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He who knows, and knows not that he knows, is asleep; wake him.
He who knows not, and knows that he knows not, is a child; teach him.
He who knows not, and knows not that he knows not, is a fool; get him his own show.
It's almost time for the kids to go back to school, and from what I've been hearing and reading lately, I'm wondering if they shouldn't drag adults onto the bus with them.
The National Commission on Adult Literacy released a report earlier this summer that went over like flatulence in an elevator: There are way, way too many adults in this country who are either illiterate or incapable of reading anything more challenging than an eye chart.
The NCAL study found 63 million Americans who couldn't progress beyond high school even if they wanted to and could afford it, and another 30 million who scored "below basic" on literacy tests. I can believe it. I've seen them at T stops with a cigarette in one hand and a Big Mac in the other, right next to the huge signs that say "NO SMOKING, EATING OR DRINKING."
I assume they're illiterate.
The other bad news is that, of the 30 most developed nations in the world, only the United States enjoys the distinction of having a younger generation (age 25-34) with a lower percentage of high school diplomas than folks of middle age (45-54). This regression is especially alarming when you consider that those older people graduated despite the pernicious influence of disco and the responsibility of caring for pet rocks.
This country's population used to be one of the most literate in the world, but I'm guessing that was back in the days before words like "intellectual," "well-educated" and "expert" were insults. As in the sentence "I don't need some well-educated intellectual expert telling me what shape the planet is."
As shocking as this news of rampant illiteracy is, it's not all that surprising, and it might even help to explain a few things. The decline in newspaper circulation, for example, which I had attributed to a decline in the popularity of birds as pets.
Many people now dismiss reading the news as an inefficient and joyless substitute for finding a talking head they agree with, memorizing everything he says and repeating it loudly in public places to people who are trying to read.
Also, I don't know if you've noticed this, but your local library branch is now open only on alternate Tuesdays from 2 to 2:25 p.m. And that's just so the "Magic: The Gathering" club can use the bathroom.
I wonder if the current mortgage crisis would have been lessened if people had actually read the documents they were signing. Some states require that contracts be written in English, as opposed to church Latin.
Speaking of language, we definitely need to make sure the millions of new immigrants to our country learn to read English, so that they can assist the native citizens who can't. You may have to pay the nanny a little extra to help your kids with their homework, but it could keep them from joining the one in three kids who drop out of high school every year.
And if the kids can finish high school, they might also stay out of the prison population. One in every 100 American adults is locked up, and more than half of them have very low literacy. Nearly all will eventually be released; which job are they more likely to be qualified for -- insurance claims adjuster or car thief?
Much of the analysis of the NCAL report focuses on the consequences of having an illiterate work force. And that's a real problem, though it could be a gold mine for you and me, as our ability to read, write and understand complex documents like restaurant menus becomes ever rarer and more valuable.
But I'm wondering what would happen if all the people who like to talk about what's in, say, the Constitution actually read the thing. Granted, it's not much fun at the beach.
I can't help thinking, though, that voters who read up on candidates, issues and history might make better decisions than ones who get their "information" from broadcast campaign ads or spinmeisters, or the guy at the Laundromat with soup stains on his beard.
"Next in importance to freedom and justice is popular education, without which neither freedom nor justice can be permanently maintained." That's from Garfield.
The president, not the cat. The cat never finished his dissertation.
First Published August 7, 2008 12:13 pm