The Amazing Absence of Literacy in America

At first I was totally shocked by this article by Chris Hedges, titled America the Illiterate. It absolutely blows me away. The author separates America into two literacy groups. The first being the literate group, which is

“…the minority, [and] functions in a print-based, literate world. It can cope with complexity and has the intellectual tools to separate illusion from truth.”

The author states that the second group, as much as I’m astounded that it trully exists in our modern society, is easily manipulated and knowingly separates itself from the prior group. This group…

“…exists in a non-reality-based belief system. This America, dependent on skillfully manipulated images for information, has severed itself from the literate, print-based culture. It cannot differentiate between lies and truth. It is informed by simplistic, childish narratives and clichés. It is thrown into confusion by ambiguity, nuance and self-reflection. This divide, more than race, class or gender, more than rural or urban, believer or nonbeliever, red state or blue state, has split the country into radically distinct, unbridgeable and antagonistic entities.”

The author states that a third of the 42 million adults in America are illiterate or close to illiterate. This is absolutely astounding when one considers other countries, for example Finland, where 100 percent literacy is the standard. The article begins to pick up speed when the author shows illiterate people’s powerlessness in our capitalist society.

“They still struggle with the most basic chores of daily life from reading instructions on medicine bottles to filling out bank forms, car loan documents and unemployment benefit and insurance papers. They watch helplessly and without comprehension as hundreds of thousands of jobs are shed. They are hostages to brands. Brands come with images and slogans. Images and slogans are all they understand. Many eat at fast food restaurants not only because it is cheap but because they can order from pictures rather than menus. And those who serve them, also semi-literate or illiterate, punch in orders on cash registers whose keys are marked with symbols and pictures. This is our brave new world.”

Later the author explains how illiteracy allows politicos to push their “simple and childish lies” by repeating euphemisms and catchphrases.

“We are repeatedly fed words or phrases like yes we can, maverick,
change,pro-life, hope or war on terror. It feels good not to think. All we have
to do is visualize what we want, believe in ourselves and summon those hidden
inner resources, whether divine or national, that make the world conform to our

Catchphrases and repeated slogans are quite effective in creating solidarity and helping rally groups under a singular cause. However, and as the author brings up, these same slogans and euphemisms become an easy reason for people to simply quit thinking on their own. He says, “it feels good not to think.” I’m not sure that I agree with that statement, but it’s certainly easier not to think.

He outlines the slow but inevitable lowering of the bar of presidential debates to exemplify the decline in literacy and comprehension of American over the past 150-odd years. During the Lincoln/Douglas debates of 1858 the two men used language that a 11th to 12th grader would understand. In contrast, during the the 2000 presidential debates, “George W. Bush spoke at a sixth-grade level (6.7) and Al Gore at a seventh-grade level (7.6).”

What does this lowering of both the language and intellectual bar connote about Americans then? Simply, they have become consumers in the most base sense of the word. Information, art, and any other kind of stimulus all become a node of entertainment, not a means for better understanding.

“The change from a print-based to an image-based society has transformed our nation. Huge segments of our population, especially those who live in the embrace of the Christian right and the consumer culture, are completely unmoored from reality. They lack the capacity to search for truth and cope rationally with our mounting social and economic ills. They seek clarity, entertainment and order. They are willing to use force to impose this clarity on others, especially those who do not speak as they speak and think as they think. All the traditional tools of democracies, including dispassionate scientific and historical truth, facts, news and rational debate, are useless instruments in a world that lacks the capacity to use them.”

So where does this zeitgeist of passive thought get us? The author, in his final paragraph, argues that the Obama campaign served to “appeal to and manipulate this illiteracy and irrationalism…” Fine, but one must know one’s audience to be effective in persuading it. The author looks to politics as the node or catalyst for change. I’m not so sure that this is the case for the simple reason that politics serve as both the controlling entity (in the form of legislature) and the barometer (in the form of politicos appealing to the masses to get re-elected) for society. Politics, therefore, is stolid and calcified in its means and operations. The change must come from within the mass itself.

This entry was posted in Commentary, Essay, Food, Literature, Politics.

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