On Literacy

“Words! Words when spoken out loud for the sake of performance are music. They have rhythm and pitch and timbre and volume. These are the properties of music – and music has the ability to find us and move us and lift us up in ways that literal meaning can’t.”
– President Josiah Bartlet
(The West Wing sn. 3 ep. 5 “War Crimes“)

The above quote was meant to be read aloud.

Try it. Pretend, just for a moment, that you are in fact that famed oratorical snob, President Jed Bartlet, and read this aloud. Be persuasive; be passionate. Convince me.

Now, wasn’t that fun?

Much of the modern written word suffers in that it was NOT designed to be read aloud. It has extra commas, ruthlessly abuses the common adverb, and has the unfortunate tendency to employ abbreviations more commonly seen in Twitter feeds. Bureaucratic doublespeak alternates with meaningless pseudobabble in order to convey as little information as possible while making the writer seem knowledgable relative to functional illiterates, most third-graders, and the chronically ignorant. I refer, of course, to the American public.

The National Assessment of Adult Literacy, a highly intensive periodic study performed by a division of the Department of Education, contains some data that are extremely unpleasant for anyone that still clings to the hope that the United States is the greatest country on Earth. A mere 13% of the adult American public is considered proficient in the written word. Less than half have what is termed an “intermediate” level of competence; this is that level which just exceeds basic ability. More damning is that these numbers did not change significantly from one decade to another, nor has literacy improved in this country since the Depression. We live in a nation of illiterate ignorance.

If any resident in a free society wishes to acquire a skill, particularly literacy, it should be a simple matter. There are, of course, those people afflicted by dyslexia and other impediments; these number less than 10% of the adult population. It follows, then, that of the remaining ninety-plus percent, only one in seven cares to improve their ability. Our illiterates would seem also to be apathetic.

Knowledge is power; everyone knows this, but few care to empower themselves. In a nation long renowned for its personal independence and individual freedoms, it is remarkable that people tend to avoid the responsibility to take the power of knowledge to themselves; it is far more remarkable that this phenomenon is so little remarked upon. The study mentioned above is universally available, and yet a list of comparative literacy on Wikipedia rates the United States in the highest rank among nations – a palpable untruth as, according to the NAAL, there are some thirty million Americans without even the basic ability to read and write.

Perhaps we delude ourselves. From a desire to see what is best in our own way of life, well-meaning and intelligent individuals may shade truths to seem less unpleasant. But wishing will not make it so; mere patriotism cannot make this nation be, in truth, that which we think it is, that which we so very much want it to be.

One can envision the opposite, that those who now have power jealously hoard it and would prevent others from attaining it. Such a conspiracy would be well-funded and ubiquitous; indeed, considering the modern corporate control of the media, the execution of such a plan would be nearly effortless.

While both of these factors undoubtedly contribute to the problem, at least to some degree (though I’m not prepared to unveil any global conspiracy promoting ignorance), I would suggest that inertia and ennui alone are sufficient. In order to create our present morass of ignorant apathy, all that would be needed would be the willingness of individuals in key roles to permit even occasional denigration of learning and accomplishment. Professional communication by the marginally competent, whether in the media stream or within organizations and businesses, cannot but exacerbate the situation.

If you have understood what I’ve written here, you must certainly belong to the thirteen percent: the proficiently literate. The problem is evident; the solutions difficult but achievable. I urge you therefore to do whatever is in your power to combat the present climate of apathetic ignorance and functional illiteracy.

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