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Spotlight on Memory of the World heritage: Educational reform in Poland and Nicaragua

© Polish Central Archives of Historical Records/Draft act establishing the Polish National Education Commission

UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register includes archives detailing Poland’s creation, in the 18th century, of the world’s first ministry of education and a Nicaraguan collection, including objects from t-shirts to diaries, dating from its successful national literacy campaign in the 1980s.

Imagine what it would be like if you couldn’t read. If you couldn’t decipher the meaning of the words in this article, a street sign, a leaflet announcing an immunisation programme or the instructions for use of a pesticide.

One in five of the world’s adult population is illiterate, and on International Literacy Day UNESCO highlights how people are empowered by being able to read and write, and the importance of literacy for informed decision-making and social development.

Its Memory of the World register includes two groundbreaking events that did much to change literacy levels and access to education in their respective countries.

Polish National Education Commission Archives

© Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences/Map of national schools together with property

Quick facts:

  • Year of submission: 2007
  • Year of inscription: 2007
  • Country: Poland
  • Heritage item: Link

In 18th century Europe, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth undertook a massive reform of its education system which would effectively see the creation of the world’s first ministry of education. It began with the creation, in 1773, of a Commission of National Education by the Polish parliament. This secular body took over responsibility for national education.

Over the next 20 years it carried out a general reform, creating a system of tertiary, secondary and parochial schools that followed newly developed curricula and used textbooks written in Polish. The Commission encouraged universal education for children of all social groups and set up schooling for women, which was revolutionary at the time. It included a wide range of subject matters such as maths, moral education, poetry, physics, chemistry, history and geography.

This educational revolution took place against the backdrop of the Age of Enlightenment, a wide-ranging intellectual movement that was based on reason and science, rather than religious belief.

The work of the Commission came to an end in 1795, but it helped to sow the seeds of a national identity and establish basic education ideals that still exist today. The National Education Commission archives, inscribed in the Memory of the World register in 2007, is a collection of the records and documents from 1773 to 1794.

Part of the archives was destroyed during the Second World War. The remaining documents are held in four locations in Poland and are gradually being digitised to make them more accessible.

National Literacy Crusade in Nicaragua

Quick facts:

  • Year of submission: 2007
  • Year of inscription: 2007
  • Country: Nicaragua
  • Heritage item: Link

Another example of how strong political will can change the education landscape is the National Literacy Crusade in Nicaragua.

This five month campaign began in March 1980, shortly after the Sandinista government came to power following the overthrow of the Somoza family dictatorship.

Some 60,000 young people were sent out into the countryside, where they lived with the rural population and taught them how to read and write. At the same time, volunteer teachers from abroad joined the Crusade to prepare teaching materials and train the youngsters for their mission. Within the five months, an estimated half a million people had been taught basic reading, bringing the national illiteracy rate down from over 50 per cent to 12 per cent.

The archive collection documents this extraordinary mobilisation of one group of the population to help another, and was inscribed in the Memory of the World register in 2007.

It includes letters, interviews, diaries, maps, textbooks and even t-shirts. Also included is a set of sound recordings made in rural areas of people describing how they survived the oppression of the Somoza dictatorship.

These cassettes are unique so back-up copies need to be made. Frequent natural disasters and Nicaragua's tropical climate are a constant threat to the survival of the archival collection.

Memory of the World Register

Listing of items such as these on the Memory of the World Register is intended to generate interest and help with the conservation of documentary heritage which helps us to understand our society in all its complexities.

However war, social upheaval, looting, illegal trading, destruction, inadequate conservation and lack of funding have all had a disastrous effect on the conservation of our documentary heritage.

A growing awareness of this, together with UNESCO’s belief that the world's documentary heritage belongs to all and should be preserved and protected, led to the establishment of its Memory of the World programme in 1992.

The programme works to identify and facilitate the preservation of valuable archive holdings and library collections worldwide, and assists with their dissemination. Inscription of a collection in the Memory of the World register, created in 1995, is part of the process.

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