Why Can’t 32 Million American Adults Read This Article?

Illiteracy, the inability to turn abstract symbols called letters into meaningful words, should be a vanishing problem. Unfortunately, in the United States, adult illiteracy remains quite widespread. How many American adults can’t even read this commentary? How many American adults can’t read a simple newspaper article, understand warning labels, or write an effective complaint letter? Can’t read? Take a guess. Five million adults? Ten million adults? Twelve million adults?

According to a new federal study just released, an estimated 32 million American adults remain functionally illiterate in 2009. That’s larger than the population of many countries – and as large as California’s total population.

USA TODAY reporter Greg Toppo told part of the depressing story yesterday in an excellent, concise frontpage article on January 10, 2009. Title? Literacy Study: 1 in 7 U.S. adults are unable to read this story. “A long-awaited federal study finds that an estimated 32 million adults in the USA – about one in seven – are saddled with such low literacy skills that it would be tough for them to read anything more challenging than a children’s picture book.”

Is the situation improving? NO! “From 1992 to 2003, it shows, the USA added about 23 million adults to its population; in that period, an estimated 3.6 million more joined the ranks of adults with low literacy skills.” A U.S. Education Department expert explains. “They really cannot read … paragraphs (or) sentences that are connected.” USA TODAY deserves credit for bringing more attention than usual to this avoidable tragedy. President John F. Kennedy famously noted that “a child miseducated is a child lost.” Those lost children have become adults!

So how can we explain these shocking findings? Worse, why are these shocking statistics considered “old news” to adult education experts? How is this possible? Why is this awful situation tolerated by some public education experts? Where is the outrage?

Is it because providing a decent education for America’s underclass would be too expensive? Really? Please don’t tell me that there is a lack of money because the federal government just gave away – without conditions or even pretense of accountability – $350 BILLION dollars to wealthy banks and mega international corporations.

The American public education system is failing on multiple levels. Adult education remains the stepchild of public education. Underfunded, often overlooked, and seldom appreciated, adult education plays a vital role in teaching essential life skills – including reading and writing – to thousands. Thousands of adult educators work long hours in stressful jobs, often part-time without fulltime benefits, to help high school dropouts prepare for a GED and new immigrants learn English. Yet the gap between the objective educational needs and funding to provide a real first world education to these struggling adults remains huge.

“Only the educated are free,” noted Epictetus, a former slave and Greek stoic philosopher, over 2,000 years ago. How free are those 32 illiterate American adults? Will President Obama address this widespread, documented crisis in public education? Perhaps. Meanwhile, the United States is wasting our capital resources! It’s long past time to invest in our own people, rebuild our inner cities, and recover the American dream. So will Obama reorganize our education system and direct billions needed to provide real universal public education? Consider me, as so often, a skeptic. But we must do better!

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