Impact of illiteracy on public office
Although the literal meaning of the word ‘illiterate’ connotes someone who cannot read or right, on a pragmatic level, it could imply ignorance, notwithstanding the ability of the person involved to read or write. That is why, at times, you hear such descriptions as financial illiterate, political illiterate and medical illiterate, implying that, though the person can read and write, he is ignorant of that field of human endeavour. It is in this context that my analysis in this piece will go beyond mere ability to read and write.
Ordinarily, a literate person is considered to be a knowledgeable person. Knowledge in this instance transcends certification by any formal process of an institution into the realm for further studies, through readings or exposure to innovations. Therefore, knowledge acquisition is not a destination but a journey. A reasonable person continues to acquire knowledge till death. That knowledge is important in human affairs is sanctioned by the religions; for instance, the Bible says ‘my people perish for lack of knowledge’.
I also know that the Hadith (sayings and deeds of Prophet Muhammed in Islam) commands the pursuit of knowledge up to China, which used to be the farthest place known to the people of Arabia in those years and a place of vast knowledge. Therefore, we must reckon knowledge in the context of this. This is the premise of my discussion in this piece. I originally chose this topic to commemorate the first anniversary of my contribution to national discourse via this column, and my over three years of leadership discussion on Twitter but, unfortunately, had to step it down last week due to the urgent and compelling nature of the discussion on the judiciary last week. In most of the comments from my readers, the interrogation has always been whether our leaders read the writeups or not. To most people, it is a sheer waste of time and resources to engage a system that is impervious to suggestions, in terms of failure or neglect to read materials in which ideas could be derived.
While I substantially agree with them, my response has always been that it is not that worthless an adventure for some convincing reasons to me. For example, I derive personal joy that I am able to pass across my thoughts; the engagement also enables me to exempt myself from the class of the ignorant ones without ideas, pardon my arrogance, if it appears so. It is also a means of immortalising myself; and for the few that read them, I believe it is capable of impacting their perception of issues or the triggering of their thoughts. Beyond these reasons, one might still be worried for the nation in point of knowledgeable leadership. What all the above translates to is the poverty of reading in the land. This starts with the leadership that does not read anything.
In periods past, and I guess till now, I know that in most public offices, relevant portions of daily news and general information relating to the brief of the public official are often isolated for the attention of the public official concerned. In the glorious days of the nation, such officials ensured they read all the materials and reacted appropriately to issues raised, to the extent, at times, of inviting the opinion writer for further engagement.
This cannot be said of recent times, except in respect of scandalous news items that border their ego personally. In fact, the situation is so bad now that even public officials hardly read memoranda or submissions made in the files to them. They opt mostly for the shortcut of obtaining verbal summary from the relevant subordinates to act, particularly where the superior officer’s vainglorious or selfish interest has been catered for. What am I even saying? Several officials in the leadership cadre are even bereft of the capacity to appreciate the submissions. They pay no attention to details, nor even read in-between the lines, where effort is even made to peep into those submissions, a situation where leaders parade all sorts of certificates, empty in most cases and nonexistent but forged in others. They pretend mostly to be what they are not. That this impairs taking of informed decisions on issues is an understatement. How would a country grow with this manner of ignorant leaders? Our expectation is, therefore, misplaced if any miracle is contemplated in this regard.
Now, what about the followers? They are equally as disastrous as their leaders when it comes to reading. They compete largely and favourably with their leaders in terms of ignorance. They do not only in a whole lot of instances lack the capacity to read any material, even where they do, or even the few among them with the capacity to read, create no time for such. They run after uncertainty in most times in the name of survival.
They thereafter complain that things are bad when they themselves do not read so as to avail their leaders any idea where the leaders are even receptive to it. Anyway, because they do not read, they lack ideas and could as well be described as ignorant lots. They even lack the technique or how to interrogate issues and pass across messages. Ordinary bedtime stories for children have largely disappeared in our homes. This probably explains sensational reporting in our newspapers as that is all Nigerians relish. Informative papers hardly sell. I don’t blame the media that engage in such sensation, as they need to survive, and they know the quality of the people as well as their choices and expectations. Kudos to them for the economic decision.
In most civilised nations, reading is a culture and habit that gets the people informed, both leaders and followers. In buses, on the trains, ferries, et cetera, you find the citizens in those countries reading one material or the other. The importance of reading books is succinctly captured by Al-jaahiz, an Arab writer, quoted in the book, Do Not Be Sad, by al-Qarni, as follows: “The book is a companion that does not praise you and does not entice you to evil. It is a friend that does not bore you, and it is a neighbour that causes you no harm. It is an acquaintance that desires not to extract from you favours through flattery, and it does not deceive you with duplicity and lies.
“When you are poring through the pages of a book, your senses are stimulated and your intellect sharpens…Through reading the biographies of others, you gain an appreciation of common people while learning the ways of kings. It can even be said that you sometimes learn from the pages of a book in a month that which you do not learn from the tongues of men in a century. All this benefit, yet no loss in wealth and no need to stand at the door of the teacher who is waiting for his fees or to learn from someone who is lower than you in manners. The book obeys you by night as it does by day, both when you are travelling and when you are at home. A book is not impaired by sleep nor does it tire in the late hours of the night. It is the teacher who is there for you whenever you are in need of it, and it is the teacher who, if you refuse to give to it, does not refuse to give to you. If you abandon it, it does not decrease in obedience.
And when all turn against you, showing you enmity, it remains by your side. As long as you are remotely attached to a book, it suffices you from having to keep company with those that are idle. It prevents you from sitting on your doorstep and watching those who pass by. It saves you from mixing with those that are frivolous in their character, foul in their speech, and woeful in their ignorance. If the only benefit of a book is that it keeps you from foolish daydreaming and prevents you from frivolity, it would certainly be considered a true friend who has given you a great favour.”
Adjunct to this lack of reading culture in Nigeria is the lack of appreciation of the need for documentation of events, issues and ideas. No wonder, therefore, that our sense of history is poor. Lack of education made the leaders of Nigeria ban history in the educational curriculum of secondary schools.
They do not appreciate the essence of knowledge and documentation, which history encourages. Because we do not even know our takeoff point, due to lack of documentation, we miss our destinations most times. Institutional memories are easily sacrificed in Nigeria for flimsy reasons. The rash way of disengaging the officials in the system leaves much to be desired in the preservation of institutional memory, much less preservation of information. The net effect of the lack of reading culture and documentation renders the leaders to be illiterates and the followers in the same stead. A case of the blind leading the blind.
Be that as it may, the point remains that, in Nigeria, the citizens are yet to treasure the art of reading and documentation. We therefore appeal to Nigerians to start imbibing the culture of reading and documentation.