What's Literacy Got to Do with It?

By Shafer, Gregory | The Humanist, September-October 2002 | Go to article overview

What's Literacy Got to Do with It?


Shafer, Gregory, The Humanist


Since the first rustic schoolhouses were raised in Puritan New England over 300 years ago, there has been an explicit belief in the economic, personal, and even spiritual power of literacy. Indeed, as we march through the first years of the twenty-first century, it is virtually impossible to find a politician who won't speak reverently about the efficacy of having an education and the precious gift of reading. Such, it is interesting to note, is the case today as it was during virtually every period of our past.

Early seventeenth-century American colonists required each village to construct a school and begin the formidable task of teaching reading. It was the belief of early leaders that reading would precipitate Bible study, unity, and a more devoted citizenry. One century later, Thomas Jefferson rose from the Enlightenment to tell colonists that "reason and free inquiry are the only effectual agents against error."

In the nineteenth century, educator Horace Mann surveyed the blight of poverty in sprawling U.S. cities and championed the notion of universal schooling as a panacea in the fight to elevate the conditions of the poor and dispossessed. Like others before and after, Mann saw the idea of education as a solution to a series of social and economic conundrums. With the masses migrating from Europe--and the visage of poverty visiting every large city--the desire to educate and mold these beleaguered hoards was seen as the most effective way to create an egalitarian system and also to Americanize the collection of varying cultures and religions.

In contemporary times, what is most striking about our veneration of literacy and the historic campaign to eliminate ignorance is the conspicuous chasm that separates appearance from reality. While we have lived with an unflinching faith in the efficacy of education to better our lives and even the economic playing field, little evidence exists as to the reality of this long-held American dream. In fact, there is considerable scholarship to support the claim that literacy and education--those dual weapons for egalitarian aspirations--are actually components of the status quo, working to stifle real change and suppress genuine revolt.

Perhaps, many suggest, it is time to interrogate the venerated power of literacy and the time-honored role of education. Are they champions of the downtrodden or agents of oppression? Do they propel students into new levels of success or do they perpetuate a system that is fundamentally skewed toward the affluent? Why, more than one century after Mann suggested that education was "the great equalizer of the conditions of men," do we still see literacy rates plummeting while society worships at the feet of such celebrities as Britney Spears, Dale Earnhardt, and Shaquille O'Neil? Could it be that students and their parents know something that few public officials have the temerity to admit about education and its waning influence in the real world of success?

Ask most poor or middle-class seventeen-year-olds what they want to be and you're likely to get an eclectic bag of professions and entertainment options, beginning with actor and singer and moving nervously into the sphere of salesperson or sports icon. Few, it is interesting to note, seem to have embraced the American notion that success is rooted in education and the ethic of garnering a degree. Sure, most would admit that it helps, but few today would suggest that either Tiger Woods or Eddie Murphy lost valuable years by omitting the Ivy Leagues for the lucrative life of sports or entertainment. Even more interesting, many minority students seem uncertain that education--with its costs of time and money--will result in a better life either economically or personally. No, many admit, education--with its political games and alien culture--has little to do with real success for a person who wants to maintain an identity. …

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