The unemployment rate. Inflation. Housing starts. Interest rates. Gross Domestic Product. Trade surplus. The national debt. We are daily besieged by countless indicators giving us a moment-by-moment analysis of where the Canadian economy stands against the rest of the world. I’d love to see another measure of our economic prospects, our potential for sustained prosperity. It seems to me that in the long run, our national literacy rate has just as much bearing on our ability to compete in this increasingly competitive global economy, as anything else. In fact, I think it could be our most important and influential leading economic indicator. I have no research, no data, and no studies to back me up on this, but I believe it, and I think common sense, which is not nearly as common we all might like, supports it.
Governments point to post-secondary education rates and national test scores as measures of our future ability to compete as a nation. But isn’t our national literacy rate a more elemental measure? If our literacy rate declines, do you really think it’s possible for our post-secondary education rate to grow? If our literacy rate declines, do you really think we’re going to be able stay one step ahead of our competitors? It seems to me that GDP won’t be going up if literacy rates are going down. And what about poverty? It can’t possibly decline if literacy falls.
For some, connecting how well, and how many of, our children read well with how our economy stacks up against those of the other OECD countries, may be a stretch. But think about. Doesn’t it just make sense?
So supporting literacy efforts is not just about ensuring that children and adults can experience the joy of being transported to a different place and time through a treasured book. (Although that seems reason enough.) There is more at stake than the happiness and fulfillment of new readers. The ability to read is the first and critical cog in a massive complex machine that keeps Canada on the forefront economically, culturally, socially, and intellectually. Our literacy levels reflect how progressive and enlightened we are as a nation and as a society. So as we’re blithely tossing around economic data trying to understand what makes our country rise and fall, let’s not forget that it’s all built on a foundation of literacy. That foundation needs care and tending. If it crumbles, everything else comes crashing down.