The Plague of Illiteracy

February 26, 2010
Aristotle once said that education is an ornament in prosperity and a refuge in adversity. If this is the case, then education in our current society has devolved into something lower than ornamentation. As a culture, we have begun to value education less, even as countries around us begin to grow at a pace that was before incomprehensible. China currently has a literacy rate of over ninety percent, while the United States has an average literacy rate of eighty-seven percent. After leaving school, many Americans never pick up a book again. They simply do not read.
When I was thirteen, every library in our county—every library for a hundred miles around us—closed due to lack of funding. Our town, Cave Junction, borders on illiterate. Only a small percentage of the population read and write with proficiency. Many cannot spell the name of the street they live on. In our high school, grading papers as a teacher’s assistant, I have seen seniors writing at the level of third-graders. Many can’t tell the difference between “are” and “our.” Some of the students have, unabashedly, never read a book in their lives, and most of the rest will never read another book once they leave school.
That is not to say that intelligence is lacking. Many of the students are brilliant, but have never taken the opportunity to advance. More than half of the seniors in my graduating class do not plan to attend college, or even leave our valley. Despite the fact that we are not secluded from the world, many adults have never gone twenty miles beyond our town. They do not read, and they do not try to gain any knowledge after high school. They are functionally illiterate, and—perhaps most frightening of all—they do not understand why there is any benefit in being otherwise.
Literacy is a huge problem in our country. While literacy levels in other countries are climbing, those in our country are dropping. We are failing to learn, not through inability, but disinterest. Former President Bill Clinton, on an address regarding literacy, once commented, “Literacy is not a luxury, it is a right and a responsibility. If our world is to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century we must harness the energy and creativity of all our citizens.”
Many of the people in our town are trapped. They cannot move forward or up. Even if they wished to do so, there is no longer a library with access to free knowledge that they can use to help themselves advance. Through disinterest, a cycle has been created which seems impossible to escape. Lack of literacy means that those who live here struggle in poverty, and they, our community, and our country all suffer for it. Learning has become mandatory, not voluntary. Education has become an ornament, unwanted here, and I am afraid that only the adversity of being left behind as the rest of the world advances will alter that position.

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This article has 11 comments. Post your own now!

Vitros said...
Oct. 22, 2012 at 11:32 pm
I empathize.  Even people who have been endowed with the ability to read, this connection with the vast collectie knowledge of humanity, do not see the beauty in knowledge.  In knowing.  In reading.  As a future educator, it is somewhat disheartening.  As a scientist and dissident, I believe it is a challenge we can overcome.  There are people such as you...such as us, the entirety of TeenInk and other young writers, striving to give the gifts of joy a... (more »)
Kimmberrly said...
Feb. 24, 2012 at 12:26 pm
Great essay. Unfortunately some of these comments prove your point
earlybird_8 This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Jun. 4, 2011 at 11:25 am
I think your article makes a good point, but you kinda got one fact wrong. America's literacy rate is closer to 99%, not 87%. Other than that I thought you were able to write a really interesting article.
Blood-of-Ink This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Jun. 4, 2011 at 11:42 am
The statistic depends on your definition of the term "literacy." I was using the definition for "functional illiteracy," where people have trouble with reading, speaking, writing and/or computational skills. This number has even grown since I wrote this.
earlybird_8 This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Jun. 4, 2011 at 11:21 pm
Ooooohhh.... I thought you just meant people who could read. But if you're counting people who can read beyond a third grade level, the literacy rate's probably closer to 10% ;p
bookwormjunkie said...
Jun. 4, 2011 at 9:51 am
Blood-of-Ink This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Jun. 4, 2011 at 9:59 am
If you really think that's the case, I would encourage you to look around more. I only wrote this last year, and it still applies. According to the Washington Post, one out of four Americans didn't read even one book last year, and the number is growing. Maybe Texas /is/ different, but I doubt it. Please make sure you have all the facts before criticising my work.
bookwormjunkie replied...
Jun. 7, 2011 at 5:00 pm
well im sorry for insulting u. i did not mean to. but i guess i should check more.but it did not occor to me, since around here,in the dallas area, there's lots of reading.but i could be wrong !!!!and u could know much MORE than me! so srry in advance if i anger u!!DX
Blood-of-Ink This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Jun. 7, 2011 at 5:11 pm
This was a college essay, so you can be sure I researched and checked my facts. And you really shouldn't take it for granted that everyone in your area is reading. Texas does have a large "functionally illiterate" population. It's sad, and you never want to believe it about your own area, but it is true. And please, try to sound less confrontational. I'm touchy about my work. Sorry if I snapped.
bookwormjunkie replied...
Jun. 7, 2011 at 5:15 pm

thats okay!

i should hav reschered

and plus i should b more considerate and i had nooooo idea!!!about that in texas!!!DX

Green.Ink said...
Mar. 7, 2010 at 1:18 pm
I've always thought about this tragedy, and you did a great job putting it into words.
It's truly a depressing thought to look around and see what's happening to the world, education-wise and otherwise.
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