1 in 7 Americans Functionally Illiterate

 Posted by on 13 February 2009 at 12:01 am  Education
Feb 132009


About 14 percent of U.S. adults won’t be reading this article. Well, okay, most people won’t read it, given all the words that are published these days to help us understand and navigate the increasingly complex world.

But about 1 in 7 can’t read it. They’re illiterate.

Statistics released by the U.S. Education Department this week show that some 32 million U.S. adults lack basic prose literacy skill. That means they can’t read a newspaper or the instruction on a bottle of pills.

I’m appalled, but I suppose that I shouldn’t be entirely surprised. Earlier this semester, I discovered that none of my thirty students this semester at Colorado’s best university know the meaning of the word “egregious.” And on Wednesday, a student was seriously confused by a potential test question that used “former” and “latter.” (I’m very, very glad she asked me!) My students should have been acquainted with that kind of language by reading classic literature, even if they didn’t hear it from their parents. That’s what an education is for. One cannot read Jane Austen — as I am currently doing, yet again — without learning the meaning of “former” and “latter”!

In teaching, I eschew technical philosophical terms unless I’ve introduced and defined them. Yet terms like “egregious,” “former,” and “latter” are part of my ordinary thinking, writing, and speaking. So I use such language in teaching; I don’t consider it high-flown in the slightest. It should be comprehensible to any college student. Yet how many students are unprepared to hear it? Far more than I used to think, apparently.

I blame the government schools for this sorry state of affairs, but I also blame parents. Through many conversations, I’ve found that parents almost always support and defend their government schools, even while recognizing that the failure of the “public” education system. (Principled opponents of government schools are an exception, obviously.)

I’m sick of that: I see that it cannot be true, as 90% of my students are unprepared for college-level work. So I’m going to start being rather more pushy with parents in my criticism of government schools, I think. Their all-too-convenient delusions are suffocating the minds of their children. Even if parents have no other option — and many don’t, and I feel for them — they ought to recognize that their beloved “public schools” are not equipping their children with the knowledge and skills required to live sensible, independent, and happy lives.

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