Not A Passing Fad

Orality will be a factor in missions strategy for the next half a century. That’s the conclusion I draw from reading  Reaching the Marginalised, the 2010 U. N. report on progress in the Education for All (EFA) campaign. 

The EFA goals for 2000-2015 included providing primary school education for all children and reducing by half the percentage of adults worldwide who are illiterate. Two-thirds of the way through that period, several trends are evident:

  • Some countries, such as Benin, have made big strides in increasing enrollment in primary school and in reducing rates of adult illiteracy.
  • That progress often consists of picking the low-hanging fruit. Further gains will be much more difficult.
  • The global economic downturn threatens the recent gains in primary school enrollment. Governments and families are struggling to fund children’s education. Without outside financial help, many children will have to drop out.
  • Millions of children who do stay in school nonetheless leave without acquiring basic skills. “In some countries in sub-Saharan Africa, young adults with five years of education had a 40% probability of being illiterate.”
  • Because of flaws in the way the data is gathered and reported, the reality is almost certainly worse than government-issued statistics indicate.

How is that for discouraging news? 

Admittedly, there are bright spots. Some adult education programs teach adults to read in a matter of months. Some minority children have breakthrough experiences in school. Some communities catch the vision for educating their daughters. May their tribe increase!

But the tragic reality is that adult literacy levels change slowly. In most countries a change of ten percentage points in a generation would be a real accomplishment. Given where countries started from in 2000 and the slow pace of advance, it is likely that the majority of the world will still rely on spoken, rather than written, language for communication in 2040.