Remembering some illiterates from yesteryear

MICHAEL OLESKER

September 14, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Ninety million adult Americans are pronounced deficient in reading and writing skills, and we're shocked? Not me. I think I knew most of those Americans when they were in college.

For much of a decade, I taught mass communications at a local university which shall not be named here, except to say it's located on York Road in the heart of Towson. I don't blame the school. I'm not sure I blame the kids, either. But the simple truth is: They had literacy skills which made me fear for the future of the written word.

Here's a sample from one of my old students, a sophomore, in a feature story she wrote about a classmate: "Larry, enjoyes the great outdoors this summer he went on a conoeing trip, it was a nice trip, his conoe turn over and he lost all of his food."

I've kept an old folder filled with such writing, written by former students whose names will not be listed here in order to leave some room for the rest of this column. They seem to be a small part of a very large group.

The latest U.S. Education Department survey says 90 million Americans -- 47 percent of the nation's adult population -- have only rudimentary literacy skills. Education Secretary Dick Riley, who declared himself "shocked" (much, I imagine, the way Claude Raines pronounced himself "shocked" to find gambling at Bogey's place in "Casablanca," wink, wink,) said the findings "should be a wakeup call for every American."

Yeah, right. Wakeup. Call. As soon as we can pry people away from their television sets, where they're riveted by bowling highlights from Akron, Ohio, we'll talk to them about picking up a book.

At this unnamed university on York Road, on the first day of class each semester, I would ask my students to fill out a questionnaire. Remember, these were mass communications majors -- the thing we used to call "journalism" before everybody got fancy.

I'd ask: What publications do you read? Only a handful said they read daily newspapers, mostly for sports or the comics.

One said he read Boys Life, which most of us read when we were Cub Scouts. One said his favorite publication was something called Savage Women. (Savage Women turned out not to exist -- a fact I discovered after searching every newsstand in town for it.)

Through the years, teaching roughly 500 of these students, I had maybe 20 who'd ever read Time or Newsweek. None had ever read Harper's, Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, The National Review.

Was I expecting too much? Remember, these were kids who wanted to be journalists. In my own college journalism days, before the dawning of the post-literate era, we read everything we could grab -- not only to see what the writer was saying, but to try to figure out how he or she was saying it.

These students I taught had mostly grown up in comfortable, stable homes where education was valued. But the written word was not valued -- or, if it was, parents had either failed to pass on the importance to their children, or eventually found themselves worn down by the power of the incessant television set.

Since its release last week, much of the talk about the new Education Department study has centered on the lowest results, to wit: As many as 40 million adults have only the lowest level of skills, meaning some can identify a piece of specific information in a brief news article, while another 50 million can locate a particular intersection on a street map or do simple subtraction.

But here's the statistic that brought me back to my old students: Young adults -- 21 to 25 years old -- surveyed last year showed literacy skills 11 to 14 percentage points lower than those in the same age group in a 1985 study.

Those were my students back then, and they were struggling badly with the language.

Today, they're in their late 20s and early 30s and presumably holding professional positions (though few in print journalism. When I asked how many wanted to write for newspapers after RTC graduation, almost nobody raised a hand. They hadn't read a newspaper, so why would they want to write for one?)

These are people we consider literate today.

And I wonder how it goes for them: Do they tremble when the boss makes them write words into sentences? Or have they discovered: In America, you can slip by if you're a little bit illiterate.

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