Can you read this word? Vocabulary.
And this one? Grammar.
How about this word? Spelling.
You just read, among other things, words that define the characteristics of written language. You just read a sentence – an ordered arrangement of letters on a screen that I used to communicate. Built into sentences, paragraphs and books, words give us warnings, education, entertainment and many other expressions of human ingenuity, wit and passion. And all of those emotions and ideas are passed along from person to person, if you are one of the lucky ones. If you are literate. As members of a formerly very exclusive club, you get to experience every day a tremendous gift that was not always taken for granted.
My six-year old son has entered the stage of discovery of words and reading that is among the most delightful periods of any person’s life. As we drive around town, I hear him in the backseat, slowly pronouncing street signs, storefront displays and on occasion, an inappropriate bumper sticker.
As I listen to him, I’m reminded of that period in my life – and likely yours – that long ago passed. The period of transition that usually happens for most of us between ages 4-8; the transformation from fluent speaker to fluent reader. From illiterate to literate human being.
Literacy is so widespread in modern America, you may go your entire life and never meet someone who can’t read. When my grandmother married her second husband Henry, an old country farmer (my grandfather was tragically killed in a car wreck just a few months after retirement), most of the family was stunned to discover he couldn’t read beyond a first grade level and he couldn’t really write.
Yet, one hundred years ago, Henry would have had plenty of company among the ranks of the laborer and farmer, the rail-splitter and the coal miner. And prior to 500 years ago, or basically 90% of all recorded human history, literacy was maintained by a small elite group within most civilizations, usually religious and civic leaders.
It is difficult to comprehend not being able to read. Everywhere I go, words pour out from signs on every building, books in every home, every computer screen filled, all in contest for my attention. I don’t realize it consciously enough, but we have the tremendous fortune of being able to see these words and understand their meaning. We are literate. When everyone has an ability, the natural tendency is to take that ability for granted. Once again, a review of history is instructive.
Take a look at this color map illustrating global literacy rates over the past 110 years. It’s remarkable to see that in enormous chunks of the planet, 50%-70% of the population was illiterate in 1900.
It’s stunning. Yet even more shocking is the rise and fall of the literacy rate in America. It’s a little known fact that more American men were literate in the Colonial Period than there are today.
A few excerpts from the above article are compelling:
Best-selling historian David McCulloch, whose most recent book is 1776, is another knowledgeable source who said that the literacy rate in Massachusetts was higher in 1798 than it is today. One reason why, he adds, was nearly everybody read the Bible.
(By) 1900 only 10.7% of Americans were functionally illiterate. That is, they could not read or write a simple message in any language. By 1923, that percentage had doubled to 20.7. This was when compulsory schooling became virtually universal.
In 1950 the overall literacy rate was estimated at 97%.
Less than 50 years later, in 1996, it had declined to less than 80%.
The ebb and flow of literacy in our country is interesting and requires more study by this writer before advancing a position or a theory. In the meantime, if you were able to read this may I encourage you to do two things?
- Thank a teacher. Someone helped give you access to the world of written communication. This is a big deal.
- Read. More. Expand your mind, expand your future. You are able to access information and education on a grander scale and with greater ease than at any time in human history. Failing to read is a failure.
Effective democracy requires an educated citizenry. If you are literate, you owe it to yourself and your fellow man. READ.