Ill it er ah see: A Look at a Fundamental Problem in U.S. Education

By October 5, 2011R is for Research

Note: The writer apologizes for the cheesiness of this post; it could not be helped.

The United States has failed in educating much of its population. In 2003, the U.S. Department of Education conducted its most recent comprehensive look at literacy levels in the United States. Twenty-two percent of American adults occupied the range of “Below Basic” literacy, an 8% jump since their last study in 1992. Further, thirty-three percent were in the “Basic Literacy” category, which is not as literate as one would hope. Indeed, the study placed participants who could do the following within the “Basic Literacy” bracket: “finding in a pamphlet for prospective jurors an explanation of how people were selected for the jury pool” (not understanding how mind you, simply locating) “using a television guide to find out what programs are on at a specific time,” and “comparing the ticket prices for two events” (National Assessment of Adult Literacy). In my mind, and I wonder how you feel about this dear reader, this means that as high as fifty-five percent of Americans are illiterate. Don’t think me insensitive when I call these people illiterate, but memorizing how “Everybody Loves Raymond” looks in print and matching it up with a number, is not literacy. It is a functioning skill cultivated by those who cannot recognize standardized spelling patterns in the English language and do not understand how to “sound out” the curious groupings of letters that make up words. How do I know this you ask? Well, I privately tutor one such person three days a week.

For purposes of sensitivity, we will call him “Ed.” Ed walked in to my other tutoring job at Malcolm X College on the West Side back in the beginning of April. We can applaud the City Colleges for opening their doors to the entire community; however, they are woefully understaffed (two part time English tutors help the entire college), and so while trying to simultaneously tutor three other students in topic sentences and possessive pronouns, I had the desk attendant print out something for Ed, who wanted to work on his reading. When I finally made my way over to him, he had a print out of a story called “D is for Dog” in front of him. I was embarrassed for him, thinking that surely he would be able to read this and would feel insulted. To my surprise and chagrin, he in fact could not.

The man could not read! Do you believe these words! Buzzers and swirling lights were going off in my stomach and mind. How could this be? He could recognize “dog,” “the,” and “if” among other pervasive English words. However, “ball,” “stick,” and “horse” were simply not in his vocabulary. I wrote the alphabet. He could identify all letters and come up with words that started with each (save for X where he suggested “Malcolm X,” oh Ed). Meanwhile, other students were tugging on my elbow for help with in-text citations and centering their titles. It was clear that I could not help him in our understaffed and overpopulated environment. We decided this would have to be a private affair. Ed took out his ID so that I could copy his name down. As I always do, I stole a look at the birthdate (oh you do it too!). Ed was born in 1932. For almost eighty years he has walked this planet without being able to decipher much of it.

Ed worked a record sixty years at the same major trucking/assembly company. Of course, this is largely because without being able to read, he had no chance for mobility. He was stuck where he signed on to work back in the early fifties. He cheated to pass his driver’s exam, and his daughter reads him his birthday cards. He has found ways to get by.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want you to feel bad for Ed. He’s just fine. If I were eighty, I would resign myself to the glamorous life of “Judge Judy” and microwavable dinners post retirement. Not Ed. The week after he retired he walked in so that he could “finally do something for [him]self.” Also, he’s hilarious, he drives a sweet Subaru with a camera that helps him park, and he just got some new house slippers from Kmart.

It has been about five months since we started working together. Ed is not yet literate. Now he could probably be placed in the U.S. Department of Education’s ranking of “Basic Literacy.” This does not mean he is literate by any logical standards. He’s finally starting to recognize that “c” is ka and “s” is not es, but it is still a trial because while his skills improve, his memory has trouble keeping up. The man is eighty for crying out loud!

I wonder about this “Basic Literacy” business. It seems to me that the Department of Education has come up with arbitrary parameters for determining literacy, with the intent of clouding the prevalence of illiteracy in this country. All I do know is that I really had no idea how prevalent the inability to read was in the richest, bestest, powerfulest country on the globe. As of this post, I have encountered four other adults who are unable to read, and I thought I would share this with you readers, for here at DePaul, we really don’t see this in our community. If you are interested in helping out with this issue, I know that the Howard Area Community Center, a regular partner with the UCWbL, has volunteer opportunities to teach Adult Literacy.  It is a hard job that requires constant patience, but it is a rewarding one.

Thank you for reading UCWbLers. What do you think?