Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Literacy in America and abroad

There are still too many people who can’t read or at least they can’t or don’t read very well and in some countries the illiteracy rate is much higher even for the most basic standards; therefore a large percentage of the public has to rely on those who can read and sort through many details to make many of the most important decisions for them.

This should be considered unacceptable in a sincere democracy and much more should be done to change it in a much more efficient way.

The implications of this are much more serious than many people realize. In the preface of Mein Kamph Adolph Hitler said “I know that men are won over less by the written than by the spoken word, that every great movement on this earth owes its growth to great orators and not to great writers.” He made it clear that he understood that the masses were not well enough educated about many subjects and therefore it was much easier for him to manipulate them by catering to their emotions. Part of the reason for this is because the masses weren’t taught to read well enough and sort through the details of any given subject; therefore they were more susceptible to the indoctrination tactics for many demagogues like Hitler who wanted to manipulate them for their own purposes. There may not be many if any demagogues quite as extreme as Hitler but there are still plenty of them around and many of them are much more insidious. By providing a better education to the masses it will enable them to recognize the manipulation tactics being used by many politicians, marketers, war mongers and other deceptive people. The quality of democracy is dependent of the quality of the education that the public receives and this starts with their ability to read and comprehend a variety of subjects.

The biggest reason why many people haven’t learned how to read as well as they need to is because the systems haven’t been created to educate them and many of the most powerful people who control the most powerful institutions are more concerned with maintaining their own power than with educating the public; therefore if the public wants to install a fairer form of democracy they need to take the initiative to improve their own education regardless of what those in power do. In many cases children aren’t taught how to read in the most effective way possible because their parents don’t understand how important it is due to the fact that they were never taught properly. Many people have come to take reading for granted; however the literacy of the majority of the public in some segments of society is actually very new. In many western societies literacy climbed up over ninety percent within the past couple hundred years as a result of the industrial revolution. Some of the countries with the highest literacy rates seem to be some of those that had communist or socialist governments that made a point of educating their own people. That doesn’t mean that they are the best educated in all fields but it is one important issue worth considering. It is also important whether or not many people continue to read after they learn how to and pay attention to important issues that affect society including the activities of the government and the methods used to coerce the public. There are several ways of defining this including functional literacy and media literacy etc. however it is very tough to maintain a clear standard and ensure that they’re all being measured by the same standard but there are some things we can be sure of if there is the political will and improve this regardless of the exact statistics.

One of the biggest reasons for children with learning problems involves early upbringing by their parents who use strict disciplinarian methods to teach their children. When parents use excessive force that often starts with spanking and escalates from there; it teaches the child to believe what they’re told no even if it is wrong. The child may be more concerned about avoiding punishment than about learning. If the child is traumatized by his parents it leads to many learning disorders and violent tendency; they also tend to accept what they’re told by authorities without question more and are less likely to sort out details and hold their leaders accountable. This doesn’t always impair the basic reading skills of the child but it may impair the thinking skills that enable the child to sort out mistakes and correct them. If the parent uses these strict disciplinarian methods to teach the child to read by rote the child will learn to read but it will be more like memorizing the process. This isn’t a problem unless it involves excessive coercive tactics. This type of upbringing is more common in the upper and lower classes than it is in the middle classes according to some studies some of which have been reviewed or conducted by Melvin Kohn and Murray Strauss. Parents from the lower classes are much less likely to have good reading skills themselves therefore they are less likely to teach them to their children and help them with their homework. In order to break this cycle it may require help and advice from those that are better educated and sincere about looking out for the best interest of the children. In many cases parents from the upper classes more likely.

One big reason why many people haven’t learned how to read as well as they need to is that many of the most powerful educational institutions have been controlled by the same people who control the political institutions and they have been influenced by business interests. When business first found that they needed a more educated public to run factories they encouraged more effective schools but only to meet the purposes they needed for them. Many of the most important improvements in many schools have happened at the local and grass roots level by the people. Unfortunately there have been many times in history where those in power have actively tried to prevent the masses from receiving a good education so they could maintain control over them and to prevent them from sticking up for their rights. The most blatant example of this may be when this was still a slave country and it was a major crime to educate black people. Now they are usually much more subtle when they try to withhold education necessary to improve literacy and they make more efforts to make it seem like they are doing something to improve it when they aren’t but it still goes on. One comment by Representative Harold Velde on the house floor in 1950 indicates his views, “Educating Americans through means of the library service could bring about a change of their political attitude quicker than any other method. The basis of communism and socialistic influence is education of the people.” This statement was made in reference to the Mobile library service for poor people living in rural parts of the country. What he fails to say is that by withholding education they are also leaving the public susceptible to capitalist indoctrination. Now they know better than to make such obvious statements in the open on the house floor but there are still indications that they aren’t trying to address the problem in the most effective way possible.

