Museum of the Literacy Crusade - Educating a Nation
The term ‘crusade’ can be defined as a campaign or movement but is more often associated with the words ‘battle’, ‘fight’, ‘war’ and ‘struggle’. In fact, all these synonyms are quite appropriate when referring to Nicaragua’s ‘Literacy Crusade’. This war against illiteracy was an extensive, nationwide battle against the ill effects of poor education. The struggle took the form of a nationwide campaign designed to educate the masses and empower them with the ability to read and write. Nicaragua was not the first country in the region to attempt such a crusade and so they had the experience and help needed to ensure the highest levels of success. The campaign was coordinated by Father Fernando Cardenal who worked with a team and who frequently corresponded with Brazil and Cuba in order to gain experience and help from these nations.
The Literacy Crusade was made possible by the national reformation which had just taken place. Just fifteen days after coming into power, the Sandinista revolutionaries announced that the country would embark on a six-month campaign against national illiteracy with a special focus on the rural community where approximately 60-90% of the people were illiterate. Two teams were formed. The first was made of housewives, workers and government employees who targeted suburban areas as they could not afford to leave work to travel into the countryside. The second was made up mainly by high school or university students who volunteered to work full-time in the rural parts of the country where they could educate those without access to education. These youths were integrated into rural families and, since some were as young as twelve, parents were often not too keen on the idea. Teachers too were convinced to participate in the program, despite the fact that many of them did not want to work so closely with their students. In the end more than 95,000 people volunteered during the campaign which ended up lasting a period of two years.
In the first five months, the illiteracy rate was reduced from 50% to 23% in people over ten years of age. During the course of the campaign, illiteracy was reduced by 37.39% with the highest percentages of illiteracy occurring in rural areas, despite the fact that more than half the rural population were made literate by the campaign. More than this, the campaign had the effect of binding the people of the country together which had a stabilizing and unifying effect on the entire nation. The campaign resulted in some 400,000 people learning to read and write to the extent where they were able to pass a grade 3 level exam. Unfortunately many proved to be ‘un-teachable’ – most likely due to lack of adequate materials and teaching skills. However, by and large the crusade was seen as being very successful and Nicaragua received the UNESCO ‘Nadezhda K. Krupskaya’ award in recognition of this fact.
Unfortunately the success of the campaign was short lived. By 1990 Nicaragua had a new ruling party in government and the country continued its decline. As a result many Nicaraguan youths today have limited literacy skills. The Museum of the Literacy Crusade, which can be found in Managua, is largely neglected but it provides interesting insight into this brief period of intellectual enlightenment.