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Into The Shadows: Illiteracy In America

Updated on November 8, 2014

Illumination Into The Stigma Of Illiteracy In America

“No amount of charters, direct primaries, or short ballots will make a democracy out of an illiterate people.”

~Walter Lippmann

As I stood before the brightly illuminated voting screen on that sunny Tuesday afternoon not long ago, I became aware of two people in the booth next to me. What first drew my attention was the fact that they were both crowded into the small, flimsy confines of the voting cubicle and that the man was reading the issues to the woman aloud. At first, I mistook them for a couple and thought it rather overbearing (and potentially illegal) for a partner to be privy to their better half's voting practices. When the woman repeatedly asked for sections to be reread and clarified, the realization that she was unable to read it herself became apparent. I gave it another moments thought, then went back to my own decision as to whether or not I wished to have a plague of panhandlers and prostitutes descend down upon the bucolic region of Wilmington as the pundits predicted they would surely do if casinos were allowed to be built there.

Afterwards, I reflected on the everyday difficulties being illiterate must pose, as well as the dedication of purpose that it must take for someone to publicly admit that they are illiterate just so they could cast their ballot. On the heels of that thought, another one arose; how could an illiterate person, by just being read the issue to be voted on, be able to make an informed decision based on the face value of the words? The language contained in such issues are couched in such a confusing language that most people have some trouble understanding them. Without being able to read a comparative analysis or an unbiased commentary on the issues, how can one truly make an informed decision? One may easily find themselves held within the whims of a vast propaganda machine.

As I began researching this topic, I found many groups and individuals calling for the retraction of an illiterate person's voting rights for the very same reasons I have stated above. Upon a second reflection, this argument seems to fall apart. There are plenty of other people that can speed read through War and Peace yet don't really fathom the nature of many of the issues. Taking an illiterate person's right to vote away is a very real threat and one with a long precedence. In many states, literacy tests were imposed on the people to prove they were worthy of voting, and as a way to disenfranchise “unwanted” groups. As recently as June 8, 1959 (Lassiter v. Northampton County) the Supreme Court ruled that literacy tests for voting in North Carolina did not violate the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.

And what of the political advertisements and campaigns themselves? Are they catering to a less literate society by speaking through imagery and catchphrases rather than discussing in detail the actual problems that face our nation? A study in The Princeton Review compared presidential debates throughout the ages with results that are very telling. Utilizing a standard test that measures the minimal educational that one would have to possess to understand the language used, they determined that George W. Bush spoke at a sixth grade level (6.7) while Al Gore fared little better at a seventh grade level (7.9). During the famous Kennedy/Nixon debate, both candidates rated at the tenth grade level. To demonstrate how far we have fallen in terms of literacy, in 1858 Abraham Lincoln spoke at the equivalent of an eleventh grade level while Frederick Douglas scored higher at a twelfth grade level.

The Mechanics Of Illiteracy

“Viewed freely, the English language is the accretion and growth of every dialect, race, and range of time, and is both the free and compacted composition of all.”

~Walt Whitman

With the utterly complex and seemingly arbitrary rules of the English language, it's a wonder any of us can read at all. Even fancying myself to be a relatively literate composer of prose, I still get confused by some of the most basic rules of grammar. When teaching my children the fundamental principles of language, I find myself getting frustrated when confronted by heteronyms (words spelled the same, but with different meanings), homophones (words that sound the same, but have different meanings) or any of the other wondrous and apparently unexplainable quirks of linguistics. How must it be for someone who is presumed to be literate to maneuver their way through their day to day existence without revealing their secret? How stressfully debilitating and potentially dangerous this must be. Could you cook a simple recipe or even select the appropriate items to do so? Would you be able to interpret the instructions and dosages of medicines and their possible conflicts with other medication for yourself or even your child? Would you be able to read street signs to figure out where you are or warning signs to keep you safe?

According to Kathy Bohachek, Executive Director of Miami Valley Literacy Council (MVLC), over 230,000 people in the area are at the lowest reading level, perhaps being able to distinguish a few isolated words or maybe not even being able to recognize the letters of the alphabet at all. The MVLC tutors those still in school as well as adults who may be taking English as a second language, those identified with learning disabilities as well as some who have just fallen through the cracks of the American educational systems and left behind. With people learning English as a second language or those who have learning disabilities, processes are available that are fairly straightforward. There are teaching patterns and various methods to help those that suffer from different degrees of dyslexia or the use of colored Irlen overlays to ease the difficulties and discomfort that reading causes to those who have been diagnosed with Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome (SSS). For those who have been forgotten, the process can be quite challenging.

The biggest challenge is to overcome years of fearfulness; fear of discovery, fear of being seen as “stupid,” fear of coming into the light. Most people tormented by illiteracy are very good mimics. You may even know someone who is illiterate and not realize it. As an extreme example, you only have to look as far as John Corcoran. John managed to cheat his way through high school and into college only to become a high school teacher himself for eighteen years. He utilized ingenious methods to hide his illiteracy from his fellow faculty members as well as his students, creating a visually based lesson plan and having all of the written work unwittingly performed by his aides. He finally learned to read at a sixth grade level at age forty-eight.

The Magic Of The Written Word

“Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.”

