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CONTRIBUTION · 18th April 2010
Thomas La Porte
Most organizations operate from the top down. That is understandable to the extent that leadership proceeds from the premise that leaders, however they are chosen, offer solutions to concerns that matter to people. It is often said that leaders are those who “make things happen”. More accurately, they initiate processes involving the participation of people generally, and the employment of whole ranges of skill sets and resources which no single person possesses. In other words, it is people working together who make things happen.

So why, then, should initiatives be monopolized by any particular groups of individuals? Do the same groups always have the best solutions? That is unlikely in complex systems involving the input of a vast array of knowledge. In other words, if people can understand that there are procedures for testing and applying ideas, why must we commit to following the directions of only a few leaders? Why not place the emphasis upon the ideas rather than the personalities? Even during a short term of office, new information and better ideas may emerge at any time from any quarter.

Admittedly, there is a critical problem which must be addressed before we can democratize decision making in any realistic sense. That problem is the extent to which people understand (or fail to understand) how information is to be evaluated, assimilated, and employed. I shall characterize this problem as a literacy problem.

By literacy, I do not mean elementary reading and writing skills, which 99% of Canadians possess. Current studies of literacy distinguish five levels of literacy, and globally speaking, Canada scores relatively high. Nevertheless, the numbers are not very impressive when one considers what these five levels indicate. What the data tell us is that Canadians lack high enough standards of literacy to be able to operate a democracy.

Level 1 on the literacy scale is related to difficulty performing even the simplest reading tasks and, according to Literacy BC, 22% of Canadians are at this level. Level 2 corresponds to sufficient skills to complete grade school and comprises 24-26% of our population. In other words, about 48% of Canadians are functioning at a literacy level below what is required to complete high school assignments.

33% of Canadians reach Level 3, possessing only high school level literacy, which is considered the minimum skill level for participating in society. This group can participate in society, they just don’t do it very well. Independent, critical thinking would still be minimal.

Levels 4 and 5 comprise 20% of the Canadian population, and these people are considered to have the skills required to participate effectively in society. Obviously, 20% is a long way from a majority and this raises the question as to what kind of democracy we have when 80% can participate minimally or may do so with limited skill.

I must hasten to qualify the above with a few additional and very important considerations. First of all, the measurement of particular skill sets does not measure intelligence. There is no measure for intelligence. Next, literacy levels do not always coincide with education levels. Many people function above or below their education levels. Like any other abilities, they improve with practice, deteriorate through neglect, and are affected by natural propensities. Without doubt, there are many more considerations than I can discuss here, or that I am even aware of.

There are considerations, however, that are particularly relevant here, and sometimes they are collectively termed 'civic literacy'. This may be described as the ability to relate private problems with the meaning of the self as situated in a public context with social responsibilities. The current lack of this literacy can be seen in the exaggerated emphasis placed upon private concerns, often to the exclusion of social concerns, usually accompanied by rationalizations to make this behaviour seem justifiable. In a society which is driven by corporate economics, where individual responsibilities are minimized beyond immediate financial advantage, and personal gain is glamourized to a point beyond checks and balances, the results are systemically toxic. In other words, the privatization of the self undermines the skill sets which are necessary to act publicly and democratically.

The skill sets that I am referring to include an appreciation of truth as open-ended, or always allowing for improvement. They involve the ability to accept and weigh criticism, welcoming new perspectives, impartially thinking out implications in a statement or position, seeking out creative possibilities of compromise, constructing consensus rather than imposing an unnecessary majority rule which might limit the inclusion of persons or facts, testing theories again and again in new circumstances, and so on. In a word, we are speaking about dialogue, both ongoing and public, in which imperfect solutions are respected and the discussion never ends.

Our educational institutions, political parties, labour organizations, churches, social organizations of every kind, and all of us individually, have much work to do if we truly wish to live in a democracy.

For further information on civic literacy, I would strongly recommend the short essay of Henry A Giroux, entitled “The Spectacle of Illiteracy and the Crisis of Democracy” (http://www.zcommunications.org/contents/60642). Although written from an American perspective, it is highly relevant to Canadians.