A Nation of No Readers

While sitting in a cafeacute with a friend around Piazza, an old man joined us, taking a chair and sharing the table. As he gave a glance to the book in my hand, he was struck and he said “Oh! Franz Fanon, “The Wretched of the Earth”, it is surprising to see a young man of this generation reading such a classic book”.

He told us that he was a figure in the 1960s student movement and the Revolution, as a member of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) and he told us that reading was the preoccupation of that generation. And this statement has truth, though with some revolutionary sentimental bias and a nostalgic mentality.

Hiwot Teffera, the author of “Tower in the Sky”, shares us her memory that besides Marxism-Leninism, the students were voracious readers of the works of Will Durant, Arthur Schopenhauer, Malcolm X, and Russian literary giants like Leo Tolstoy, Maxim Gorky, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nikolai Gogol, Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov and others. The notable figures of the time, such as Haile Fida, Getachew Maru, Berehanemeskel Reda and others were self-educated individuals apart from university education to acquire the knowledge to understand the world and their society.

Dagnachew Assefa (PhD) has also given a similar account in an interview with one radio station. If there are things to take from that generation, one of them could undoubtedly be its hunger for books and avid reading habit.

As the saying goes, with regards to the western world hiding something from Africans, just put it in a book and you have taken it off them. Again, we Africans are dubbed ‘headline readers’, but that headline reading is also greatly missed here in Ethiopia.

We Ethiopians are the same in one aspect, in terms of culture, across the nation – we do not read. A country with more than a 90 million population, a unique alphabet, written languages and an ancient history, even when compared to other African countries, lags far behind.

No doubt, the country’s critical leadership crisis in every walk of life is due to this lack of a g reading culture. Our politics, economy, business environment and daunting social crisis, are largely parts of the outcome of this culture. We do have a culture of social gathering and togetherness, learning from our social interactions, but reading is not on the list.

Across countries of the world, reading is dwindling and diminishing. This is worrisome, not only to the poor countries aspiring to achieve prosperity and democracy, but also to the developed ones.

The National Endowments for the Arts has found that “reading has declined among every group of adult Americans”, and for the first time in American history “less than half of the US adult population is reading literature”. In contrast to this, chief executives of Fortune 500 companies read an average of four to five books a month. And, as the Pew Research Centre’s research shows, in 2013 about 76pc of American adults whose age was 19 or older read at least one book in the year.

Great personalities and achievements in human history were accomplished due to private reading and the self-education of individuals. This entails all from Abraham Lincoln to Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, from Karl Marx to Vladmir Lenin, from Leonardo Da Vinci to Leo Tolstoy and William Shakespeare, from Thomas Edison to Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs and from Malcolm X to Martin Luther King and many more.

Ethiopia is producing men alien to knowledge of their discipline and profession. Their life after graduation is marred by a barren reading behavior and we are witnessing degree holders who are functional illiterates.

This is terrible as a nation, generation and society. The waning educational quality is gly associated with the learning process and acquisition of knowledge.

In Ethiopia, it is not surprising to see students with no acquaintance to basic books and required readings of their discipline. The proliferation of plagiarism, mediocrity and the desire of short-term success is mainly due to an absence of a reading culture.

With the aent of globalisation, where a technological revolution is changing peoples’ lives, reading and self-education have become difficult tasks. Facebook, Twitter and many social media networks are making modern man’s life restless.

In our nation, as well as across the globe, life has become so turbulent, speedy and full of rush. Yes, the world is not as it was when Lincoln was raised and grown. It is neither of the same shape as when Shakespeare lived in and changed the world through play writing and literature.

It is also not the same as the 1960s, where the winds of change and movements across the globe demanded political and civil rights, with reading as the only way out. But it is the age in which Steve Jobs and other contemporaries got inspired by literature and changed the world through innovation.

Even as global literacy rates are high, people are reading less and less deeply. The digital age is posing a difficulty to the culture of reading in the world. Smart phones, iPods, personal computers social media, television channels and others technological instruments are making the task of reading unimaginable to large group of people.

Even then, it is not the technology that is hampering reading, since smart phones, eBook readers and computers widely have helped knowledge and information to spread and to be accessible without boundaries across cultural and economic differences. It is rather our inability to adapt to technological changes and to make the most out of it for acquiring and sharing knowledge.

Indeed, globalisation has played a crucial role in this regard. Countries like Ethiopia need to understand how to embrace modernity and deal with its challenges.

How many Ethiopians use modern technology and social media to share information and knowledge?

It is difficult to say, as the internet coverage and access is very much limited. But, the situation is gloomy with regards to application to reading and acquiring knowledge.

Our intellectuals, whom we believe know better and give intellectual guidance, are keeping themselves at bay. The country desperately needs public intellectuals, well read on various subject matters.

This would greatly enable them to understand new concepts, ideas and dynamics. I think that is why we do not have public intellectuals.

Why are we not producing leaders in every walk of life? Why are we devoid of ideas and thoughts able to change our reality?

It seems that it all is happening because of the dwindling reading culture.

History is littered not only with great leaders, but also great readers who were known for their g reading habits. Abraham Lincoln, who only had one year of formal education, is credited for his voracious appetite for reading algebra, philosophy, science, politics and literature. In fact, he is reputed for quoting and referring Shakespeare.

Thomas Jefferson had one of the most exhaustive personal libraries. John F. Kennedy is also one of the great readers widely known for his extraordinary presidency.

