Language is fundamental to human consciousness. Without language, higher levels of abstract thought and insight are impossible.
Language is also fundamental to human society. Without language, higher levels of social structure and culture are unattainable.
As an extension of language, the written word likewise makes possible the achievement of ever greater intellectual and social accomplishment. It is the repository of humanity's accumulated knowledge and the building block for innovation, creativity, and social and economic development of every kind.
In today's globalized world, moreover, the written word has become essential to our collective advancement. Not only are those who cannot read or write cut off from their own opportunities for advancement, but society as a whole is also deprived of the potential contributions that individuals can make to the good of all.
It is a crisis of the worst kind, then, that nearly a billion people worldwide cannot read or write.
According to the United Nations, more than 861 million adults are illiterate; in addition, some 113 million children are not in school and risk living out their adult lives as illiterates.
The period from 2003-2013 has been proclaimed as the United Nations Literacy Decade. And the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has adopted a simple but powerful slogan for the Decade: "Literacy as Freedom."
It is a slogan that perceptively encompasses the idea that knowing how to read and write is about more than those simple practical things, such as processing a business transaction, reading a letter, or finding one's way, that are usually given as reasons to banish illiteracy.
The slogan illustrates the way in which illiteracy also prevents an individual from participating in the give and take of democracy and other forms of social interaction that make diverse societies work in the modern world.
The ability to read and write is recognized as a fundamental human right in the Baha'i teachings. "Knowledge is as wings to man's life, and a ladder for his ascent," wrote Baha'u'llah more than 100 years ago. "Its acquisition is incumbent upon everyone."
Around the world in recent years, Baha'i communities have become deeply involved in literacy projects. In recent years, Baha'i-inspired projects in Bolivia, Cambodia, Cameroon, Chad, Chile, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guyana, India, Malawi, Mongolia, Nepal, Niger, the Philippines...