The Cost of Illiteracy

Without literacy, we are left vulnerable to manipulative charlatans like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, as well as their doppelgangers in Philadelphia's big dailies. Just check out the unhinged debate over health care reform.

By Brendan Skwire
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 6 | Posted Nov. 22, 2009

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This past Friday I participated in the Literacy Freeze, a publicity stunt held by Philadelphia's Center for Literacy -- my employer -- to draw attention to the disgraceful condition of our city: more than 200,000 Philadelphians don't have so much as a high school diploma, and 8,200 kids drop out of our high schools every year. More than 20 percent of Philadelphia adults lack basic literacy skills. In concrete terms that means not being able to help a fifth grader with his or her homework. The impact is tremendous, trapping thousands in dead-end jobs or unemployment, robbing the city of much-needed revenue and lowering the quality of life for everyone.

When people think about literacy, they generally think about the ability to read, write and do math. But it's more than that: what literacy is also about is drawing meaning and context from the words and numbers on the page.

When you look at how children acquire literacy, it begins with very basic "Dick and Jane"-type texts, through more complicated books that have chapters, to texts that require the reader to have some level of cultural knowledge: references to past presidents, for example, or elements of history, mythology, and other touchstones. I was an early reader, and by third grade was reading way above my level. But that didn't mean I was historically literate, which probably explains why, when I chose Tom Sawyer as the book I wanted to read aloud to to my classmates, Mrs. Gallagher quickly shut me down as I mangled Twain's colloquialisms, reading the words clearly but failing to absorb their meaning.

Those who don't have that higher level of literacy are left vulnerable to manipulative charlatans like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, as well as their doppelgangers in Philadelphia's big dailies. And nowhere is this better seen than in the increasingly unhinged debate over health care reform.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a picture from an insane teabag event in DC on my Facebook page with the caption: "Brendan Skwire is getting really tired of seeing 'health care reform' depicted as the wholesale slaughter of 6 million Jews'". It caused quite a stir. A friend who thinks he's a libertarian chimed in with a fairly ignorant comment. (In the following excerpts, I leave the spelling and grammar uncorrected.)

Looking at the banner though, it appears to show a historical fact, national socialist, ie nazis, allowed for the slaughter of millions to happen in the name of mass collective thought and the insane dream of a better national good. did it not? if not, who is the holocaust denier now? again though, im not saying I agree with using it in this context, just that, on its own, it is factually correct, you are making the comparison for yourself based on the context, the banner isn't. And like any editorial, one that invokes one to think in order to understand, is the most powerful.

That sparked a pig-pile of well-deserved derision. Here's a particularly good one from one of my favorite (if lesser-known)Philadelphia bloggers:

"allowed for the slaughter of millions to happen in the name of mass collective thought and the insane dream of a better national good. did it not?"

so you're trying to imply that any time a leader talks about the national good, it's like the nazis? that's insane! plus it would mean every president was a nazi.

the problem with nazis is not that they were trying to improve society as they saw fit, it was that their effort included the slaughter of millions of people. i'm all for making a better world, but draw the line at genocide. to compare health care reform to nazism strikes me as both insulting to the victims of the holocaust and mind-bogglinging stupid.

so no, i don't see anything factually correct at all. in fact, it seems to me that the sign holder is trying to draw a comparison between two very different things and looking rather stupid in the process.

Indeed. But my glibertarian friend did not get it, and continued to dig his hole deeper:

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Comments 1 - 6 of 6
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1. Anonymous said... on Nov 24, 2009 at 08:32PM

“Right, because if there's one thing that concerns me about Philadelphia's sky-high illiteracy rate, it's that black children in the inner city will grow to become followers of the far right.

Brendan, do you have anything new to add to discussions, or are you just here to remind us that the right wing still sucks? Because I can go pretty much anywhere else for that.”

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2. So where are we now? said... on Nov 24, 2009 at 09:58PM

“What an absolute crock! Check your statistics. The large majority of the illiterate live in urban areas and follow the progressive march. Much like the old parable about the carrot on the stick, and its one huge carrot full of maggots paid for by those who can read. While at the same time the "elite", which you know doubt aspire to please, look down on anyone foolish enough to actually stand up for their individual rights. How many books does Mr. Beck have on the best seller lists? Are his followers simply buying the books to use them as booster seats? Beyond that why was Mr. Beck called (although sardonically) the "new Oprah"? Mr. Beck happens to suggest over and over gain that those who want to learn for themselves read many books (not authored by him) to come to their own conclusion. If anything sir, you are guilty of the charges you so loudly flatulate.”

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3. Deep said... on Nov 25, 2009 at 12:02PM

“I think you are missing a link in this article. You go from a very important point about illiteracy among adults in Philadelphia. Then you go on to the moronic teabaggers. I am lost here.

Anyways, we need to address the issue of the undereducation of Philadelphians. The life outcome for a child in the Philly school system is highly dependent on the parent. If the parent is aware enough and savvy enoug, their child will get into the right charter schools and eventually the right high school. Then that child will be just as equiped for the real world as their suburban counterparts. If the parent is undereducated themself, chances are they don't know what are the better options are, they won't be able to take a bigger part in the their child's education. Thus their child will be just as doomed as they are. Thus continuing the downward spiral.

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4. Anonymous said... on Nov 26, 2009 at 04:01AM

“Im glad "Deep" pointed out the obvious to the author (since the obvious tends to escape him regularly). Many, if not most social issues start with the parents. Parents need to be held responsible for their own children and need to take an interest in their education. This author without fail expects the rest of society and the government to take on the burden of irresponsible citizens of this country. People make their own personal choices in life. It is high time people start taking responsibility for those choices. Unfortuantely the progressive liberals in this country are responsible for this type of "Not my problem, let someone else take care of it" attitude.”

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5. Seth said... on Dec 3, 2009 at 09:55AM

“To Anonymous #1, the author in my mind makes a direct connection between illiteracy and the inability to participate fully in a constructive debate about substantive issues that affect our society. That said, So where are we now? the author is pointing out the fact that those of us who are illiterate won't be able to follow Mr. Beck's advice to read a book and form our own conclusions. Which then will leave those same illiterate people hanging on his (and Olbermann's, and Matthew's and O'Reilly's) every word, counting it as truth, unable to compare what they say to other sources. Lastly, Deep and Anonymous #4, I agree with you that success starts in the home. However, how is it that you suggest we hold parents responsible for their children, and their disinterest in the education of such children? Remember, we are talking about children. We live in a society where the marginalized, poor, and most easily harmed tend to be children whose parent's don't care. Innocent children.”

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6. Seth said... on Dec 3, 2009 at 10:02AM

“...Are we to allow them to fall by the wayside because of the failures of their parents? Or will we do the best to make sure what they are offered is the best education available, regardless of location, economic status, race, so on and so forth?

Now for some action...
Join the Philadelphia Young Democrats on Thursday, December 3rd at 7:00pm for a thought provoking forum on literacy and education. There are an estimated 400,000 adults living in Philadelphia with low literacy skills. In addition, there are tens of thousands of out-of-school youths without the necessary literacy skills needed to function fully in society. Let's discuss the politics of education by addressing questions of culture and race, access, policy.
We'll be at Sweeten Alumni House (UPENN) 3533 Locust Walk. Entrance at 34th and Walnut.”


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