Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Literacy in the United States

According to this source American adults have a 99% literacy rate. That sounds pretty impressive but it's not a complete picture of adult reading and writing skills in our country.

Looking at literacy in the U.S. in a little more depth we find, according to this article, that 52% of American adults are either "non-literate", or have "below basic" or "basic" reading and writing skills. Those 52% are broken down as follows -

4% of adults are non-literate meaning they can neither read nor write.

14% of adults have "below basic" skills meaning they read and write at a grade 1 to grade 3 level.

34% of adults have "basic" skills meaning they read and write at a grade 4 or grade 5 level.


One way to interpret those numbers is that 52% of adults do not have the prerequisite skills to analyze complex topics. On the other hand, a lack of reading and writing skills does not preclude any individual from being kind, funny, goodhearted, skilled and wise. The skill with which someone reads and writes really has nothing to do with whether you are a good friend, worker, husband, wife, son or daughter. 

Unfortunately for a representative democracy when it comes to interpreting the fog of current events and politics, the ability to read and analyze complex issues is paramount. A majority of people (52%) do not have the reading and writing tools to analyze complex information - to separate fact from fiction. Because of this, we don't form governments and elect politicians by asking individuals to analyze facts and data to reach conclusions individually, but rather by moving and shaping public opinion in the aggregate. 

Given the sometimes lucrative nature of politics, and a human will to power, we have a vast array of people and institutions attempting to shape public opinion.

Where do you get the most bang for your buck in this endeavor to shape public opinion? 

Consider tele-marketers, tele-evangelists, pyramid marketing schemes, snake oil salesman, and made for TV informercial creators. They provide a message in a seemingly sincere manner, using purported experts operating in good faith, and provide messages at a 3rd or 4th grade level. Given the proliferation of these types of schemes it's obviously a profitable endeavor.

An effective way for a politician, political party, corporation or the ultra-wealthy, to sway public opinion - to gain power, is to write and talk in a way a 3rd or 4th grader comprehends. If those who shape public opinion are aligned with the interests of the majority of citizens then we have a representative democracy of sorts - not government by the people but government by the people's opinion. In other words - government by the elites who shape that opinion - not necessarily a bad thing and in some practical sense probably necessary. 

The age-old challenge is that public opinion is shaped to a great extent by those with the most money and power. This was exacerbated when the Supreme Court told us money is speech and corporations are people.


Walter Lippmann wrote about what he felt was the necessity of an elite group to help shape public opinion. This might sound scary and certainly would be in some cases. If however the elites were concerned for the welfare of all people (rather than the .1%) it would essentially be the type of government we think we have. We trust our party or representative to represent our interests. 

Instead we end up with some media, corporations, political parties, think tanks and political action committees attempting to shape public opinion with the goal of holding on to their power and obscene amounts of wealth. 

If you zoom out a bit on this picture you will begin to see why public education, liberal arts education, and higher education are a perennial target for attack and bad faith criticism by "conservatives" or "the right". 

A skeptic would say an educated and literate populace requires more sophisticated and widespread (expensive) forms of propaganda to shape their opinions. A less educated and less literate population is more pliable and can be swayed by less sophisticated and less expensive forms of propaganda. You don't have to buy a top tier outlet like the Washington Post or New York Times to spread your propaganda when you have an audience that is perfectly happy to get their news from bottom tier  propaganda outlets like the Daily Caller, Daily Signal, Breitbart, RT, or Sputnik News. Fox News is in this bottom tier and often aligns with these outlets to build "trending" news - Fox differs only in the amount of capital expended in their propaganda efforts. Rupert Murdoch has lots of capital to pretty-up Fox and make it look like real man, real patriotic - real American fare.

A less skeptical proponent of public education would say that better educated and more literate people serve the interests of democracy. And therein lies the rub - a tiny minority of rich and powerful (and their true-believers) have no interest in a democracy because they are afraid of sharing or losing power. True-believers who have neither money nor power are kept afraid and angry by those who shape public opinion (the .1% if you will) so these true-believers can be manipulated by emotion rather than facts and data.

I understand that without context whatever I'm trying to say may be confusing, conspiratorial or just wrong. When I criticize the rich and powerful it's because I feel like I'm part of a team - the team of U.S. citizens - and I want my team to excel. When I read this United Nations report on extreme poverty and human rights in the USA and see how we lag every other economically developed nation in the world I think whatever we've been doing isn't working for a majority of Americans.

Rather than discussing the issues in that U.N. report the .1% who control much of media and government, attack - the U.N., welfare queens, lazy people, socialists, democrats, elites, coastal elites, college students, libs, pro-choicers, immigrants, people of color, people who want to take your guns, people who want to take away your religion and anyone else they can to obfuscate the facts of the matter and promote a friend/enemy sense of tribal belonging that transcends rational thought.

We have pressing issues to address in our country - housing, medical care, drug prices, child care,  wage stagnation, wealth inequality, public education, health, addiction, suicide, gun violence, climate change and the environment. If the .1% and their media empires allowed for a good faith dialogue on these topics we'd be on a start to finding solutions.