Is Illiteracy an Establishment Conspiracy?


Illiterate America, by Jonathan Kozol, New York: Doubleday, 270 pages, $25.95

Illiteracy is "in," like AIDS and word processors. Not necessarily understood, but fashionably discussed, journalistically overkilled, and much used for political purposes. Secretary of Education William Bennett is miffed that his report on reading, Becoming a Nation of Readers, drew little attention when it appeared earlier this year. In USA Today Bennett opined, "If we did for everybody what we do for some in the teaching of reading, we could go a long way toward getting rid of this problem of illiteracy."

That national newspaper's own research, reported in a sidebar to the Bennett interview, indicated that 26 million people in the United States can't read and 46 million people cannot read proficiently. That same research showed other startling figures: the pool of adult illiterates is growing by about 2.3 million persons each year; of the 158 members of the United Nations, the United States ranks 49th in literacy; most classified as illiterates have actually completed high school; and in the past five years, book reading in the under-21 age group has declined from 75 percent to 62 percent. Only 44 percent of those who can read do read books.

Just how USA Today came up with those precise figures is an interesting question. How anybody comes up with exact percentages in an area as murky as this defies easy answer. And the casualness of the assertions is not confined to mass-audience newspapers, as evidenced in a jacket squib to Jonathan Kozol's new book, Illiterate America. Kozol, the previous author of Death at an Early Age and other studies of the woeful state of American learning and life, tells us on the front cover of his book that "one out of every three adult Americans cannot read this book."

Evidently, though, two out of every three adult Americans have read the book, or at least bought it, since it is drawing tremendous attention. Even booksellers have come into the Kozol circle. At the annual convention of the American Booksellers Association in San Francisco in May 1985, Jonathan Kozol was the star attraction, preaching the word and throwing around his own grab bag of statistics: $120 billion a year is lost in productivity in the United States owing to illiteracy; the expenditure of a mere $10 billion a year to combat adult illiteracy would dramatically cut into the problem; and on into the long fuzzy night of the numbers game.

Illiterate America is solid in some of its documentation, passionate in its hand-wringing, intriguing in its anecdotal evidence, and questionable in its prescriptions. Mr. Kozol, whom I have known for many years, is a man of impeccable integrity. When he recounts an incident, I take it as true.

These incidents, moreover, are not unique to Jon Kozol. Like the author, I occasionally have found when taking a youngster to a restaurant that his eyes only apparently scanned the written word, leading invariably to an order of something familiar, whether or not the item was in fact on the menu. Why? Because the kid can't read well enough to choose from the words before him. We have all heard of the occasional high school graduate whose parents sue the school board when at last they realize that their child has been graduated from school but cannot read the diploma. These are fascinating stories. But what do they mean?

They mean, according to Kozol, that the education system is pretty lousy—true enough—and that there is something of a plot to make schools serving the poorest Americans essentially useless. Illiteracy, he contends, is a consciously fostered problem, brought about by an establishment bent on locking in a permanent class of incompetents at the bottom of society. This is not so obviously true. It may not be true at all. It is certainly not proved in Illiterate America.

We have here a polemic wending its way through a guidebook to the American wasteland, and avoiding the landmines of Kozol's ideological fixations is hazardous work. He regards the current call for back-to-basics as a "subset of the dangerous nostalgia for the past, born of a basic fear to face the future, which summons up a warm and golden image of the days when conventional families drove in friendly humpbacked Fords to neighborhood stores and country fairs, and the poorest people (and especially black people) were invisible, uncounted—and did not take SATs." A man holding such views may not be the most reliable physician to cure the illiteracy disease.

And we may wonder about the focus of the author who leads us, through frequent repetition of his basic call for More Money, to a conclusion like this: "In order for the fundamental skills to be developed without introduction of those pressure-cooker tactics advocated by some right-wing zealots, grade-school teachers need to have the sense that they are doing something that the parents want and that they will be rewarded by support in their pursuit of such necessities as a redoubled funding of those elementary reading programs which were decimated by the recent cuts in Title I" (emphasis added).

The problem of youthful illiteracy may be addressed wisely by pouring billions of dollars into government-run literacy programs. But consider that a matter of choice is also involved. Might it be that adults who spend money on television sets and other amusements have chosen not to spend the money to get themselves educated in reading? In two lengthy radio interviews with Kozol, totaling six hours, I was unable to get him to acknowledge even the possibility that a hefty portion of adult illiteracy could be combatted by the individual illiterate voluntarily choosing to spend his own money to get schooling in reading.

The problem of youthful illiteracy—and in all of this we must include varying degrees of "functional illiteracy," since most of Kozol's "illiterates" can read, though none can read well—puts us into territory exceedingly uncongenial to the author. Those who go to parochial and private schools are not illiterates; those who go to public schools sometimes are. Why? Because public education is, in the simple words of Don Feder (On Principle, June 24, 1985), "accountable to no one. Taxpayers must support it; the majority of parents must accept its product, like it or not. Without the necessity to compete for customers, and lacking the profit motive, there's no incentive for improvement."

Kozol is an egalitarian. He is—and this is not meant as an epithet—an unreconstructed left-liberal. He cannot bring himself to accept the notion that the culprit may not be some sinister establishment cackling with glee as it keeps America stupid but a backward government education system that relentlessly advances children from grade to grade without demanding that they master anything in the process.

One shies from reductive reasoning, but here's a better idea than any of Kozol's throw-dollars-at-it schemes: require that no public-school child be permitted to move to the next grade without knowing, fully, the material expected of him at each level. And here's an even better one (don't read this, Jon): institute a voucher system whereby parents would receive monetary credits with which to send their children to the schools of their choice.

Contributing Editor David Brudnoy hosts a radio talk show in Boston.