Literacy in the modern world

Literacy in the modern world

June 4th, 2012 in Opinion Times

"No matter how busy you may think you are, you must find time for reading, or surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance."

-- Confucius

"Once you learn to read, you will be forever free."

-- Frederick Douglass

"A book is the most effective weapon against intolerance and ignorance."

-- Lyndon Baines Johnson

"Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him."

-- Maya Angelou

Across centuries and cultures, the best and brightest leaders and thinkers have instinctively understood the strong connection between freedom -- individual and political -- and literacy. Whatever the time and place, those individuals have known that the inability to read, to write and to do basic computation is detrimental to the ability to pursue life, liberty and happiness. It was true in Confucius' time, It is true in our own.

It is especially true now, as individuals and the nation grapple to meet the ever increasing demand for knowledge and skill. Without knowledge and skill, finding and holding a meaningful place and work in a technological society is extraordinarily difficult or, perhaps, impossible. They key to individual and national progress and freedom remains literacy.

No one can be free without the ability to read, write and compute at a functional level. Being able to do so confers a plethora of benefits. Words, read or written, and a basic understanding of numbers help give form and meaning to life.

Children who can't read or who read and write poorly and who struggle with math almost always do poorly in school. Older students who perform poorly in school because of poor skills -- especially those who fail to graduate -- tend to lead hard lives where employment is more a dream than a reality. Adults who can't find meaningful work often find it difficult to enjoy the benefits and blessings of the American dream.

The rule, sadly, is simple and stark. Reading and writing, its inseparable companion, and basic math are skills essential to life in the 21st century. Physical strength and a desire to work, once entrees to a decent job, no longer guarantee work with a wage that adequately provides for an individual or a family. Men and women who once worked in foundries, factories and fields now must have literacy-based skills to first obtain and then hold a job. The ability to use a computer and to read and understand the words that appear on the screen is an almost universal requirement for entry-level employment these days. So is the ability to fill out reports and to add, subtract, multiply and divide. That's certainly the case at industries -- like Volkswagen, Alstom and Wacker -- that quickly re becoming the bedrock of high-tech industry in the region.

The changing requirements for employment have marooned many here and elsewhere across the nation in a segment of society where work is difficult to find. Far too many remain unemployed or underemployed because they lack basic literacy skills.

One national survey indicates that about 15-17 percent of U.S. adults currently read, write and compute so poorly that it significantly hurts their ability to hold down a job. Another 20-25 percent have less severe but still noticeable problems. The numbers are about the same in both Tennessee and Georgia. Reducing those percentages by improving functional literacy skills is critical to individual well-being and to national growth.

Literacy, more than ever then, plays a major role in obtaining the knowledge and the personal freedoms that are essential components of national identity. If the United States is to have a literate -- educated -- populace and workforce, adult education and family literacy programs should occupy a lofty spot on the public agenda. That is not the case.

Many local and state literacy programs have been chronically underfunded over the years. They've fared even more poorly in recent years as the economic downturn has whittled away at revenues. The same downturn, however, has increased demand for GED and related programs. In the 2011-2012 budget year, Tennessee appropriated a bit more than $3.8 million to meet the need. That's not enough to build a viable, sustainable effort.

The federal government finally seems to understand the need to improve funding for such programs, though understanding has not translated into sufficient appropriations. The U.S. Education Department has provided an estimated $520 million in adult basic and literacy education state grants this fiscal year, including $11.2 million to Tennessee. That's an improvement over past appropriations. Still, considerably more money is required.

With more funding, public and other agencies could expand preschool literacy programs, which have proved useful in producing elementary-age students who are ready and eager to learn to read and write. With additional funds, programs that assist older students with reading problems and provide remedial reading and writing programs for young adults could expand their reach. Those programs and similar ones deserve more support.

We -- individuals and the nation -- increasingly will be gauged by the way we adjust to an information-based, technologically sophisticated global economy where the old rules about education and work no longer apply and where only those who possess high levels of literacy will thrive and prosper. A pledge to improve the functional literacy level of the large number of adults in need of such help and a renewed emphasis on maintaining and honing reading, writing and computational skills for everyone else would help assure the United States' continued role as a leader among the nations of the world.