Legacies of Critical Literacies in Global Citizenship Education

Legacies of Critical Literacies in Global Citizenship Education
Section: Fields of Study


The Global Education Monitoring Report (GEMR) is an annual UNESCO publication that reviews data and research on the development of education globally. A policy recommendation was put forth in the 2016 GEMR according to which provision of critical literacy in schools is associated to political stability (GEMR 2016, 96- 111). Accordingly, that children need schools in which they have the opportunity to learn critical forms of literacy. Critical literacy is in this approach seen to support the development of peaceful non-violent societies (GEMR 2016, p. 103).

This commentary is structured as follows. I start by providing historical context for the concept critical literacy. Subsequently, I discuss the GEMR recommendation by comparing data on literacy and indicators for political stability. Finally, I call for greater attention to social and political factors in analyses that feed global education policy recommendations.

Critical literacy in the Enlightenment Movement

The following is a paraphrased quote from one of the early scholars in education and citizenship. Education aims to develop a sound criticism, so that a student learns to discern truth from lies in the stories constructed by others (Rousseau 1762, Émile, p.112). The quote illustrates that critical literacy was for Rousseau the development of an ability to discern among sources of information in an approach that centres on the student.

Student-centred learning is broadly accepted and supported today and we think of these ideas as evident and rather uncontroversial. However, in the late 1700s Rousseau’s ideas were controversial as he went against the mainstream of his time in proposing that religious or political authority was not the pre-eminent source of knowledge. Learning to discern among sources of information was in Rousseau’s view an important skill to develop already at a young age.

Rousseau’s ideas fed into the Enlightenment movement. The agenda of the Enlightenment movement revolved around three core goals:

(1.) To support reason-based practices in society,
(2.) To increase the possibility of more people participating in the production and consumption of publicly available texts
(3.) To promote an ethical agenda, in which each human being is understood valuable.

Humanity in its entirety was understood to benefit from opportunities to develop the faculty of reasoning of each and every-one

The Common School Movement

Some of the early proposals for public schools that would teach not only privileged children but all children, i.e. the first proposals for common schools and for national public curricula, were proposed by educational scholars who expanded on the ideas from Rousseau. The following lists a few of the scholars who followed the Enlightenment movement in proposing that societies will prosper if all citizens are taught to read and write.


Johann Pestalozzi Switzerland ca. 1790
Mary Wollstonecraft U.K. 1792
Nikolaj Grundtvig Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland ca. 1844
Horace Mann U.S. 1848

The goal of public education was formulated not only by the scholars listed here but many more in different countries. Applications of Enlightenment ideas into various contexts include the Jewish Enlightenment Haskalah (Feiner, 2004). Another example is that of Muslim scholars and universities in North Africa (Najjar, 2004). In various local adaptations following the principles of the Enlightenment movement, the development of public education has been pursued. The goal has been to support ordinary people to become citizens who are able to fend for themselves, their families and communities. Global Commons Review 2 s Spring 2018 s Cover s Contents s About Us 75 Citizens able to contribute to a reason-based development of society. Not by blind compliance or culturally learned habits, but by informed critical reasoning. Promotion of public literacy was for the first time connected to an international diplomatic effort to construct peace in the 1948 Declaration of Human rights (United Nations, 1948).

Data on literacy and political stability

Literacy rates for three low-income countries (Afghanistan, Burkina Faso and the Central African Republic) and two high income countries (Greece and Italy) are illustrated in Table 1. Comparison of literacy rates with a freedom-of-press index (Table 3.), produced by the non-governmental organization Reporters without borders, shows that literacy levels in a country do not relate to the freedom of press in a direct manner. For example, the trajectory of Greece from having in 2005 held first place among the five countries compared and then having descended to third place in 2017, indicates a fast governance related change that is unrelated to literacy levels.

Comparison with the World Governance Indicators (World Bank, 2017) for absence of political violence and terrorism (Table 4.) confirms a rank order in which the country with the least political violence (Italy) coincides in this five-country comparison with the highest literacy attainment. The politically most violent country in this comparison (Afghanistan) coincides with the lowest literacy rates.

This five-country comparison shows that freedom of press coincides with the absence of political violence. Burkina Faso, Italy and Greece stand apart both in regard to absence of political violence and Global Commons Review 2 s Spring 2018 s Cover s Contents s About Us 76 freedom of press. The comparison shows also that the highest literacy rates do not coincide with freedom of press. While high literacy rates do coincide with high-income status and comparative absence of violence, the data reviewed remains mute with regard to the proposed causal relationship between literacy levels of a country and the maintenance or attainment of political stability. The high ranking of Burkina Faso in the freedom-of-press index for 2017 indicates somewhat contrary to the GEMR policy recommendation (GEMR, 2016, p.103) that political freedoms associated to political stability, such as freedom of press, are not associated to literacy levels in a given country.

Concluding Discussion

The possible ways by which literacy rates are both affected by the incidence of political conflict and on the other hand can contribute to the occurrence of political conflict are complex. Much remains to say about the limitations of the data reviewed here. I do however think that this simple exercise of comparing publicly available data does in a rather clear manner call for problematizing the recommendation according to which critical literacy can be causally associated to the attainment of political stability or peace. The recommendation is further undermined by the fact that the data collected by UNESCO agencies assess literacy levels. Data collected by UNESCO agencies such as UIS do not attend to the question of critical literacy.

I am not proposing that there is no correlation between the presence of critical literacy in schools and a possible mitigation of violent conflicts. What I am proposing however is that the GEM report Global Commons Review 2 s Spring 2018 s Cover s Contents s About Us 77 is with great likelihood constructing the proposal that a correlation exists between the occurrence of critical literacy and political stability on a tradition and assumptions that draw on the agenda of the Enlightenment movement.

The findings problematize a global call for critical literacy. In light of these findings, I propose that global education policy recommendations are likely to gain in relevance if the social and political dimensions of the frameworks on which recommendations build are articulated in an explicit manner rather than assumed.


Feiner, S. (2004). The Jewish Enlightenment. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Najjar, F. (2004). Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and the Egyptian Enlightenment Movement. British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 31(2), 195–213.

Rousseau, J.-J. (1957). Emile: de l’éducation. Paris: Garnier.

UNESCO. (2016). Global Education Monitoring Report. Paris, France:

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Retrieved from http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0024/002457/245752e.pdf

United Nations. (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. United Nations. Retrieved from http://www.ohchr.org/EN/UDHR/Documents/UDHR_Translations/ eng.pdf

© 2018 Global Commons Review. All Right Reserved.
Visitors to the site: 384K
ISSN 2475-6687 (Print)
ISSN 2475-6695 (Online)
Developed by Visual Slim