Our view

Literacy empowers, so schools must do a good job

In human history, writing was one of the most consequential innovations. It marks the difference between history and prehistory. About 5000 to 6000 years ago, ancient empires in Mesopotamia and Egypt started to rely on written information. Those documents typically served a religious or administrative purpose. Governments that keep accounts are more effective than those that do not.
Staff member at a Ghanaian internet café in 2009. Fischer/picture-alliance/Bildagentur-online Staff member at a Ghanaian internet café in 2009.

For millennia, the vast majority of people stayed illiterate. Those who could read and write often assumed positions of influence. That was even true of some enslaved scribes, because their masters depended on their knowledge and knew they could not easily replace them.

The printing press was another important innovation. From the 15th century on, written documents could be multiplied fast. As a consequence, more people learned to read and write. Books became popular – and the Bible was translated. The impact was dramatic. Fanatics who insisted on their reading of the holy scriptures played leading roles in Europe’s religious wars in the 16th and 17th centuries. Increasingly, people’s worldviews were shaped by what they read. As we know now, humanity was experiencing a minor ice age which reduced agricultural productivity.

The 16th century conflicts dragged on with God  apparently not granting victory to either Protestants or Catholics. As military technology advanced fast, however, people were ever more interested in rational explanations. Such thinking led to the European Enlightenment, which ultimately resulted in demands for democracy and human rights. This trend, of course, gained additional momentum thanks to ever more people becoming literate.

Today, all those who cannot read and write are by definition marginalised persons. They are:

  • excluded from doing many kinds of jobs,
  • side lined in many ways in both business life and political affairs,
  • unable to collect information on all manner of topics independently,
  • prevented from understanding the wording of legal contracts, and
  • incapable of making full use of the digital devices that increasingly permeate even remote villages in developing countries.

For good reason, the international community has been emphasising literacy as a development goal for a long time. Quality education is the UN’s fourth Sustainable Development Goal. The ability to read and write is the basis on which important competencies such as media literacy, scientific literacy or digital literacy are built. Social justice and gender justice depend on these things. Those who cannot escape ignorance, cannot take their fate into their own hands.

Even in prosperous nations, some people are functionally illiterate. They may be able to decipher a sentence word by word, but they struggle to make sense of that sentence as they fail to understand its context. The scenario is worse in many developing countries. School-enrolment rates are still too low in many places, though they have generally improved considerably in the past two decades. School quality, however, is still inadequate. In particular, government-run schools must get their act together. Every child deserves a good education – and otherwise cannot become a fully empowered citizen.

Hans Dembowski is editor in chief of D+C/E+Z.

Related Articles


Achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals will require good governance – from the local to the global level.


The UN Sustainable Development Goals aim to transform economies in an environmentally sound manner, leaving no one behind.