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Illiteracy in America: a growing threat to democracy, author says

They are an invisible population -- a constituency without a common voice and with little collective recourse: ``Sixty million adult Americans cannot read a daily paper, a tax form, or the warnings on a can of pesticide,'' says Jonathan Kozol, activist, educator, and author of the recent book ``Illiterate America.''

``This is not an interesting dilemma. It is a crisis.''

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Mr. Kozol defines ``literacy'' in the United States as being able to read at the 10th-grade level -- a level he says is mandated by the ``real print demands of the workplace.'' The move from a smokestack economy to the ``information age'' means that ``the individual who reads at the fifth-grade level is no longer literate,'' he says.

Private estimates put the number of adult illiterates at between 40 million and 74 million -- roughly one-third the adult population. Kozol cites a 1979 Ford Foundation study and a 1973 University of Texas survey stating that 25 million US adults read at less than the fifth-grade level, while another 35 million read at less than the ninth-grade level. Such estimates fly in the face of Census Bureau statistics saying the US is 99 percent literate.

Kozol's statistics show that 60 percent of the inmates at US prisons read at only a fourth-grade level; 15 percent of urban high school graduates read at less than a sixth-grade level; one-third of all welfare mothers are functionally illiterate.

Those statistics have galvanized new literacy efforts from such groups as the National Commission on Excellence in Education, the Library of Congress, and the Coalition for Literacy. Now, in his new book, Kozol gives additional voice to this ``silent minority.''

``How long can a democracy prevail when two-thirds of the population cannot speak to the other third, when it has to economically support the other third?'' Kozol said in a recent interview with the Monitor.

And illiteracy is growing, says Kozol, pointing to the burgeoning influence of television and other visual media, and the subsequent demise of newspapers and print. He sees these trends as ``symptomatic, not causative'' of illiteracy. As a consequence, Kozol says, tens of millions of US adults operate as ``half citizens'' in a world in which newpapers, leases, voting instructions, job applictions, even the Bill of Rights, are beyond their reading ability, and TV serves as the chief conveyor of information.

Such a state of affairs threatens both the economic and political foundations of the country, Kozol says. He traces an annual $120 billion loss directly and indirectly to the nation's illiterate. That cost, he says, includes lost tax revenues, unemployment compensation, industrial accidents, as well as budgets for prisons, welfare, courts, and law-enforcement agencies. That makes illiteracy, according to Kozol, ``the one social issue of the 1980s that unites every [political] ideology from hard self-interest to the more compassionate.''

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Kozol is in the latter camp. A self-described ``old-fashioned Kennedy Democrat,'' he is most concerned about the cost to illiterates themselves and to democracy, a system that relies on the ``informed consent of the governed.'' Without the ability to read, Mr. Kozol says that ``[the illiterate] cannot choose. . . . They vote for a face and not a body of ideas.'' Without access to regular means of political discourse (``they can't write a letter to their congressman''), illiterates contribute to the erosion of the public's critical faculties.

Kozol has long been a liberal champion of the underclasses. By turns a summa cum laude Harvard graduate, a Rhodes scholar, and a public school teacher, Kozol first caught national attention in 1967 with his award-winning book, ``Death at an Early Age,'' a candid look at a decaying Boston inner-city school. Since then this writer and tireless ideologue has persisted in social reform. Illiteracy is his most recent cause.

``I actually became aware of the problem when I was working on `Death at an Early Age,' '' he says, looking like the proper Boston intellectual in tweed blazer and gray flannel trousers. ``It took me two decades [as a teacher] to figure out that parents couldn't read the notices I sent home with the children.''

As befits this dogged Democrat, Kozol contends that illiteracy has been fostered not by the individual's inability, but as ``a logical consequence'' of the kinds of schools, cities, and even ``pedagogic class selection,'' occuring within the US.

``Illiterates ask themselves `Why can't I [read]?' Well, there are only two answers. Either, `I'm inferior' or `I've been short-changed.' We don't need to blame the victim,'' Kozol says. While critics have applauded Kozol's meticulous dissection of the problem, many have taken issue with the author's knee-jerk liberalism.

``It is very easy to say that illiteracy exists because of poor schools. But that is not always the case,'' says Dr. Anabel Newman, an assistant professor of language education at the University of Indiana and the director of the International Reading Association.

``The [illiteracy] problem differs from community to community,'' she says. In some places such as West Virginia, jobs are needed to provide an incentive for literacy. But in other areas like New York City, more funding is needed for existing programs.''

Where critics and Kozol concur is on the impact of illiteracy in the home. Outside of military and prison populations -- the latter Kozol labels the ``single highest locus of illiterates'' -- the largest percentage of illiterates is found among young nonwhite females, he finds. This gender distinction makes illiteracy particularly prone to being passed from parent to child.

``Illiteracy doesn't breed illiteracy, but it does set up the preconditions for perpetuation of lack of reading skills,'' Kozol says. Because the children of illiterates are likely to stay illiterate themselves, Kozol cautions that, ``for the first time we are in danger of having a hereditary illiterate underclass.''

Yet the author is careful never to make illiteracy a racial issue. While black and Hispanic populations sustain higher percentages of illiterates -- 44 and 56 percent, respectively -- the majority of illiterate Americans today are white. ``Illiteracy has nothing to do with race,'' Kozol says, ``but it does have an obvious correlation with poverty.''

Despite this bleak situation, Kozol calls illiteracy one of the ``few solvable problems'' -- if it's given an annual $10 billion federal budget.

Current federal funding is $100 million a year, or about $1.65 per illiterate, according to the author. This ``underfunding'' keeps the public federal literacy program -- Adult Basic Education (ABE) -- ineffective and inaccessible, he says. ABE currently handles 2 million illiterates a year and waiting lists are frequent, says Kozol. Of those participating in the program, only 60 percent complete it and less than 2 percent vote for the first time as a result, he says. ``I can think of no statistic more disturbing,'' he says.

What Kozol advocates as the core of a successful literacy campaign is the mobilization of scores of volunteer tutors staffing community-based remedial reading programs across the country.

But Kozol hastens to add that volunteers are ``useless'' without a paid staff to find, train, and supervise them. ``We cannot do it without money,'' he says. ``If the nation is at risk, then it is the nation's responsibility, not the village elders' in New Hampshire.''