By John Borst, PP Rotary Club of Dryden, ON

Reading Rotary’s Annual Report-2017 reminds me once again that Rotarians have no idea of where to put their energy and money when it comes to supporting education.

This lack of focus extends from activity at the club community level through to RI’s leadership globally.

I was reminded of this when reading the sub-title or slogan under the term “Supporting Education,” specifically, “Empowering Educators to inspire learning at all ages.

I asked myself: Where did that come from? When did that become our focus? Is that really what we are doing globally?

Over my eight years in Rotary I’ve been to some education breakout sessions at our International conventions, and they have all started out with numbers similar in fashion to the numerical summary in the Annual report.

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In 2012 I wrote a piece, “Literacy First,”  in which I wrote:

“Rotary’s March 1st webinar on literacy began with the assertion that 75,000,000 children throughout the world get no education and over 300,000,000 adults are illiterate. Rotary’s March 10th Newsweekly claims over 770,000,000 people in the world are illiterate.

Back then the area of focus was called “Basic Education and Literacy.” Over the past five years, it is apparent a broadening of this area of focus has occurred. Our focus is no longer on “Basic education and literacy but education in general.

Implications of this change

Let’s start with the slogan “Empowering Educators to inspire learning at all ages.” The phrase implies to me that our focus is now to be on the “educators,” not the 750 million who are illiterate or the 59 million children who get no schooling at all. Really? Do we only work with “educators”? “To inspire learning”? So our goal is to improve an educators ability to have their students want to learn. Is that what Rotary wants us to do? “Inspire learning” means training teachers in the art of motivation.

Presumably, the example supplied by Rotary in its Annual Report fulfils the criteria for a project which is“Empowering Educators to inspire learning at all ages.

Education Light story 500pxFirst Rotary did not empower the educators we empowered the community to have “evening classes to address the ….high adult illiteracy rate”.

Technically, the school does not need lighting during the daylight hours because the sun provides sufficient light for the teachers to teach and children to learn. And that is exactly, the level to which the government of Haiti obviously aspired.

Although the example only alludes to it, the teachers can in the future introduce tools such as the recharging of low-cost notebook computers, or powerpoint presentations into their teaching toolkit. Is this empowering the teacher? Indirectly, yes but again empowerment is first granted to the community. Teachers get their empowerment only from and through their community.

Interestingly, in this example, no mention is made of a community “partner”. In the projects in which either my club or district are involved, either an NGO or local governing body participates.

Lost in this brief report is an important feature of a “global grant”. A global grant cannot be used to build a school or other “capital” improvements. All items must be “consumable”. Teacher training is in one sense a consumable.

As an added note, the water pump appears added as an after-thought yet it is as important as the solar panels because now the school can have flush toilets and sinks and water fountains. Another global grant may be in order, but the community’s participation is necessary for the capital costs to be in place first.

Rotary’s leaders and the Rotary Action Group for Education need to re-evaluate the slogan used in this report.

The issue of Basic Education and Literacy  

An even greater fear is that Rotary may lose its proper focus on the elimination of “illiteracy”. The dropping of the term “literacy” from that area of focus is not a good sign. Reference to teachers not trained to government standards, students enrolled in schools not attaining basic reading and math skills, and even children not enrolled in schools all downplay what should be Rotary’s priority. Eliminate “illiteracy”!

The elimination of illiteracy is measurable just like the eradication of polio. “Inspire learning” is impossible to measure. That is why it should not be our marketing approach to education. Imagine if one day we could say “we are this close, this close to eradicating” illiteracy. The implications would be just as enormous as eliminating the second disease in history. If polio is a disease that cripples the body; illiteracy is a disease that cripples the mind.

Rotary appears to understand this concept when it chose Madhumita Bishnu’s quote for the Annual Report.

education India quote 500pxBishnu understands that of the Six Areas of Focus education particularly, the eradication of illiteracy is the prime requisite for success in the other five areas of focus.

Right now advocates for each “Area of Focus” continue to jockey to replace “Polio.” Like it or not this is an internal political issue. It is an issue Rotary’s Board of Directors should put to bed now before polio is put to bed for good.

My greatest fear based on Rotarians’ past and continued behaviour is that we in America simply do not get it.  The majority of Rotarians want to do something to improve literacy in our local schools. I call this, “misplaced feel good Rotarianism”. Buying books for schools in unimaginably wealthy first World countries is a waste of our time and money. The Dolly Parton Library initiative is wrong-headed and delivers a poor return on investment. It is time for it to end.

Scholarships, the sponsoring of music or public speaking contests, the Adventures in Series for young people, and leadership programs such as RYLA and Rotary Youth Exchange are legitimate ways to provide supplementarily educational experiences.

Countries like Canada and by extension other wealthy economically mature nation states currently spend more than $10,000 per pupil per year on ensuring all citizens start out literate. Such counties do not need Rotary’s literacy money nor should they get any.

When Rotary claims “less than75% of primary teachers are trained according to their nation’s standards,” it is wildly careless with the facts.  Similarly stating “millions of children do not have basic reading and math skills even though half are enrolled in elementary schools;” is a strange assertion to make without some context. In both instants, the question of where is left dangling and tars all nations with the claim. It begs the question,  “Is there a hidden agenda at work to justify Rotary’s involvement with propping up school systems being under-funded by short-sighted state governments.”

We all know where the vast majority of the 750 million illiterate adults and the 59 million children not enrolled in elementary schools live. They live in urban slums in the some of the fastest growing cities of the world’s developing countries.

If Rotary can get into these favelas to inoculate the children with the polio vaccine, it should be able, working with partners large and small, to find a low cost per learner program of literacy for both adults and children. According to the Borgen Project, over 7 million people live in the ten worse slums in the World today. They project a worldwide slum population of over 900,000,000.

As it stands now and as this brief essay has tried to demonstrate, Rotary appears to have no coherent idea of what it even wants to do in support of education. During this decade the situation has become more confused as competing visions complicated by overlapping political ideologies have called for narrower nationalistic educational literacy goals.

Hopefully, the Presidential Conference scheduled for 2 June on Basic Education and Literacy and Peace, in Chicago, Illinois will address this unfortunate circumstance. Peace in the world just may depend on it.

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