The Handwriting On The Wall

I took a class this Spring.  It was called, “Big Questions, Big Ideas,” and it was taught by a college philosophy professor of mine, now retired.  Richard Ylvisaker is still an icon on the Luther College campus, however, due to the legacy of 35 years of teaching as well as the continuing keenness of his mind and manner.  The class included excursions into Plato, Dostoyevsky, Bertrand RussellMartin Buber, Clarence Darrow and others as a sort of romp through some very big thoughts and thinkers, indeed.  Professor Ylvisaker still has the gift of provoking thought and guiding to insight; I enjoyed the class immensely for its content and encouragement to read some “big ideas.”  I even felt a little pride that I was able to read these famous thinkers and still understand a good deal of what they were trying to say!  What a great experience.

And then last week, I was back in Nicaragua.  And this time, in addition to the usual partner visits which we made, there was also significant time spent in pursuit of understanding the education dilemma that exists in Nicaragua today.  Winds of Peace has embarked on a new initiative, one that will focus on the need for education transformation and how we might play a role in helping to bring that about.  We met with teachers, activists, economists, university professors and administrators, grassroots educators and more.  In the process, we tried to immerse ourselves into the depths of a problem that is a threat to Nicaragua both current and future.  Simply stated, Nicaragua is in an education crisis.

Pick your statistic.  Only 20% of students finish secondary school, while only 45% even register for any amount of secondary school.  Only 40% of students “graduate” from primary schools, with a majority dropping out between grades one and three.   Among youth between ages of fifteen and twenty-four, almost 25% have less than four grades of school completed (the functional illiteracy rate).  There’s more, but I think you get the drift as well as the scope of the problem.

United Nations development statistics suggest that a country needs to invest no less than 7% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in order to escape the systemic conditions of poverty in any given country.  According to almost all available data, Nicaragua invests 3.8%, although the government statistics tout 10% as their number because they include private funds that are dedicated to education, a reporting strategy which defies common practice but makes the government’s efforts appear laudable.   But it’s a strategy that is short-sighted and dangerous, as the people’s abilities to function in the future grow less and less capable.

In a recent study of ninety-two schools, only four passed the test of reading at twenty words per minute, against an already-low standard of forty words per minute.  I thought about that result during the entire week as I tried to imagine myself in that predicament.  Inability to read.  What must that be like?

It certainly would have removed me from the “big ideas” classroom.  I could not know of Socrates, Dickens, Conan Doyle, Austen, Frost or even Peanuts.  I would not have learned to play guitar, studied law, crafted poems for my mom, written manuscripts or performed public speaking.  I might have been unable to adopt children, read to them at bedtime, or edit their papers in school. I could not read the news.  I would not be writing these blog entries.  In short, my entire life would have been so dramatically altered that an entirely different human being would exist.  And so it is with all of us.

There are some items that we choose not to read, like the license agreements we confront when accessing our computers to a download.  But choosing not to read is far different than being unable to read, and we are blessed to have the choice.

Reading is the throttle on the engine of education.  As Winds of Peace delves more deeply into the crisis that looms in Nicaragua, I know that reading will likely be at the top of the priority list of actions.  It’s how that society will strengthen itself, by having greater access to truth and deeper insight into reality.  In fact, it’s true within our society, as well.  We should probably all remember that the next time we turn on our TVs….

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