What is Literacy?

This morning, over a cup of creamy almond milk and fragrant toasted bread covered in sugary strawberry jam, I thought about an apparently simple question:

“What is literacy?”

The first visual thought that came to my mind was of Pinocchio walking toward his school with his new Abbecedario (ABC book) under his arm.


As soon as it stopped snowing, Pinocchio with his new ABC book under his arm, walked along the road that led to the school and along the road, he fantasized in his little mind about thousands of thoughts and dreams, one more beautiful than another.”

Pinocchio–the protagonist of the children’s novel The adventures of Pinocchio  by Italian writer Carlo Collodi in 1883– is a wooden puppet, created by Geppetto, who dreamed of becoming a real boy. At the beginning of the novel,Geppetto sells his jacket, during a very cold winter, in order to buy an ABC book for Pinocchio. Pinocchio does not understand the importance of the book and, on his first day of school, he sells it for theater tickets.

The story of Pinocchio is set in a context of misery and poverty. Collodi wrote the story at the end of the XIX century in a time when illiteracy was widespread in Italy. In the years when the story of Pinocchio was born, one out of three Italian families was malnourished and illiterate. Poor families were sending their children to work to help support the family instead of sending them to school. Therefore, we can understand why education was something very important for Geppetto.

ciccine1b 2

What is truly uplifting in the story of Pinocchio is Geppetto’s gesture toward education and literacy. He sold his jacket and spent the harsh winter in the cold in order  to give  Pinocchio the chance to not only write and read but also to advance of a  social class and overcome poverty.


What is literacy, then?

Referring to literacy, Italian educationalist Aristide Gabelli once said,

“The utility or the practical value of the schools [and of literacy] is not so much teaching to read and write, as in spreading in our populations in certain ideas and give birth to certain habits […]. Obedience, the diligence, perseverance, patience, the love of order and labor, the habit of saving, self-confidence, a sense of their own dignity, respect of duty, that’s what they need to practically teaching schools.”

In this sense, literacy must be seen not only as acquired knowledge , but also as the ability to successfully use this knowledge to overcome personal and global challenges. Literacy then is not only the acquisition of personal skills–reading and writing–but also the acquisition of a better lifestyle, a better position in our society, and a better global world. Literacy then does not only shape  the individual, but also the society in which the individual lives.

Looking at my empty cup and my half-bitten toasted bread, I think  at Geppetto and at his wise gesture. By selling  his coat for an ABC book he instilled in Pinocchio not only the love for knowledge, but also the dream of a better life.

And talking to himself [Pinocchio] said,

Today, in school, I want to learn to read, tomorrow I will learn to write, and the day after tomorrow I will learn to count. Then with my ability, I will earn a lot of money and with my very first coins that will come into my pocket I want to make for my dad a beautiful cloth coat.”

1. Roberto Lemmi Le Avventure di Pinocchio
di Carlo Collodi. La Prora, Milano, 1947. Terza edizione. Cm 17×24,5, pp. 230.

2.March 15, 1924, in a match factory, a terrible accident killed 21 people. Most of them were girls (between the age of 12 and 15). Photo retrieved from https://stefanoart.wordpress.com

3. ABC Book


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