Reading the handwriting on the wall
While attending a recent high school commencement, I could not help but wonder what the diplomas proffered to those several hundred smiling young people really meant to them after their 12 years of education. Some of the answers for a great many of the newly minted graduates and their deservedly proud families included prospects of greater opportunity and the promise of a lifetime of happiness and fulfillment. Some already had a year or two of college credits under their belts.
Their speeches were replete with high expectations; of taking on the world and working hard to carve out their particular piece of the American dream for themselves and their yet-to-be-conceived families. Lyrical strains of Frank Sinatra singing “New York, New York” drifted from my musical memory bank.
The answer for some others, though, came after the ceremony from one of the still-robed graduates as she stood for photos with family in the lobby and tried to read the writing on the diploma. She couldn’t. Mom had to help her with several words.
Unfortunate as it is, she was not the only high school graduate struggling to read this graduation season. According to government figures from a variety of sources, including the National Assessment of Educational Progress, about 35% of our nation’s high school graduates are functionally illiterate, 49% are not ready for college-level reading and the overall literacy of our nation is in decline.
Despite unprecedented levels of spending on education, literacy rates have been sliding since the 1930s and there is no end in sight.
How did ever let things get this far? Where is the public outcry?
Go back to the late 19th century when reading was job one and standards were higher. The Appleton School Reader used by America’s fifth graders in the 1880s included works by Shakespeare, Thoreau, George Washington, Twain, Emerson, Thomas Jefferson, Daniel Webster, and Samuel Johnson, to name only a few.
During WWII, American military draftees who were educated during the hard scrabble years of the Great Depression had a literacy rate of 96%, while voluntary inductees came to the service 98% literate.
A few years later, the literacy among those drafted into the Korean War dropped to 81%, despite more years in school with greater numbers of professionally trained teachers and better materials.
During the Vietnam War, inductee literacy had fallen to 73% despite much better schools than either of the groups from the two prior wars. From 1941 through 1970, illiteracy rates grew from 4% to 27%.
Since 1940, across all groups in all states we spent about four times as much money on education, and the result was a quadrupling of illiteracy.
Beyond diminished economic opportunities, though, illiteracy also brings with it a host of other problems. The acting out behaviors of failing school children often lead to bullying and later lives of violence and crime. U.S. Justice Department reports show that 80% of incarcerated violent criminals are functionally illiterate, as are 67% of all criminals.
Ex-prisoners testifying before the United States Congress offered the opinion that illiteracy is an important causal factor in criminal behavior “for the illiterate have very few honest ways to make a living.”
Dennis Hogenson, in his investigations into a wide range of factors leading to juvenile delinquency, found that aggression among delinquent boys correlated most highly with illiteracy.
Why, then, have we abandoned reading?
America has always been a nation of readers, and not just for basic facts, but as a means of connecting and socializing our children to our cultural and national values. Reading was the way we learned about our great thinkers, founding fathers and national role models. Beyond information and entertainment, it was the way we transmitted our most treasured virtues and values from generation to generation.
It is also the basis for rationally choosing good leaders, protecting against poor ones and preserving our republic that others fought and died to pass on to us. Absent the protection of a literate citizenry, we are little more than a nation of willing dupes.
Since we have long known how to teach every student in our schools how to read, we certainly have the capacity to arrest and reverse our national slide toward illiteracy. Why then have we chosen the low road?
It is time to recommit to literacy before it’s too late.
As a nation, we cannot afford to settle for anything less.
The handwriting is on already on the wall. I just hope enough people can read it.
Editor’s note: Wallace is a Bellaire native.?He is retiring at the end of the month as Woodland Hills (Pa.) deputy superintendent. He is also affiliated with?West?Liberty and Muskingum universities.