The 3 R's and power

Walter Anderson

September 14, 1993|By Walter Anderson

IF THE Education Department's finding that half of the adults in our country lack adequate reading and math skills is not bad enough, here's a forecast that will surely alarm: It probably will get worse.

America's literacy initiatives -- Laubach Literacy Action, Literacy Volunteers of America, the government's adult basic education effort (the nation's largest program), the military's remedial training for recruits and hundreds of worthwhile state and local projects -- serve less than 10 percent of the more than 40 million of our fellow citizens who are functionally illiterate.

Despite numerous studies, no one really knows how many adults cannot read well enough to understand a daily newspaper, fill out an employment application or add up a lunch check.

Literacy defies counting, because people who are not literate usually hide their pain -- they pretend they can read.

Surely the Education Department report, which suggests a comprehensive remedy involving businesses, schools and community groups, will draw more attention to this tragedy.

Unfortunately, if misunderstood, it could also do damage.

Literacy is a means, not an end. Literacy has often been misrepresented as a cure for every social ill in this country, a deception that misleads America and, tragically, encourages the worst kind of discrimination.

When we accept without question that literacy can deter crime, lessen poverty, reduce unemployment, strengthen our economy, curb drug abuse, diminish racism and transform and elevate education, we allow ourselves to be vulnerable to a terrible lie: that illiteracy is the cause of these problems; that, specifically, a minority called illiterates is responsible.

This is a dangerous logic to follow: literacy is good, illiteracy is bad; literates are good, illiterates are bad.

Literacy itself does not make people smarter or better. Literacy is as neutral as an ax; it can rust away, unused, or it can fell a tree or sever a head. The ability to read and write is not knowledge, but a tool to acquire knowledge.

It allows us to use our brain in a unique and rewarding way. More, it can affect how we perceive the world, giving us genuine personal power. And that is its greatest value: Literacy empowers.

Functionally illiterate adults -- victims without power -- are unable to use reading skills in everyday life for a variety of reasons. Some have left school early. Others have learning disabilities.

There are those who need eyeglasses or hearing aids, who have physical or emotional disorders or have been taught by ineffective teachers. Some simply may not have been ready to learn when reading classes began and could not catch up.

Social problems like poverty and racism diminish the opportunity to learn. Sometimes, illiteracy passes unintentionally from parents to children or -- this may shock some -- ignorance may be encouraged by parents who are unable to read themselves.

(I, for example, was beaten by my father, who was not literate, when he caught me reading a book. Fortunately, my mother and others encouraged me to learn to read despite the abuse.)

Although the causes of illiteracy are many and varied -- and are often hidden -- common threads do emerge. Fear, vulnerability and humiliation persist as painful themes in the lives of adults who cannot read.

The Education Department report calls for massive action, which is good and necessary -- but not enough. We need to understand who is responsible and what must be done.

After World War II, the typical family model for decades was a working father, a stay-at-home mother and one or more children.

Today, for a number of reasons, less than 10 percent of our families may be so described. Twenty years ago, perhaps one out of 15 children lived with neither a mother nor a father. Today it is one in 10.

Whatever our feelings about the structure of American families, a simple truth prevails: A child who is read to at home is better prepared for school than a child who is not.

Children whose parents read to them have better vocabularies, can better understand teachers' instructions, are better prepared to function academically. Institutions, however noble their missions, have failed to replace the family.

What's needed to arrest the growing trend toward illiteracy is greater citizen involvement. By themselves, government programs cannot succeed.

What's needed are people who stand up and become involved. One at a time.

And if you have read this far, you have a responsibility to respond.

Walter Anderson, the editor of Parade magazine, is author of "Read With Me."

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