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Literacy

by Robert Klassen

Recently I witnessed a shocking demonstration by a new, English-speaking, college graduate. I don’t normally talk about my writing with colleagues at work – there isn’t time – but one intelligent youngster asked me a question that I could most easily answer by showing him one of my essays. He could not read it. I mean, he could sound out the words that he knew, skipping the words he didn’t know, but he could not make sense of the sentences. After watching his ordeal for five painful minutes, I verbally gave him the message encoded in the English language that he could not read. He believes that he is educated, by the way, because he has a college degree.

This incident reminded me once again to stop taking things for granted. That reminder stimulated me to wonder how many people working in health-care are functionally illiterate? I can’t find an answer to that question, but if it’s so easy to slip through high-school English and the required undergraduate liberal arts classes without being able to read, then the probability that medical professionals can’t read goes up.

I found a good article on the Internet called, Illiteracy: An Incurable Disease or Education Malpractice? written by Robert W. Sweet, Jr., a former professional government education bureaucrat. Roughly a third of American adults are functionally illiterate, meaning they cannot read better than a third-grader, while government spending to combat illiteracy cost the taxpayers $463 billion between 1966 and 1996. Obviously, throwing money at the problem doesn’t work.

Mr. Sweet explains that the problem began with a proposal by Horace Mann in 1837 to stop teaching reading by the phonetic method and to begin teaching reading by the "whole-word" memorization method. Mann’s method didn’t work, so it was adopted by teachers’ colleges all over the country. Mann’s method still doesn’t work and it is still taught in teachers’ colleges all over the country. There seems to be something stubbornly perverse about this.

I learned to read before I was sent to school. My stepmother’s mother taught me, maybe by accident. She was a German-speaking cook with no education who liked to read bedtime stories to me. My favorite author was Thornton W. Burgess and I liked his stories so much that I wanted to read them myself. Grandma made it a game. She would read to me, then I would read to her. It was great fun. My wife and I taught our own children to read by this same "method" using the same books. I do recall that the Mann method was used by the nuns in the first grade, the Dick and Jane nonsense, but I didn’t pay attention to it because I could already read.

I think the whole argument about "method" is specious. Reading, like potty training, is more a matter of children copying the behavior of adults than it is a matter of teaching method. If children don’t see adults reading, then how will they get the idea that reading is important to learn? Moreover, when children hear stories they like, read to them from a book, then they will want to read the stories themselves. It is not method that matters; it is nurturing natural human curiosity.

Presumably, this poses a problem for the children of illiterate parents, a problem that has excused massive government spending on remedies that haven’t worked. That money came out of somebody’s life and went into somebody else’s life, while the unmotivated parents of unmotivated children remained unmotivated. It’s just another con game, just another government racket, where only the bureaucrats win.

Mr. Sweet points out that the Mann method actually inhibits reading skill and he cites research to prove it. I don’t know how this research is conducted, although it appears to be a trial and error procedure that permits total failure, something that is not permitted in medical research involving human beings. I think that research into learning reading skills ought to include parental incentive, i.e., I would not compare "methods" used in pubic schools, I would compare public school results with homeschool results.

Looking at literacy in the social context of television programming, reading is an utterly unnecessary skill. Serious content is delivered to the viewer in simple third-grade vocabulary, while violent content is delivered in non-verbal, primordial action. Judging by the popularity of this kind of programming, both literate and illiterate Americans tolerate it, I wonder if literacy even matters?

Literacy does matter to political governments. People need to be able to decode their written propaganda. People need to be able to decode their written indictments and the multitude of their laws, even if the people cannot understand them. A third-grade reading skill is critical to the perpetuation of this fraud, because if people could not read at third-grade level, the fraud would collapse. What if every defendant in every legal trial said, I didn’t know that? I can’t read!

But reading skills under political government must be limited. As Richard Mitchell writes in The Graves of Academe the reading of unapproved books is forbidden in public schools, even if there were somebody left who could read them. An anonymous committee of people, who know nothing and who care for nothing except power, in however a limited environment, choose the texts. To hell with Shakespeare; "See Spot Run" is good enough for everybody.

Mr. Sweet writes that "the number of functionally illiterate adults is increasing by approximately two and one quarter million persons each year." Is this bad news? There are very few people who speak out against the imperial state and most of them do it in writing. What if they cannot be read? Do the functionally illiterate college graduates have any idea what is at stake in civil atrocities like Waco? Like Ruby Ridge? Like the War on Drugs? Like their local SWAT team? Do they have any idea what Slick Willie did? Do they know what "perjury" means?

If they don’t, they will find out eventually, because they will be paying for it too. But two-thirds of American adults can read just fine. Two-thirds of American adults can figure out the stakes by reading the truth themselves. Taxpayers can stop the flow of their money into government literacy scams and let the illiterates learn to read if they want to. I’ll do my part too. I’ll give this essay to a certain college graduate and let him figure out the message for himself.

August 30, 2001

Robert Klassen [send him mail] is a medical technician and writer. Here's his web site.

Copyright 2001 Robert Klassen