology. The path to the education of our youth, who are the future workers, teachers, nurses, and even the next president and leaders of this country, must continue.
A pandemic that constrains government to restrict certain freedoms is nothing short of a test to check the health of our democracy. These uncertain times should be an opportunity to demonstrate our country’s commitment “to build a just and humane society” and gain the trust and confidence of the public. However, it is not uncommon to hear about the hapless man on the street, desperately trying to earn a living, being picked up and detained for one reason or another.
Reading and writing not only improve one’s capacity to learn but could be linked to a better understanding of the law and the consequences for violating the same. When ordinary people understand their rights and obligations better, they are able to participate and contribute more to society and progress. Whether we are in a crisis or not, the challenge remains to treat every moment as an opportunity for the state to adhere to its policy of social justice where “those who have less in life should have more in law.”
Learning institutions strengthen democratic institutions and vice versa. For democracy to flourish, education must go hand in hand with our values. While “everyone has the right to education,” the wealth, success, and power that may come with it should not be used to take advantage of others or advance corruption and greed. That is why we must never underestimate the influence of literacy in the exercise of our democratic processes, because well-informed voters are likely to make more intelligent choices during elections.
Everything that has happened since 1987, when the Constitution took effect, is the story of the democracy we’ve regained. As long as we continue to make the dream of literacy for every Filipino come true, history will march on with each new chapter better and brighter than the previous one. From the simple act of reading to our children at home to teaching them how to read and write properly in school, we can reduce social injustices and inequality, and thus bridge the gap toward achieving a true democracy.
Lorenz R. Defensor is Representative of the Third District of Iloilo.
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