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It was a misty morning. I hurried through hordes of people, jumping over platforms, kicking one or two that came in between’ and I barely made my way towards the train. Although, I had a reserved seat but the general rules do not in a Mumbai local as do laws of nature. It is the survival of the fittest, always has been.
As it happened, I found two persons sitting across each other, reportedly, engulfed in a heated discussion. One of them was wearing an Indian made version of ‘skull candy’ headphones, so I presumed him to be a student. The other was an old man constantly spitting ‘som-ras’ on the railway track.

The student boasted of an erstwhile schooling and argued that he could read and write and was thus educated. While the other explained that the mere ability to read and write didn’t mean education. As the train reached its destination, both fathomed at the incompetency of the other. What they still didn’t understand was the real difference between literacy and education.

There is an established misconception in our society that education is synonymous to literacy. A large sector believes it to be one and the same, while some believe that literacy is a step-stone to education. Although, there lies truth in the former but it would be categorically wrong to imbibe literacy as the sole form of education. Then what is the difference between literacy and education?

Literacy is defined as acquiring the ability to read, write and understand. It is entirely concerned with the art of reading and writing. It provides information that can be used as mean to attain knowledge. Where information is the theoretical know-how of a subject and knowledge is the awareness about the use of that information. It is the primary form of information transmission for this time and era.

Literacy provides a person with the ability to acquire information to develop the know-how called education.

While an educated person can be a literate, every literate person cannot be called educated. Education is a broader concept which takes into consideration the all round development of a human personality. Whereas literacy is a narrower concept that tends to maintain the status quo. Education aims to make a person rational i.e. to think comprehensively and reason scientifically. It includes developing skills and learning to maneuver them in the right direction.

A common belief maintains that educated people are bereft of superstitions, biasedness, irrational socio-religious beliefs, and customs.

Also, education brings revolution in the way of thinking. It encourages a person to think out of the box (creatively). It inspires a person to be curious, innovative and develop a rational behavior. The relative behavior is dependent upon people, where the form of education varies. A person’s education is dependent upon her/his field of work and may not necessarily liberate her/him from mental slavery. 

The following situations can convene the real issue between literacy and education:

  1. A person may be literate and also educated;
  2. A person may be literate but not educated;
  3. A person may be illiterate but still be educated;
  4. And a person may be illiterate and uneducated.

Another misconception nurtured by our society is that a person with an educational degree or a diploma is educated. If that was the case than the founding fathers of our Constitution would not have been called learned. A literate person may need an educational degree to prove his education, but a learned person doesn’t need a degree to prove it. For example “the educational institutions in India are brimming with literates but are failing to produce educated beings”. A student cannot be considered educated with a mere ability to read and write. The student has to be changed in whole, which includes teaching him to be socio-legally responsible towards the society.

Further, literacy is not the sole form of education. An illiterate person can still be learned just like emperor Akbar and poet Kabira were. For example, a politician being illiterate may still be highly skilled in the art of being a politician; a painter in the skill of painting, a musician in the art of making music etc. Another prime example would be of Late Matangini Hazra (late freedom fighter from Bengal, India). She was primarily illiterate but at the age of 71 led a procession of six thousand supporters to take over the Tamluk police stations. Despite being illiterate she was learned and educated in the art of politics and being a rebel.

Reading book after book the whole world died,
and none ever became learned !
                                                                    — Kabir Granthavali, XXXIII.3

The main purpose of education is to direct a person’s behavior, while literacy is one of the tools towards that direction. Education is a combination of experience and practice which not necessarily includes literacy. An illiterate sailor with a lifetime worth of practice and experience in the sea might still be learned and educated. Historically many saints and philosophers, though illiterate guided the coming generations with their experienced teachings. Which in short means ‘knowing the knowable is education‘. As said, the sky is the limit for educated, but educated in what’ is to be determined. 

There have been some famous illiterate people from history:

  • Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, a King of the Franks and Roman Empire beginning in 771 A.D. was believed to be illiterate during his youth.

  • Isabella Baumfree, once an African-American slave in New York, made an escape in 1826, became a Christian, changed her name to Sojourner Truth and dedicated herself to spreading evangelism. Despite her illiteracy, she was an effective proponent of women’s rights and the abolition of slavery.

  • Genghis Khan was an illiterate Mongol leader (emphasis ours). He created a code of laws for the Mongol people and united them to conquer lands four times the size of those taken by Alexander the Great. His establish empire was the largest ever established, stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Sea of Japan, with over 700 tribes and cities under his rule.

  • Joseph Jefferson Jackson, nicknamed “Shoeless Joe”, was an American outfielder who played Major League Baseball in the early 1900’s. He is remembered for his performance on the field. He was illiterate and often had his wife sign his signature.

The greatest issue with our society is that it denotes literacy at par with education. It strives to make a country full of literates but not educated. It is an undeniable fact that illiteracy is a root cause of many problems but illiteracy in itself does not denote a lack of education. A literate can read, write and understand but may not turn out to be a responsible person. Education may not necessarily construe people to be visionary but can make them rational and responsible citizens. It’ is high time that we understand the difference between literacy and education because the mere ability to read and write is not enough. 

Pool for thought: What is the difference between education, literacy and being Learned? Why do we call our forefathers and the framers of our constitution learned people, but not literate or educated?


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