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Tuesday, September 28, 2021

If not from reading, where are any non-profitable attributes of functional literacy coming from in middle class?

One could call these non-readers functionally illiterate even if it is true that they do not fit that part of UNESCO’s definition of functional illiteracy which refers to the inability to conduct the business of everyday life — balancing bank accounts, paying bills, deciphering medical instructions.

Written by Alaka M Basu |
Updated: October 13, 2019 9:55:16 am
18th Annual Pune Book Fair to begin on Sept 28 One could call these non-readers functionally illiterate even if it is true that they do not fit that part of UNESCO’s definition of functional illiteracy. (Representational)

I do not know if the widely publicised photograph of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan reading a book by William Dalrymple on the plane back from the United Nations General Assembly is real or staged. But it got me thinking of our changing occupations in the air.

For various reasons, I have been taking many domestic flights lately. On each flight, I find myself conducting a secret poll. I walk up and down the aisle a couple of times, ostensibly to stretch my limbs, but actually to see what my co-passengers are up to. Somewhat disappointingly, no one is up to any hanky panky; indeed no one is up to anything at all, suspicious or innocent.

Largely male, largely in their thirties and forties, apparently comfortably off enough to be flying India’s coolest airline, almost none of my co-passengers seems to want to use their literacy and education to read something during these two or three wonderfully free hours. The rare book I spot is in the hands of a woman of a certain age. In the business class section, which I also dare to walk in while doing my research, a few men frown at numbers in the business papers. I suppose reading to increase one’s stock returns is making very good use of one’s literacy and education. A few of my compatriots in Economy flip through the pages of the airline magazine in the manner of toddlers flipping through picture books.

As for the rest, a few are asleep, a few are staring into space, and the rest have their smartphones on. The only visible text on these phones seems to consist of 140-character sentences. Otherwise, it is invariably some movie that is straining these passengers’ eyes.

One could call these non-readers functionally illiterate even if it is true that they do not fit that part of UNESCO’s definition of functional illiteracy which refers to the inability to conduct the business of everyday life — balancing bank accounts, paying bills, deciphering medical instructions. It is clear that these passengers are not in the least bit handicapped on such transactional matters. However, functional literacy also includes the ability to use reading and writing capability to acquire political, social, ethical and cultural skills and understanding, to learn the value of scepticism, of self-criticism, and to know and appreciate other ways of living and doing things, instead of fearing or despising the ‘other’, whether across one’s country or caste or gender.

If not from reading, where are any non-profitable attributes of functional literacy coming from in this new successful middle class? Judging from the overheard conversations, the fashion statements (blue jeans paired with red thread around the wrists), the American syntax, the unalloyed pride in one’s national past and present, one is tempted to conclude that reading as a source of knowledge, opinions and values has been taken over by movies and television shows, religious and political leadership (often one can hardly tell the two apart), and WhatsApp forwards.

If this is true, then one must beg the mass media to take more seriously their mission to engage the modern, well-off, non-reader; to try harder to provoke self-reflection, grapple with what differentiates common decency from cruelty, and develop an anthropological empathy for other people and other places, even those we believe to be our sworn enemies. The media do not have to become heavy-handed and dull, and thus bankrupt, to do this — all one asks for is regular spoonfuls of something other than self-regarding and boundary-creating news and entertainment. If they can also slide in a few fun-filled minutes of book discussions, or discussions on thorny philosophical problems, or art appreciation, maybe there will even be a rise in the sales of books and in the use of lending libraries, so that our frequent flier travels with something more than an iPhone in hand.

Book publishers and sellers are trying to do their bit to entice readers. The bestseller shelves at airports are chockablock with sexy covers and titles in the fiction section, cheerful covers and titles in the self-help section, and pious covers and titles in the culture and religion section. And yet the traveller-in-a-hurry largely ignores these attractions, zeroing in instead on the kettle-cooked chips and the throat savers.

It could be of course that my airline passengers are a biased sample, that train travellers still pass some of their time with heads dug in a book. And, maybe, in air travel that does not begin or end in the nation’s capital, there still exists a gentler and yet more critical view of life that is influenced by the written word. But these travellers on our premium airline are today’s movers and shakers; if they don’t let books move them, what will they shake our world into?

But then, each time, as soon as my plane touches ground, cellphones are whipped out, drivers summoned, meetings arranged, stock prices checked, hair patted, nationalist vigour displayed and smiles exchanged. And each time, I am again plagued by self-doubt, worried if in fact the non-readers have a much better grip than me on what constitutes the life worth living. This is what books do to you — destroy your sense of well-being. My belief that all is well, that our broken world can be mended, is in any case currently very fraught, thanks to the last two books that I read on a flight — A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli and Davide Enia’s Notes on a Shipwreck. Both come upon by chance, both full of sentences to be reread, both slim easy reads, and both with a foreboding of sadness that is difficult to shake off.

(The article appeared in print under the headline ‘My life and work: The new functionally non-literates’)

The writer is Professor, Department of Development Sociology, Cornell University

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