Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Illiteracy Is Rampant in Opportunity Land

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Illiteracy Is Rampant in Opportunity Land

Article excerpt

BECAUSE I was out of the office and needed the phone number for the Chicago Tribune's Washington bureau, I called long-distance information.

"In D.C.," I told the operator who answered, "what's the number of the Chicago Tribune?"

There was a long pause. Finally, she came back on and said:

"How do you spell that?"

"Spell what?"

"Uh, is that S-H-I?"

"Are you talking about Chicago?"


As gently as I could, I said: "Are you telling me that you don't know how to spell the name of the third largest city in the United States?"

She responded by mumbling.

So I said: "I can't believe this. You really don't know how to spell Chicago? What would happen if I asked for something with Philadelphia in its name?"

Another mumble. Then there was a click. She cut me off.

A minor incident? No, it's a significant incident. It shows how illiteracy is oozing into all sorts of cracks in our society.

You have to ask: How did that person get a job with the phone company?

Didn't she have to fill out an application? Assuming that she did, how many words did she goof up if she couldn't get the first syllable of Chicago right?

In my case, it was not a big deal. I could call back, get someone else, and she provided the number.

But what if that first operator answered when someone called and said: "Someone here is having a heart attack. I need an emergency number."

"Uh, how do you spell that?"

"Spell what?"

"Is that M-E-R?"

"You mean emergency?"


Don't laugh. If she reached something approaching adulthood, went through a school system, and got herself hired by a huge corporation without being able to spell Chicago, why should we assume that she can spell anything? Even her name.

But it isn't only at the 202 (Washington) area code. Any time you call information, you are taking a gamble.

I once asked a Chicago information operator for the number of Chicago Magazine.

"How do you spell that word?" she asked.


"No, that other word."



"You don't know how to spell magazine?"


"OK. M as in mother . . ."

The other day, I called an information operator in Chicago and asked for the number to CRIS Radio. …

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