They have provided plenty of bailouts for business during the current economic crisis but when it comes to education they say they can’t do anything because they don’t have the money and we have to cut back even more. The education system is financed by property taxes which enables those with a lot of money to have the best educations system available and those without to have little or no educational opportunities. This is a blatantly undemocratic system since it deprives the poor and the middle classes of the education they need to participate in democracy. It is often even worse when the USA deals with foreign countries; in 1981 the Reagan administration tried to block school supplies from going to Vietnam and they also financed the Contras in Nicaragua which often attacked schools and other soft targets to prevent the Sandinistas from educating their people. The USA also contributes to many wars all around the world which prevent countries from educating their people in the most effective way possible. Many of the targets of US military action are among the worst educated people in the world and instead of trying to improve this by providing educational assistance the USA often supplies weapons to dictators that suppress their own people. US corporations often receive the benefit by obtaining virtual slave labor all over the world as a result of this suppression. Those that don’t have good reading skills are much less likely to sort through the details and find out that most if not all wars have been fought based on lies. This enables them to submit without understanding to the propaganda that is fed to them from the government and the Mass Media.

This is affecting the quality of democracy by depriving the majority of the public of the ability to read and understand a large amount of material that the need to make many of the most important decisions to participate in democracy. Many people rely on what the Mass Media puts in front of them but those who have good reading skills and take the initiative to use them can check other sources many of which are much more credible than the Mass Media. We routinely fight one war after another based on what the government and the Mass Media tell us; however those that have good reading skills and take the time to look for more reliable sources about the causes of these wars may find that most if not all of them have been based on lies and never should have been fought in the first place. The public routinely bases their decisions at the polls based on the same sources and these sources don’t seem to try to do a good job covering the basics of any given subject so the public will have the information they need to make rational decisions about them.

This is also true about the economy and just about everything the public does. Anyone that understands the basics of any given subject may realize that the most powerful institutions are distorting them so they can coerce the public. For example if people knew how to accomplish any given goal in the most effective way possible without spending a lot of money they could improve their quality of life without relying on businesses; however this isn’t considered good for the economy so the most powerful people controlling the major institutions don’t encourage it. They’re more concerned with the best interest of the business owners, who take a cut out of every transaction, than the consumers or workers. If the public was more capable of reading they could also do the research to find out how much damage is being done to the environment by the current capitalist overdrive system. If the public was better educated they could do much more to participate in democracy and the way the economy is perceived.

One of the biggest reasons this isn’t it being improved is the system of financing education in America and elsewhere is controlled by politicians who have an unstated interest in withholding education so they can continue to manipulate the public. One of the most effective ways they maintain a system where some people have access to a good education is ensuring that the education system is funded with property taxes at the local level. This might not be so bad if the majority of the public earned as much as they deserve but they don’t; the people that control the major institutions use that control to ensure that the workers aren’t paid enough and that the consumers don’t get their money’s worth so the business owners can make more profit. This guarantees that areas without much money won’t be able to afford to obtain a top rate education and the areas with a lot of money will have the best of everything. In some cases there may be rich communities that are building new schools even when the old ones are in perfectly good shape and poor communities that can’t even afford to pay for maintenance. This is done to ensure that the rich don’t have to pay more than they have to for the needs of the poor and it has the added benefit of leaving the poor without the education they need to participate in democracy so the politicians can continue giving them lip service while they make laws to benefit the corporations. They also use copyright laws to withhold information from the public unless they can afford to pay for it. This means even if the public knows how to read well they can’t access all the information they need in order to make the most important decision.

The communist and many socialist ideologies may not be perfect in all ways but they at least try to fund education in a fairer way than the capitalist ideology. According to Wikipedia the countries with the highest literacy rates are those that have had a communist or socialist government for the past fifty or more years. This doesn’t guarantee that they have quality education in other ways or that this applies to functional literacy but it is a positive indicator about the way they handle this function of government. Many of these governments have also been run by totalitarian states that use mass propaganda on their own people so their education in some cases may be more like indoctrination; however that could be the same in the USA if you sort through the details. One of the countries that seems to be doing the most to educate their own people and, according to Noam Chomsky and other sources, help educate people abroad and provide medical services is Cuba. Chomsky cites some incidents where Cuba sent teachers and doctors to Venezuela and Pakistan. He also cites a request for low cost fuel to the poor from the richest oil companies and the only one that responded was Venezuela who offered to give inexpensive heating fuel to people in the Boston area and if other companies followed suit to expand it. These countries are often demonized in the USA where they don’t provide either adequate health care or education. Support for education is one aspect that should be adopted if we are going to have a sincere democracy.

