Newsham: Toward a political literacy

Better Dead Than Red

It’s not often that literacy rates make headlines. And why should they? The United States has a literacy rate of 99 percent, as do 26 other industrialized countries. A smattering of central African countries still make up the bottom of the list, but on the whole, many of these countries are slowly improving. None of this seems to be changing.

But what does literacy really mean? If you do some digging, you’ll find that at least applied within the United States, the term is largely meaningless. Jonathan Kozal, an education activist, authored a book on the subject, titled “Illiterate America,” in which he revealed how our literacy rate may be inflated. For example, the U.S. Census Bureau bases its figures on literacy from only a small number of interviews, and even then notes a person to be literate for simply stating they can read and write. The National Adult Literacy Survey, however, an exhaustive study performed in the 1990s, has suggested that nearly half of all Americans are functionally illiterate, able to do little more than fill out a job application, and other studies have shown little improvement since then.

And reading isn’t the only place where Americans are having trouble. Nearly a quarter of us are listed by the Digest of Education Statistics as “below basic” in quantitative literacy skills, meaning one-step addition problems can pose a challenge. Another 33 percent are able to do those types of problems and little more. Of the 33 developed countries of the OECD, our teens rank 24th in science, 27th in math and dead last in reading scores.

With such abysmal comprehension of both reading and math, it’s no wonder that economic illiteracy is so rampant in our country today. The Minneapolis Fed performed a survey in 1998, whose report was titled “Why Johnny Can’t Choose,” that involved a simple, untimed battery of 13 questions on economic fundamentals. Though the survey group was small and the information is rather dated by this point, the average score — 45 percent — is nonetheless cause for concern. More recently, a Zogby poll from December 2008 — though its authors acknowledge “a number of controversial interpretive issues” and a tendency to “challenge leftist mentalities” — has indicated that the further to the left a person identified, the less likely they were to give enlightened answers to questions on issues such as the minimum wage, rent controls and the definition of a monopoly.

On Nov. 30, Gallup released a poll on Americans’ opinions on various economic strategies. Of the options given — more stimulus, more tax breaks, taxing the wealthy or deficit reduction — a plurality, 39 percent, responded that deficit reduction would be the best approach to “dealing with” the current state of the economy. You read that right: at a time when economies that slashed spending during a recession, such as Greece and Ireland, are sinking like rocks, and highly trusted, triple-A rated American debt is still highly valued and being bought up, more Americans propose deficit reduction and austerity as the solution to our ills than anything else.

Perhaps, though, we shouldn’t be surprised. In following the general trend of illiteracy, more Americans get their news from television, especially cable news, than ever before. The instinct that has defined the American Dream — that our sacrifice now will ensure that future generations have it better than we did — is being manipulated by a steady feed of misinformation and fear-stoking rhetoric about the deficit, leading an illiterate people to believe that they must sacrifice their Social Security and Medicare for the sake of future generations — but meanwhile, the rich need tax cuts.

Our country’s illiteracy, like its deficit, is a multi-faceted problem that we cannot expect to solve overnight or by one straightforward approach. Though many Americans agree that our underperforming educational system is in dire need of reform, few voices are calling for higher increased adult education initiatives, and fewer still are calling for a cultural shift in the way we inform ourselves. Our democracy depends on the informed participation of a critically thinking citizenry, a foundation threatened by illiteracy, which in all its forms is a problem that transcends demographics, from the Midwestern retiree who listens to Rush Limbaugh to the recent graduate of his city’s broken high school. Our efforts to combat it must be equally broad.

Jack Newsham is a freshman in Morse College.