I can still remember the first time I learned about Frank Laubach, a Congregationalist minister known in his time as “the apostle to the illiterates,” who almost singlehandedly dragged the developing world into literacy — and for the most practical of reasons.
Sent over — erm, choosing to go — to minister to the warring Moros, a Muslim tribe in Mindanao in the Southern Philippines shortly after WWI broke out, he recognized instantly he had a different problem on his hands, more immediate than the need to share the gospel. No one except the elite were able to read and write, and consequently villagers were being taken advantage of and entrapped on a regular basis by what they didn’t have the means to understand.
For Laubach, who would probably be shocked by the high levels of illiteracy still present in 21st century America, it was second nature to connect the ability to read and write with full participation in civic life. From his autobiography, “Forty Years with the Silent Billion: Adventuring in Literacy:”
“You think it is a pity they cannot read, but the real tragedy is that they have no voice in public affairs, they never vote, they are never represented in any conference, they are the silent victims, the forgotten men, driven like animals, mutely submitting in every age before and since the pyramids were built. It is human weakness not to become aware of suffering until we hear a cry. The illiterate majority of the human race does not know how to make its cry reach us, and we never dream how (much) these millions suffer.”
No slouch himself when it came to academics, before Laubach and his wife headed over to the Philippines he had graduated from Columbia University’s Teachers College, as well as Union Theological Seminary, after completing his undergraduate work at Princeton University. As he contemplated how to teach the locals how to read and write — he thought back on his teaching classes at Columbia and ended up designing a symbolic language that would be extraordinarily easy to master, complete with visual “puns” to help natives remember the material better.
Laubach didn’t see this work as a replacement for his ministry, he saw it as part of his ministry, and an absolute expression of his love for Christ. “The only irresistible gospel is love in action,” he wrote, “helping people where they are in desperate need.”
It seems almost quaint today, when people regularly use their religious beliefs as a cudgel with which to beat others who don’t believe the same things, to think there was someone traveling the world as the unpaid evangelist of literacy to the Third World, making massive inroads into a widespread problem, and seeing it as part of his faith in action. He connected people’s ability to read and write with basic human dignity, and everywhere he talked about it, emphasized the joy he took in that — how he wanted to make learning how to read “easy, swift and delightful.” The process itself was transformative.
“When I first started,” he wrote, “(the people) had their heads down,” but as he “sat beside many of them and taught them one by one, (I) have seen a new light kindle in their eyes; love and hope began to dawn as they stepped out of blindness and began to read. I know that we could free this multitude from their bondage; indeed, their emancipation has already begun.”
By the time Laubach died at 85 years old in 1970, his record of achievements was legendary:
- He had traveled to 103 countries;
- Created literacy primers in 313 languages;
- Written 43 books;
- Opened literacy and journalism centers at colleges throughout the United States;
- Was on the cover of “Time” magazine; and was
- Celebrated by luminaries as “the foremost teacher of our time,” “the father of literacy,” and “one of the top five men in the world today.”
It’s particularly noteworthy that he began his literacy evangelism with a Muslim tribe, who were notorious for their antagonism to outsiders and especially to Christians. “In point of fact,” he wrote in his autobiography, “the Moros had been fighting and hating Christians ever since Magellan discovered the Philippines in 1521.” Today, the same area where he made his initial impact is now under martial law and controlled by radical Islamists, complete with a U.S. State Department warning not to to travel to it. As Laubach and his wife set out on their journey, though, the risks were also high, and he used military language to frame their intent:
“If I were in a battle and with no orders from my captain,” he told the farewell crowd assembled to see them off at Harvard Church in Brookline, Mass., “I would be a coward if I fought where we were winning; I would be a man if I fought where our ranks were thin and we were losing the battle. We are in a battle for Jesus Christ, to conquer the world,” he said, “and the ranks are thinnest and the battle hottest in the Orient. So we are going where are needed most.”
