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Supper at the illiterate restaurant : ILLITERATE AMERICA by Jonathan Kozol (Doubleday: $15.95; 260 pp.)

March 17, 1985|David G. Savage | Savage is a Times education writer. and

What can those of us who can read do for those who can't?

Jonathan Kozol, author of "Illiterate America," would say first: "Become alarmed." He estimates that 60 million Americans are either totally illiterate or can barely read, about one-third of the nation's adults. This "invisible minority" not only suffers exclusion from the benefits, economic and political, of this nation, he says, but also poses a danger to the rest of us. Everything from low productivity to serious industrial accidents may stem from workers who cannot read simple instructions.

Next, we should get behind a "plan to mobilize illiterate America." He suggests that the federal government appropriate $10 billion a year to support an army of neighborhood volunteers who would round up illiterates and teach them to read. This would not be a government program per se, he writes, or even one that operated through traditional institutions such as schools or community colleges. Instead, it would operate through churches and community centers, relying on "potluck suppers" and the like, to draw in the non-readers. The federal money would provide "stipends" to those participating in this "grass roots struggle."

Kozol also says that the federal government should pass out free books to illiterates. "My own belief is that the people are entitled to these books and that this entitlement should be mandated by the federal government just as it should mandate all other bare necessities . . . which a decent nation owes to every citizen without condition." Libraries are fine, he adds, but their books are to be borrowed and returned. As Kozol puts it, "No human being who wants to read and own a book should ever have to go on a bended knee to get it."

While belittling American government efforts to reduce illiteracy as inadequate or wrong-headed or both, Kozol does find two models to admire: Cuba and Nicaragua. It is only "imperial arrogance," Kozol writes, that permits many Americans to discount the "spectacular Cuban achievement." There, "dynamic government leaders" were able to achieve "national mobilization."

Not one to be dissuaded by the 20th-Century experience with Marxism and "progressive revolutions," Kozol says his goal is "the building of a national upheaval" that is "fired from the bottom up."

In one of his more fevered passages, he said he hopes to find among the readers of this book some "bold and gifted leaders (who can) crystallize emotions" among the poor and illiterate of this nation. The "struggle" depends on "the catalytic force of energized protagonists on those whose inarticulate despair provides the light and fire that illuminate and burn away the encrustations of apology and hesitation from a purifying rage."

He has little to say about education or schools. He does not mention, for example, that the United States will spend $240 billion this year on public education, that every child is offered 12 years of free schooling whose first goal is to teach reading, and that practically every state has free adult education for those who, for whatever reason, didn't learn to read.

This is not Kozol's concern. He comments at one point that he finds more "rapid progress" among those who drop out of school early because they have "not yet developed an extreme antipathy to words."

Maybe so, but if he is correct, wouldn't that be a more interesting topic for a book? How is it that so many persons can be exposed to schooling and learn so little? And, wouldn't answers to that question, and reforms in the present educational system, be more fruitful in combating illiteracy than federally subsidized "potluck suppers?"

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