The Plague of Illiteracy
Aristotle once said that education is an ornament in prosperity and a refuge in adversity. If this is the case, then education in our current society has devolved into something lower than ornamentation. As a culture, we have begun to value education less, even as countries around us begin to grow at a pace that was before incomprehensible.
China currently has a literacy rate of over ninety percent, while the United States has an average literacy rate of eighty-seven percent. After leaving school, many Americans never pick up a book again. They simply do not read. When I was thirteen, every library in our county—every library for a hundred miles around us—closed due to lack of funding. Our town, Cave Junction, borders on illiterate.
Only a small percentage of the population read and write with proficiency. Many cannot spell the name of the street they live on. In our high school, grading papers as a teacher’s assistant, I have seen seniors writing at the level of third-graders. Many can’t tell the difference between “are” and “our.” Some of the students have, unabashedly, never read a book in their lives, and most of the rest will never read another book once they leave school. That is not to say that intelligence is lacking.
Many of the students are brilliant, but have never taken the opportunity to advance. More than half of the seniors in my graduating class do not plan to attend college, or even leave our valley. Despite the fact that we are not secluded from the world, many adults have never gone twenty miles beyond our town. They do not read, and they do not try to gain any knowledge after high school. They are functionally illiterate, and—perhaps most frightening of all—they do not understand why there is any benefit in being otherwise. Literacy is a huge problem in our country.
While literacy levels in other countries are climbing, those in our country are dropping. We are failing to learn, not through inability, but disinterest. Former President Bill Clinton, on an address regarding literacy, once commented, “Literacy is not a luxury, it is a right and a responsibility. If our world is to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century we must harness the energy and creativity of all our citizens.” Many of the people in our town are trapped.
They cannot move forward or up. Even if they wished to do so, there is no longer a library with access to free knowledge that they can use to help themselves advance. Through disinterest, a cycle has been created which seems impossible to escape. Lack of literacy means that those who live here struggle in poverty, and they, our community, and our country all suffer for it. Learning has become mandatory, not voluntary. Education has become an ornament, unwanted here, and I am afraid that only the adversity of being left behind as the rest of the world advances will alter that position.