Despite his good intentions, Laubach first had to undergo his own conversion experience, when his efforts to educate the masses met initially with abject failure. The first month in Mindanao he later described as “the hardest of his life.” On his customary evening walk up a local hill to pray, Laubach said he suddenly heard God telling him where his limitations were:
“My child . . . you have failed because you do not really love these Moros. You feel superior to them because you are white. If you can forget that you are an American and think only how I love them, they will respond.”
Looking back on that “terrible, wonderful hour on Signal Hill,” Laubach later wrote, “I became color-blind. Ever since, I have been partial to tan, (and) the more tan the better!” “Every missionary goes through some such experience as that,” he added, “or comes home defeated.”
When funding for his missionary efforts were cut, realizing the vital importance of his work, Laubach popularized his literacy method through the slogan, “Each one, teach one” — deputizing those he had taught to go teach at least one other person how to read and write themselves. This force-multiplier effect, which he came to apparently on the fly and out of dire necessity, resulted in the wide proliferation of his methods and the net result of hundreds of thousands of people learning how to read and write worldwide as a direct result. In his time, his work was widely acknowledged, and he served on a United Nations committee about literacy for years, as well as created Laubach Literacy International, which flourished in the U.S. and abroad as an effective way to increase reading and writing.
Laubach himself might have been horrified — or at least greatly saddened — to learn that despite the impact of his work worldwide, here in the U.S., literacy rates are still far too high, and quite a bit higher than when he spoke about them in 1950, on a television program in New York — or wrote about them in his autobiography. Apparently our rates today are worse than they were even in 1900(!), when he says they peaked at 10.7 percent, before being driven down by hard work in subsequent generations to 4.3 percent in 1930, and 3 percent by 1941. Laubach praised the “less than one percent illiteracy” rates of Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland — along with Japan, blaming some of the difficult on the fact that the English language takes longer to learn, with an alphabet that is anything but regular or phonetic, in fact is “confusion worse confounded.” Undaunted, of course, he also found ways to work with that, and Laubach organizations sprang up across America as well as the rest of the world, focusing on teaching people how to read and write in their own languages.
Remarkably — and disturbingly — rates in various parts of the U.S. today are much higher than they were when Laubach made such prodigious efforts to lower them. In Bexar County, where San Antonio is located, the official rate hovers around 17 percent, with Texas as a whole coming in at 19 percent — or virtually one in five adults who cannot read and write.
The human costs of being unable to read and write are still enormous, still condemning people to less than full participation in civic lives, and often perpetuating a great deal of embarrassment and shame.
After a just-published series here in Huffington Post exploring San Antonio’s status as the nation’s seventh largest city, ultimately resulting in a look at how low levels of educational attainment are linked to poverty and hardship, resulting in under-earning at every level compared to the national average — it’s hard not to want to investigate further the link between literacy and education. “Reading is fundamental” is a bedrock truth for achieving in school, and low children’s reading rates match all too well low levels of educational attainment when those same children reach adulthood. Basic literacy may be one of the drivers behind educational attainment, because if you can’t read and write, doing well in school is almost certainly out of reach.
“Adult literacy changes lives,” says the ProLiteracy.org nonprofit, reminding us that:
- 43 percent of adults with the lowest literacy levels live in poverty;
- Children whose parents have low literacy levels have a 72 percent risk of low literacy themselves, with behavior problems in school and much greater dropout potential; and
- Low literacy costs the U.S. more than $225 billion a year, in lost wages, taxes, and crime, with another $232 billion in health costs associated with low literacy.
(For more details see their remarkable poster.)
At a time when our country seems more divided than ever between the haves and the have-nots, when we seem to have difficulty for whatever reason “connecting the dots” on how equity truly matters for all, it’s instructive to remember Laubach and his willingness to roll up his sleeves, and get down to a root cause of how individuals could enjoy greater social mobility, prosperity and self-regard by simply learning how to read and write. As the individual goes, so goes the community, the state and the nation.
If we ever get to honor Laubach posthumously with something more than a postage stamp — say, a posthumous Nobel Prize — count me in. His goal was nothing less than enabling human beings to reach their greatest potential, starting with one of the “simplest” things of all — learning to read and write — which yet continues to be perhaps the greatest divider between people for whom it came easily, and those for whom it still has yet to come at all.