One way or another we need to make education available to everyone in order to have a sincere democracy. The politicians are more interested in posturing than solving this problem; if this assumption was false they would have already done more to address it than they have done. The politicians are always making speeches about it and coming up with slogans but when it comes to the most important things they don’t do anything. Clinton was the so called education president but he didn’t do much if anything to add funds to education; however he did extend the copyrights so that the corporations could charge more for books and make sure that an enormous amount of information isn’t readily available on the internet. GW Bush passed the “No child left behind bill” which sounds good and if it actually accomplished the job it would be good but of course it doesn’t instead of funding schools properly and reforming them he focused on testing and punishment of those that don’t perform. One of the most common excuses is that you can’t “solve the problem by just throwing money at it.” This is true of course there is more to it than that but the follow up always seems to be not putting the money into it at all. It is also true that you can’t solve the problem by withholding money either. If they can find money to provide corporate bailouts and fight wars based on lies they should be able to find money to educate the public and if this was a sincere democracy they would. This won’t change unless the public takes the initiative to hold their politicians accountable.

Wikipedia: list of literacy rates around the world

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The following are the original replies when this was first posted on Open Salon.

We don't teach critical thinking. We've denigrated the rewards of a Close Read by allowing academic anti-rationalists to lead students by the nose. To lit constructs, obscurantism full of inane nomenclature, that encourage thinkers to feel stupid and make sensible people throw up.

We stopped teaching Greek to teenagers. The passages they once used weren't just worksheet paragraphs, they were Examples, our human story, brilliant history and philosophy and writing.

So now we see a generation thinking great writing is a parlor game for snobs, and all else is entertainment, or should be.

rated for bring it up and thinking about it.

Greg Correll July 26, 2010 11:34 AM

Politicians are always wringing their hands about the decline of education in general and literacy in particular, but in reality you have to suspect they are satisfied with the trend. As the Hitler quote says, people are more easily manipulated through the spoken word (and, today, through television), and as far as trained professionals for our high tech industry are concerned, well, there are always plenty of Indians and Chinese to outsource the work to! But as Greg implies above, thoughtful reading and writing aren't just a snob's game, they are the foundation of American democracy - such as it is. Time to reread Fahrenheit 451, I'd say. Bradbury nailed it. Glenn Beck is our fireman-in-chief.


Judy Mandelbaum July 26, 2010 12:00 PM

I’m not sure who thinks critical thinking is snobbery but those that do are clearly misguided. Older versions of snobbery often involve withholding education from those of the wrong upbringing and coercing those of the right upbringing which leaves them both misinformed.

One exception where those with less education did a better job sorting out the details may be the Vietnam War. According to some polls less educated people were more likely to oppose it on moral grounds and more educated people were more likely to support it or oppose it as a mistake that didn’t accomplish the goal. Those with more education may have been less inclined to look at it from the point of view of the Vietnamese who saw the Americans as the invaders and gave popular support to the North. There were some exceptions of course like Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and Benjamin Spock. Thos may be because they got their information from the protest movement instead of educational institutions that accepted the government line.

zacherydtaylor July 28, 2010 09:41 AM

The wonderful folks at the Southern Poverty Law Center are trying to address some of these issues starting with their course on Civil Discourse in the Classroom. I have also come to the place where I am ready to approach the question of literacy by way of Visual Literacy, which is a part of the "neglected" teaching that we need to revisit, especially in the deep south where the voices are still altogether too loud and boisterous and are currently getting more airplay than they bargained for, if this morning's NPR reporting on John Boehner and Michelle Bachman are any indication...pass the popcorn...

doublygifted July 28, 2010 10:20 AM

Civil rights organizations have been doing that for the past fifty years which is why there has been a lot of improvement their but there is still a lot more to do. Now with the internet and the technology to replicate information this is being helped by efforts to make more educational information available for free but there still has to be more done to give people access to the internet.

zacherydtaylor July 28, 2010 10:30 AM

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