By Jenny Horn

Since the formal beginnings of the education system in the United States, literacy rates have acted as a divider amongst young and mature readers alike. While efforts have been made to improve the literacy rates of our congregate population, when applied today, the same struggles and disparities between Americans who can and cannot read remain. 

For example:

Literacy as a tool of oppression

To best understand why these numbers remain prevalent today, we need to look at the greater history of literacy in both the American education system and the general public sphere. Literacy has long been used as a method of social control and oppression, where throughout history the ability to read and write was reserved for only the most privileged – that is, wealthy, white, men. An education was not provided for free, thereby preserving a class system that kept the poor powerless and the rich powerful. These practices may be rooted in deep history, but largely still have their effects today. 

According to the Smithsonian Museum Archives, after the slave revolt of 1831, all slave states except Maryland, Kentucky, and Tennessee passed laws that made it illegal to teach slaves to read and write. The Alabama Slave Code of 1833 included this following law: “Any person who shall attempt to teach any free person of color, or slave, to spell, read or write, shall upon conviction thereof by indictment, be fined in a sum of not less than two hundred fifty dollars, nor more than five hundred dollars.”

Frederick Douglass

The concern of slaves learning how to read and write for themselves was primarily because if slaves learned to read, they could access information, read newspapers, read books, and understand their rights. They would be better equipped to organize and rise up against the institution of slavery, and slave owners wanted to keep their slaves uneducated and powerless, and understood that literacy represented power. Prominent abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass, for example, learned the alphabet secretly as a child from his slave master’s wife, Sophia Auld. As a young adult, Douglass pursued learning on his own, secretly reading books and newspapers, later going on to famously say that “once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”

Women, too, were largely left out of education in history. Educating women simply was not a priority until the early 1900s and even then, women attending college was a rarity up until the 1960s. Early Americans often believed it was a waste to educate women past the basics of simple reading and writing since per general view, it was a woman’s job to run a home, raise a family, and take care of only “trivial” matters. In fact, Bard College’s Joel Perlmann and Boston College’s Dennis Shirley report that “half the women born around 1730 were illiterate.” Women might have been taught to read at home or in an early girls’ school, but they largely weren’t taught to write, and often didn’t have access to secondary school in the early American colonies and states. As is more commonly addressed today, these inequalities in schooling can relate to social justice as a larger issue.

To put it one way, when someone cannot read, they are excluded from many of the things that allow us to be fully functional citizens with optimal choices and individual autonomy. Those who are illiterate lack access to even basic information, are excluded from making choices regarding their rights or government, and have fewer opportunities for employment. Illiteracy keeps people trapped in a cycle of poverty and subjugation, limiting life choices and making it difficult to achieve social mobility. Yet, while today’s American public schools are compulsory and free to attend, reading remains a critical pathway to freedom.

Literacy rates today

Today in the United States, literacy rates vary greatly between racial and socio-economic groups, and minorities and marginalized groups are still oppressed through facing lower literacy levels at a higher rate than the general American population. On a most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress 12th Grade Reading Level Assessment (2015), 46% of white students scored at or above proficient, while only 17% of black students and 25% of Latino students scored proficient. In McKinsey & Company’s The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools, it is explained that “Black and Latino students are roughly two to three years of learning behind White students of the same age.” McKinsey’s research also showed that the achievement gap can lead to “heavy and often tragic consequences, via lower earnings, poorer health and higher rates of incarceration.” This achievement gap becomes an opportunity gap, an economic gap, and a racial gap, which gets passed on generation to generation unless and until it’s disrupted.

Comprehensive national literacy studies are not conducted annually, but the National Commission on Adult Literacy released a report in June of 2008 naming several factors contributing to the nation’s literacy crisis. The report claims that 1 in 3 people in the United States drop out of high school and that 1 in 4 American families are low-income with parents who lack education and skills to improve their economic status, further contributing to the maintenance of a cycle of poverty, affecting every new generation of children. In addition, 1 in every 100 adults is in prison in the United States, and more than half of those inmates have low literacy skills. Finally, language barriers resulting from increased immigration have contributed to lower literacy levels in modern America, where according to the Center for Immigration Studies, 41% of adult immigrants score at or below the lowest level of English literacy and 28% have not completed high school, limiting access to higher education, employment and increasing the likelihood of living in poverty.

Literacy as a tool for social justice

Literacy is an authentic and complex social justice issue as it determines many of the factors that contribute to a student’s future quality of life, and as teachers across the United States will tell you, especially those in low-income areas, students are coming to their classrooms each year reading well below grade level. While there isn’t one magic solution to our nation’s literacy problem, there are programs today initiated to address the disproportionate literacy rates amongst the general American population.

Photo credit: Adult Reading Program
by Lester Public Library

There are schools that prioritize literacy instruction all the way through from K to 12 (not just in the lower grades) ensuring that students graduate at or above grade level, “Two Generation” programs that afford both children and their parents education, job training, and community assistance, language acquisition, adult learning, and job training programs for immigrants and workers in need that help elevate literacy and work skills and provide access to higher income and opportunities, and organizations and communities that work to provide books to schools and directly to families. It’s these very approaches that address not only reading at the classroom level for students, but also acknowledge the contributing factors to illiteracy and achievement disparities.

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