Users of Language

GEORGE F. WILL

March 26, 1992|By GEORGE F. WILL

BALTIMORE. — Yhod id od vopy Tgodhv hdaslibe ap ep -- mypwahd. Zwosgh? Wbyilk.

Imagine seeing such written static wherever you look. That is how the world looks to illiterate adults.

Perhaps you have been approached in a supermarket by a shopper who asks you to read a label or identify a product, explaining that he left his glasses at home. Perhaps he did. But perhaps he is one of the millions of Americans who cannot read and he is practicing the survival skills that such people develop as they navigate through our word-saturated society.

But here, in what calls itself ''the city that reads,'' there are places where people who have the everyday courage to cope with their illiteracy can come for help when they summon the final courage to confess their disadvantage. For example, in one of the thousands of row houses that meander up the gently rolling hills that undulate away from the harbor, there is the Ripken Learning Center, funded in part by a $250,000 gift from Cal Ripken, the Orioles' shortstop, and his wife Kelly.

The fact that it is a pleasant place, staffed with helpful people and friendly machines, does not diminish the admiration one feels for the people who come here seeking help. Illiteracy is apt to involve a deficit of self-esteem, a quality needed by those who re-enter an academic setting where they have failed before.

It is easier to imagine, and to simulate, such physical limitations as deafness, blindness or paralysis than to imagine or simulate a mental limitation. That is one reason why adult illiteracy is a particularly poignant affliction: Empathy is in short supply.

Furthermore, a special embarrassment often accompanies the problem. And the afflicted portion of the population is virtually invisible.

But non-reading adults also are an alarmingly large portion of urban populations. Many urban school systems practice the cruel kindness of ''social promotions,'' churning out high school graduates with reading skills as low as a second-grade level. In this city, with a high-school drop-out rate approaching 50 percent, 200,000 adults -- 46 percent of the population over 16 -- have not completed high school.

About a third of Baltimore residents above age 16 are unable fully to comprehend a front-page news story. Such limitations are calamitous in old manufacturing cities, such as this one, where many smokestacks have gone cold and opportunity lies in the word-driven service sector.

Anyone without a high school diploma probably has some significant reading difficulty -- significant in the sense that his or her life chances are seriously limited. As are the chances of his or her children. Illiteracy is a communicable affliction. An illiterate adult cannot help his child with homework -- cannot even be counted on to administer a child's prescription medicine safely. (The label says four pills. But all at once?)

The object of adult literacy programs is not to get students reading ''Moby Dick'' but rather to enable them to read ''Green Eggs and Ham'' to their children, and to read for themselves classified job ads. As the crumbling of inner-city education, and inner-city families, makes the problem of illiteracy larger, changes in the commonplace experiences of life make illiteracy more of an affliction.

A few generations ago, shopping required no literacy. You asked a grocer or dry-goods clerk for a particular quantity of flour, sugar and other unpackaged goods. Nowadays, a supermarket is an arena of self-help. For most of us, they are cornucopias of pleasant choices, choices triggered by packaging that employs verbal cues. For the illiterate, shopping must be part of a seamless web of tension and unpleasantness.

Imagine the strength of character that led the man who could not read, but who was vice president of his union here at Bethlehem Steel, to come for literacy help after he retired. What drew him on to learn? Perhaps this:

The abilities to see, hear or walk, although important constituents of happiness, are not, like the abilities to read and write, integral to our understanding of what it means to be a person. Human beings are language-users, enveloped by the fabric of language. In earlier ages a person could function reasonably well, and feel fulfilled, merely being able to participate in the spoken conversation of the community. No more.

So public and private literacy assistance of the sort Baltimore offers is an enhancement of the individual's humanity. Quite a gift.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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