Literacy and the future

Literacy and the future

September 4th, 2011 in Opinion Times

As was often the case, Dr. Seuss got it just right. "The more you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go," he memorably wrote in 1978 in "I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!" The author understood and wanted others to understand the integral and complex link between literacy -- the ability to read and to write -- and an individual's capacity to lead a meaningful and productive life. That's a connection that still has special resonance today.

Dr. Seuss, or Theodor Seuss Geisel, grasped the essential truth that there can be little freedom -- personal, economic, religious -- without literacy. That's never been more true than the present. At a time when America and many Americans continue to struggle in an economy and society radically different than that of just a few years ago, the inability to read and to write hampers the ability to pursue the life, liberty and happiness central to the American experience.

Many things have changed in recent years, but the fact that reading and writing are central to individual progress and freedom is constant. No man, woman or child can be free if they are shackled by illiteracy. There is no guarantee that reading and writing will bring a lifetime of benefits, but there is growing certainty that the inability to do so is an almost insurmountable handicap in seeking those benefits.

Youngsters who are unable to read or who read poorly almost always fare badly in school. Children who fare poorly in school -- especially if they do not earn a high school diploma -- increasingly find it difficult if not impossible to find fulfilling employment. Adults who are unemployed or underemployed quite often discover that it is almost impossible to partake in the American dream. The lesson, as Dr. Seuss knew, is that reading (and writing) are essential skills in the contemporary world.

Once, physical strength and agility coupled with a strong work ethic were enough to provide a man or woman with a job that could provide a modicum of comfort and an accepted place in society. No more. Now, even the most basic jobs require the ability to add a column of figures, to read a diagram or use a computer or other electronic device. Those who are unable to do those and other basic tasks will be left behind in the increasingly competitive and technological workplace where literacy is no longer an option but a necessity.

There is a remedy to the issue of illiteracy, but implementing will require patience, skill and money. The problem is more common than many people know. Some surveys suggest that as many as 20-25 percent of U.S. adults have reading and writing deficits so great that they are unable to get or hold anything other than a menial job. Another 15-20 percent are estimated to have basic skills, but still have problems in reading and writing at the level required to participate fully in contemporary American life.

The corrective starts at home, continues in schools and extends to adult education. Children who are exposed to books at home before pre-school generally read and learn at higher levels than those who are not. There are public and private initiatives that encourage home reading and that provide books to parents who can not afford them, but their reach should be extended.

Educators work diligently to teach literacy skills, but success is not always certain. It is true that the number of American schoolchildren who read at grade level or above is slowly improving on the whole, but progress is not uniform. Proven programs that provide a stronger connection between public schools and homes where literacy is not a given are scarce. So are in-school programs dedicated to improving literacy skills.

Lack of funding always has been a problem for many reading-specific programs, but current economic conditions have made appropriations from federal, state and local governments even more scarce. The programs, even in troubled times, deserve more meaningful support.

As individuals and a nation, we increasingly will be gauged by our ability to interact with a knowledge-driven world in which only the truly literate will be able to compete. A revitalized national commitment to provide every American with functional literacy skills would go a long way toward safeguarding the United States' place among the globe's economic and educated elite. It also would give credence to Dr. Seuss's belief in the power and benefits of reading.