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Californians Who Can't Read: A TIMES PUBLICE SERVICE REPORT : Politics of Literacy : Literacy and Political Power

Californians Who Can't Read: THIRD IN A THREE PART SERIES

September 11, 1988|JONATHAN KOZOL

When nearly half of all adult black citizens in the United States are coming out of public schools without the competence to understand the antidote instructions on a chemical container, instructions on a medicine bottle, or the books and journalistic pieces which might render them both potent and judicious in a voting booth, who can pretend that literacy is not political?

When over one-third of the adult population is unable to read editorial opinions, when millions cannot understand the warning on a pack of cigarettes or comprehend the documents they sign to rent a home, to buy a car, to purchase health insurance, who can persist in the belief that literacy is not political?

The answer is that no one can this. The most that we can do is to pretend that we believe it. It is a fragile pretense, and it will not hold.

When people are powerless, when they see their children rendered powerless, when they recognize that one essential aspect of that impotence is inability to read and write, to understand, to know, they are obliged to ask themselves: "Am I inherently deficient? Am I lacking in intelligence? in energy? in will? If the answer is yes, I am inferior. If the answer is no, I am the victim of injustice." Those who settle for the former answer are the victims of pathology. Those who can emerge from this pathology to choose the second answer are political.

From "Illiterate America" (Doubleday).

The Candidates' Debate on Illiteracy Vice President George Bush

Since 1982, Barbara Bush, the vice president's wife, has been an active supporter of literacy programs across the country. While touring the highly acclaimed literacy program at the Maryland Correctional Institute, for example, she said that "Many of these people would not be here if they had an adult at home who made sure that they could read . . . Reading is the key that unlocks the door to attaining the American Dream."

Vice President George Bush, in turn, has actively supported private industry literacy programs. In an Ohio conference on public/private partnerships in 1987, he said, "More partnerships between business and government should put an emphasis on making this country literate. I believe it's the answer to technological change. I believe it's the answer to competitiveness. I believe it's the best poverty program of all." Bush cited as an example a partnership between the Columbus, Ohio School Diustrict and IBM to help functionally illiterate adults learn basic reading and writing skills. IBM provides the computer software and the school system furnishes the hardware, space and instruction for 75 people a day in the literacy laboratory. "Public-private partnerships," Bush said, "create a mutualbond that makes the community stronger, more vital and more attractive to both new residents and new businesses."

Gov. Michael Dukakis

Last November, Sen. Kennedy (D-Mass.) passed a bill through the House and Senate to launch a national literacy program that would encourage college students to tutor adults and children in exchagne for academic credit. The measure set aside $20 million to be spent in 1988 and '89 as start-up grants for hundreds of colleges and universities. "A problem as enormous as illiteracy,3 Kennedy said, "has tremendous costs to the nation in terms of public welfare expenditures, unemployment benefits, crime, and even prison maintenance. And it also has large human costs in terms of blighted lives." Under Kennedy's program, students would be required to tutor six hours each week of a typical 10-week semester, check in with a teacher on a daily basis, and submit a final report to a faculty supervisor at the end of the semester.

In March of this year, Gov. Michael Dukakis announced a "major push" to end adult illiteracy through a program similar to Kennedy's, but funded by state grants and private donations. The governor said that Massachusetts has contributed almost $400,000 to 89 programs around the state for recruiting volunteers to tutor illiterate adults in reading and writing. Dukakis said he was moved to make adult illiteracy a high priorty after an encounter with a 37-year-old maintenance man who approached him during his 1985 gubernatorial campaign and asked how he could learn to read and write. The literacy program will depend heavily on volunteers in libraries and community training and teaching programs and will be publicized in cinemas and through a toll-free hotline, Dukakis said.

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