Nelson Mandela was undisciplined and untamed until he read Shakespeare to become one of the greatest leaders of all time for ordering a negotiated transition in post-Apartheid South Africa. He developed his endurance and mastering of his thought at times of crisis and despair in prison by reading W E William E. Henley’s “Invictus” and the smuggled book of Shakespeare’s “Complete Works”.

Gandhi mastered his civil disobedience and peaceful struggle by reading Henry David Thoreau and Leo Tolstoy. Malcolm X, the onetime illiterate street boy and drug dealer, became one of the great voices of the civil rights movement after voracious reading and self-education during his time in prison. Steve Jobs was also known for his inexhaustible interest on the poet William Blake.

In Ethiopia, over the last decade, access to education has been significantly improving and from all parts of the country we see children and adults taking lessons and getting to know the world of literacy. Although the literacy rate is half of the world average, it is improving in our country and in Africa as well, but that literacy is not being translated into an increased or deeper level of reading.

Each year, hundreds of thousands are graduating and joining the regular life of work. But few of them read to change their lives to understand the world in a state of dynamic changes and in a state of an influx of new knowledge.

The problem is not only their post-graduation life, but rather how they have been educated or miseducated. And this has to be changed.

The nation desperately needs individuals with creativity, innovation, imagination and knowledge to cope with the growing competition in this globalised world. Otherwise, we are producing graduates or degree holders devoid of the knowledge and ability to understand their society and the world.

Yes, having written language and ancient history may not help to have a culture of reading books. If we see the number of copies of books and newspapers we publish, it is indeed telling of where we are. Any society has to read first in order to write and to create the culture of ‘publish or perish’ or “book culture”.

As we do not read, we do not write. This means we cannot produce leaders, whether in business, politics, social, cultural, science and technology innovation, entrepreneurship and communication.

While there are certain other ways to learn (observation, experience, interactions), good old-fashioned reading has no substitute. As the saying goes, one is what one reads.

However, this does not mean promoting intellectual elitism to everyone, but rather the idea is to espouse the benefits that are derived by those who have a true and sincere passion for learning. Plato, in his “The Republic”, famously states that “unexamined life is not worth living”. Michel Angelo’s “Ancora Imparo”, which means “I am still learning”, tells us that learning is a never ending process, as life and experience poses new challenges and opportunities. This is the amazing part of reading it introduces one to new knowledge and opens one’s mind to fresh insights and broadening perspectives.

Reading also contributes a lot to cultivating our political culture. In a country where a large number of its people read books, there is a great possibility of harnessing and nurturing fertile political culture. Reading has a role to play in catalysing our democratisation.

More than any other system or forms of government, democracy requires an intelligent and well informed electorate. Voters who could outweigh policy considerations of alternatives and their impact on their daily lives are the life and blood of citizenship in a democracy. Political modernisation largely depends on intelligent and enlightened citizens.

Reading also helps to cultivate the culture of dialogue, mutual understanding and amicable resolution of conflicts and tolerance. Reading helps citizens to understand and defend their fundamental rights. Plurality and the free market of ideas and opinions is an essential element and pillar of a democratic polity and reading cultivates this deeply. After all, it is the people who decide in a democracy.

We have to remember that as the world comes closer to one village, politicians have to be far smarter and more intelligent than the electorate. If politicians, do not read, a civilized and knowledgeable discussion or dialogue and civilized competition could not be achieved.

It is evident that a politician with no understanding of political theories and philosophy, as well as basic concepts and principles will find it hard to attract voters and supporters. Alas, we are witnessing politicians who do not understand concepts of liberalism, communism, capitalism, justice, democracy, liberty and equality.

The towering figures and the “pioneers of change” in our nation’s history, such as Gebrehiwot Baykedagn, Kebede Michael, Hiruy W.Slassie (Blaten Geta) and other literary giants Dagnachew Worku, Abe Gubegna, Haddis Alemayehu, Mengistu Lema, Be’alu Girma, Asfaw Damte, Tsegaye G.Medhin (Laureate), Paulos Ngogno, Berehanu Dinke,Tekletsadik Mekuria, Sebhat Gebre-Egzabher and others are highly credited for their reading habits and dedication for self-education behind their prolific life. And that is why we have seen magnum opus works that are able to shine beyond generations.

But these days, our authors and writers need to find the wisdom to that direction and level of excellence. Since the quality of books written and published has a crucial impact on people’s reading the rule of the thumb for our young writers and aspiring authors ought to be reading a lot.

Reading also has a g role in implanting and cultivating a critic culture. Criticism is required in politics, business, literature and arts, entertainment, science and technology and other spheres. Our society desperately needs critics who understand the socio-cultural dynamics. And this has a lot to offer us, as a nation, and to modernise our soul. This enlightened critical culture could only flourish on the soil of g reading habits.

The key to developing a critical culture is to believe in the power of reading and making it a popular habit. Book clubs and reading groups could help to cultivate the habit of reading.

From a kindergarten level, children need to be acquainted with books and stories that develop their talent. And families need to help their kids by introducing them with books. Teachers need to be examples and role models in this regard, as they are to be easily emulated and influence or shape their students.

To deepen the culture of reading, a government policy that provides incentives for publishers, writers and traders of books would greatly help. Peer groups of reading and critical reflection need to also be promoted. Media ought to have a dedicated time and space for book reviews and discussions.

We desperately need a reading culture filled with the quest for deeper knowledge. It is only then that we can be, as Plato says, ‘the masters of ourselves’, in every sense of the phrase.

Zerihun Addisu He Is a Graduate in Political Science Who Is Now Working As a Foreign Trade Relation and Negotiation Expert. He Can Be Contacted At Zerihun.addisu@yahoo.com.

Source : Addis Fortune

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