Illiterate America

By Alan Caruba
web posted February 5, 2001

In October of last year, my friend Jack O'Dwyer ran an article on his website, O'Dwyer's PR Daily, concerning the problems public relations agencies were having with the college graduates they were hiring to begin their careers in that profession.

"About 40 per cent of college grads take no courses in English or American literature and nearly 31 per cent have never taken a math course. More than 56 per cent can't calculate the change from $3 after buying a bowl of soup for 60 cents and a sandwich for $1.95. Many cannot read and understand a simple set of directions." The article referenced "Beer and Circus", a book by English professor Murray Sperber of Indiana University. The book contends that "college kids are being fed a junk diet of alcohol, spectator sports and partying."

Even worse news is that the college school year has shrunk from 210 days to about 160. With parents paying an average $20,000 a year and more to send their children to college, that's an average of $125 a day!

The bottom line is that both the public relations profession and journalism are filled with young people, beginning their professional careers, who haven't a clue about what is newsworthy. They are so ignorant, it is frightening. This does not bode well for the ultimate consumers of news, the public.

This situation reaches into all aspects of life in America and particularly hits small businesses as well as big corporations who hire these college graduates. The small business operators find themselves hiring and firing in a desperate effort to find someone-anyone--who is willing to learn how their company functions and willing to actually do the work. The greatest concerns of today's new hires are about vacation and sick time, plus whatever other perks are being offered.

Training employees is a fulltime process for companies large and small. What makes this difficult is the level of illiteracy among both high school and college graduates (the ability to read, understand, and apply what they have read), coupled with their belief that an employer doesn't really deserve their best efforts.

Literacy is absolutely essential for the success of any society. In America, however, one in five high school graduates cannot read his or her diploma. Fully 85 per cent of unwed mothers are illiterate and 70 per cent of Americans who get arrested are illiterate. An estimated 21 million Americans simply cannot read and the costs of illiteracy are estimated to be $225 billion a year in lost productivity.

According to Empower America, our 12th graders rank 19th out of 21 industrialized countries in mathematics achievement and 16th out of 21 nations in science. Since 1983, more than 10 million Americans have reached the 12th grade without being about to read at a basic level. Over 20 million have reached their senior year unable to do basic math. Almost 25 million have reached 12th grade without knowing the essentials of U.S. history. (And you wonder why 100 million Americans did not bother to vote in the last election or couldn't figure out how to cast a vote?)

By almost any measurement you can name, we have been turning out students at the elementary, middle, high school and college levels who are manifestly unfit to function effectively in society.

If you wanted to sabotage America, you could not find a better way than to have degraded our education system as effectively as the programs promulgated by teachers union in league with those who have been in charge of the federal government's education programs since the 1970's. Across this country, the rising costs for education have driven up the property taxes of millions of Americans with little to show for the investment.

There will be much discussion of the Bush administration initiatives. Serious conservatives have serious reservations about them because, despite President's Bush talk of returning power to the state and local level, they will increase the federal government's control over the curriculums of every school in America.

That does not, however, mitigate the need to produce high school and college graduates who are literate, have a knowledge of U.S. history, have basic arithmetic skills, and an understanding of fundamental science. This is critical to the future of this nation.

We cannot keep importing foreigners who are, quite simply, better educated than our fellow citizens. There aren't enough low-level jobs to employ this growing army of illiterate, ignorant, and ill-prepared American graduates.

Alan Caruba writes a weekly commentary, "Warning Signs", posted on the website of The National Anxiety Center. © Alan Caruba, 2001

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