Sunday, January 3, 2010


Webster's New Third International Dictionary defines "illiteracy" as "The inability to read or write, or the actual or perceived state of being uneducated or insufficiently educated."

When we think of illiteracy we immediately think of people in third world countries or the few dirt-poor areas of highly educated countries. Since the United States puts so much emphasis on education we don’t see illiteracy as a major problem in this country. We are leaders in research and educational opportunities. Our scientists have received over 130 Nobel prizes in the last hundred years. Americans have also received a number of Nobels for literature and economics.

Britain has some of the most prestigious universities in the world with Oxford and Cambridge. California has ten world-class campuses in its system — more than most countries have universities. This is not to mention the multitude of California State University campuses. Add to all this the multiple universities almost every state in America offers in addition to private universities in many states and you can begin to see why American is a leader in education and research. The University of California has produced 65 Nobel laureates with the Berkeley campus, alone, having twenty-five faculty who have won the prize.

So what does illiteracy have to do with America? Unbeknownst to many, we have forty-two million adults in our country who simply can’t read. That is a lot of people! Surveys have found that another fifty million people read no better than a 5th grade reading level. Is this just a passing problem? Not really. Twenty-five percent of all teenagers drop out of high school. Even sadder is that of those who do graduate, another twenty-five percent are at the same educational level as someone who stopped their education at the eighth grade. These numbers are huge. To illustrate the size of the problem, there were fewer people who voted in the 1980 presidential election than there are illiterate people in America. How few? Sixteen million fewer voters than those who cannot read or write.

Most of us don’t know about nor do we want to think about the appalling amount of illiteracy in this country. How can a society that is becoming more dependent on increased technology hope to find enough workers with these rates of illiteracy. One of the assumptions of our founding fathers was that a democratic society would be based on generally high levels of literacy.

In 1955 Rudolf Flesch stunned this country with his book, Why Johnny Can’t Read. Time magazine called his book "the outstanding educational event of that year." Since then, experts have found out that American illiteracy is still growing at an unacceptable rate. We are told that every year 2,250,000 more adults are added to the rolls of functionally illiterate people in this country.

I am going to do a series of blog articles on illiteracy, but not the kind that has been identified above. There are other kinds of illiteracy that involve people who can read and write just fine. There are several types of illiteracy that apply to educated people. For the next several weeks, I’m going to write an article on each one of these.

One type is called" innumeracy." It is a word devised by a cognitive scientist, Douglas Hofstadter, who used to write a column for Scientific American. In the early 80's he used this word to describe the inability of anyone who could not understand the basic numbers that are used in our society. Then, in the late 80's, a mathematician, John Allen Paulos, wrote a book entitled Innumeracy. Is not knowing how to use numbers really a big deal? According to the experts the answer is "yes," because struggling with numbers has a high social cost such as wasted money, bad social policies, and unnecessary risks.

Somewhat related to this is another kind of illiteracy called scientific illiteracy. Mark Twain spotted this problem a century ago when he said, "The trouble with the world is not that people know too little, it’s that they know so many things that just aren’t so." We live in an age of science yet surveys have shown that many people have not shed the baggage of superstition. We are a people who have a very long list of things we believe in that "just aren’t so": lucky numbers; healing through pyramids, mind power, crystals, homeopathy, etc.; extrasensory perception; subliminal learning; biorhythms; astrology (55% of American teenagers believe in astrology; 75% of people in Great Britain believe it is scientific); UFOs. Much of scientific illiteracy occurs because people don’t understand what science is, what it is supposed to do, and how it is done.

Cultural illiteracy was a problem E.D. Hirsch identified about twenty years ago. Dr. Hirsch taught us that reading was not enough. We must also understand what we read and this can only be done if we have a basic fund of knowledge that we bring to our reading. Cultural literacy is only obtained when a society shares a basic knowledge of geography, history, literature, politics, and democratic principles. When Jay Leno finds random people on the street who cannot give him the name of the current Vice President of the United States, then something is wrong. Recently, we had the sad experience of someone who aspired to this office who had appalling gaps in her understanding of the world. She even relished in the idea of calling herself a "rogue." Perhaps she might have been more reluctant to do so if she knew the definition of the word. The dictionary says it means (1) a dishonest, knavish person; scoundrel. (2) a scamp. (3) a tramp or vagabond. (4) in biology it refers to an usually inferior organism.

Have you ever heard of religious illiteracy? It has come to light that many religious people are not well-versed in their specific religion. For Christians to whom the Bible is the foundation of their faith, a recent survey discovered that only thirty-three percent of Evangelicals actually read the Bible; only twelve percent do so daily. Professor Stephen Prothero is chair of the religion department at Boston University. He has found that "Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about their religion." He gives examples:
  • Protestants who can’t name the four Gospels
  • Catholics who can’t name the seven sacraments
  • Jews who can’t name the five books of Moses
His research has shown him that faith in American is "entirely devoid of content." His conclusion is that America is "one of the most religious countries on earth and also a nation of religious illiterates."

Although I may throw in a few more examples of different types illiteracy, the final blog will be on financial illiteracy and will be authored by a guest. He is Jason Kelly, whom I greatly admire as a person of substance and highly knowledgeable when it comes to understanding the market and other financial concerns. He is the best-selling author of five books on investing and personal finance. I think you will really enjoy his article on this blog. Prior to his blog article, you can check him out at

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