~John Locke

Your eyes skitter across the page, dancing along the broken yet familiar symbols of the alphabet all lined up, row after row. Your eyes reflect the images of these symbols along various neural pathways within your brain, which then quickly rifle through a vast lexicon of known words and, failing to find a suitable match, slows down the process, taking each symbol individually, breaking them down into a phonetic cypher until a word is formed. Lightning quick, the word is checked, cross checked and matched to its accorded definition. It is then rechecked within the context and framework of the sentence that its contained in to make comprehensive sense of it. All of this is done on a subconscious level so that, after the drudgery of decoding is complete, the reader is left only with the imagery that the words were meant to convey. If you actually had to consciously think about each process and its function, you'd still be staring blankly at the Y at the beginning of this paragraph.

All of the above processes, however, are all for naught if one does not have a real comprehension of what they have just read. Beyond that, to make use of what one has just read, one has to use critical and correlative reasoning to mold it into either a place of wonderment or a useful tool. Utilizing lateral thinking, comparative reasoning and applied imagery, static ideas can become the impetus for action. Yet it is this very action that, historically, has caused literacy to be controlled.

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The Conspiracy Of Education

“Propaganda is a soft weapon; hold it in your hands too long, and it will move about like a snake, and strike the other way.”

~Jean Anouilh

Literacy has always been used as a measure and a way to categorize the different classes of a society. During the Middle Ages, in many cultures, literacy was the purview of the clergy alone. Some in the sixteenth century found themselves in the hands of The Inquisition, accused of heresy for the ideas that reading may have spawned in their minds. Since that time, reading has been deemed “subversive” by many cultures...even in America. During the Civil War era, teaching a slave to read or write was a punishable offense. There is even a school of thought that any formal educational system is yet another way to disseminate only specified reading materials and dissuade critical thinking for fear of radicalization. Could there be a grain of truth that the literacy rate in America is falling, whether intentionally or unintentionally, due to our own apathy?

Consider that many infants can identify company logos before they even know the alphabet. By the time a child is ready to enter into kindergarten, he or she may have been exposed to more than 5,000 hours of television programming. This gives way to what, in her 1972 work, Eda LeShan termed “The Sesame Street Syndrome.” By emphasizing clear cut answers that were “right” and “wrong,” it removed the need for critical thinking, replacing it with rote memorization. It also stresses the fact that children were taught in very small, entertaining sound bites, accepting the answer without question. This may not seem like such a bad thing on its face, but consider how few people would read Shakespeare, but would shell out $12 to see a movie version of Hamlet revamped ala' High School Musical. Move now into the current educational system where acquiescence and docility through standardized testing supplant excelled performance. A system where self esteem supplants excellence. We graduate, diploma in hand, and enter into the workforce, where pictographs have replaced instructions, where scanners “read” the prices and cash registers automatically tell you what change to make.

While all of this may sound somewhat Orwellian or paranoid, it is a historical fact that an illiterate society is a society controlled. Within modern times, people have been ostracized and blackballed for their writings, their ideas and their interpretations. Even today, there are many heated arguments within communities and courts pertaining directly to the dissemination of the printed word and the ideas that those words may convey to “impressionable” minds.

Moving Forward

"My mother said I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and more intelligent than college professors.”

~Maya Angelou

Some of the above text may seem somewhat off topic for an article about illiteracy, but that is because the term “illiteracy” is one that is more than a little bit elusive. An illiterate person is not necessarily one who cannot identify the alphabet or can only recognize a few isolated words. A functionally illiterate person maybe able to make out almost every single word in this article, but would be unable to connect those words together to comprehend what this article actually says. They may even be able to quote sections of this article, but it would lack understanding, becoming nothing more than rote regurgitation and mimicry.

What is to be done? We, as a society, have to take action ourselves. You may feel that this is a problem that only affects those who cannot read, but you would be wrong. It lowers the society as a whole. It costs businesses and taxpayers an estimated $20 billion a year. It detracts from our current quality of living as well as our hopes for the future. The first thing to be done is to turn off the television. Sit down with your children and read with them. When your children ask you questions, answer them. If you don't know the answer, seek the answer out. If you don't have children, share your knowledge and volunteer to become a tutor to those that can't read. To find out more about what you can do to help, contact your local literacy council and ask to become a volunteer.

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    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 3 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      That is very interesting. Some of my friends have told me that my Hub articles are too "high brow" for them and I should change my style. I also refuse to do so except around the margins such as shortening paragraphs.

    • JTRyder profile image
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      John Thomas Niswonger 3 years ago from Dayton, Ohio

      Even within the newspaper industry, I have been told by many editors that I need to "dumb" down my writing because the average American has a fifth grade reading level. I refuse to dumb down my writing and perpetuate the cycle. If someone is interested in an article I have written and they run across a word that they are unfamiliar with, they can look it up and now both of us are better for the experience.

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      Howard Schneider 3 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Wonderful Hub, JTRyder. Our nation is under threat due to the dumbing down of our culture and our educational system. Politicians due reduce issues down to sound bites because they know the people will digest easier.

    • Perspycacious profile image

      Demas W Jasper 3 years ago from Today's America and The World Beyond

      I liked the Maya Agelou quote, and this article.