[The Montana Professor 1.2, Spring 1991 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

Only the Educated are Free

Kathleen A. Hall
Eastern Montana College

"Only the educated are free"--Epictetus

Many of us find turning forty to be cataclysmic, which explains a great deal about middle-aged men and red sports cars. My own brother uncharacteristically went to Nepal and climbed the Himalayas. I quit smoking and joined worthy organizations, immediately becoming the most boring person I know. One of those organizations is the Literacy Volunteers of America-Billings. I now find myself to be chairman of the Board, which gives legitimacy to what follows.

A functionally illiterate adult may be defined as a person who lacks adequate reading, writing, or math skills to perform basic survival functions in the society in which he lives. Illiteracy remains a tragedy for an individual, for his family, for his community, and for his country. In the United States today, 30 million adults (one out of five) are functionally illiterate. They cannot read beyond the 5th grade level. Another 38 million adults have low literacy, reading at the 8th grade level or below. Half of all adult Americans are unable to read an 8th grade level book! To conceptualize "grade level," consider that the directions to heat up a microwave dinner are on an 8th grade level; a General Motors owner's manual is on a 9th grade level; apartment leases, insurance forms, etc., are on an 11th grade level.

Internationally, the situation is equally grim. One out of five men worldwide is illiterate; even sadder, on out of three women is illiterate. The United Nations estimates that there will be 912 million illiterate adults by the year 2000.

How do we value education in the United States? Out of the 156 nations in the United Nations, the United States ranks 49th in its rate of literacy. How do we value education? Nationally, the high school drop-out rate is 27%. In Japan it is 5%; in the U.S.S.R. it is 2%. How do we value education? Education majors are students who have scored 32 points below average on the verbal SAT, 48 points below average on the math SAT. Our brighter students are choosing careers with more money and more prestige. How do we value education? In 1980 the total federal appropriation for education was 2.5% of the total budget. In 1991 the federal appropriation is down to 1.7%. We value education $1.70 out of every $100 we spend.

How do we value education in Montana? The Montana State Literacy Council, composed of 16 education specialists, met and worked periodically during six months in 1989, the result of a 1988 executive order from Governor Ted Schwinden. This expensive venture produced a report on adult literacy in Montana that is clear, specific, well-written, and succinct. The group made 19 excellent, practical, well-founded suggestions to Governor Stan Stephens and Superintendent Nancy Keenan. To date, none of the recommendations has been implemented.

Illiteracy is costing us a veritable king's ransom. "The nation's ability to compete is threatened by inadequate investment in our most important resource: people. Put simply, too many workers lack the skills to perform demanding jobs" (U.S. Department of Labor). One in five adult Americans is functionally illiterate; three in five prison inmates are functionally illiterate. Adults who can't read cost us $224 billion each year (more than this year's federal deficit) through lost wages, lost taxes, basic skills training, unemployment compensation, prisons and law enforcement, and lost international competitiveness.

Solving this catastrophic problem is being left to volunteers, for the most part. Certainly here in Montana literacy efforts are a patchwork quilt of miscommunication. There are 13 Literacy Volunteers of America programs in the state, as well as a very confusing miscellany of publicly-funded programs, research studies, and experimental projects. I have been unable to discover anyone who coordinates, monitors, and/or advises these disparate, and surely redundant, efforts--not the Montana State Library, not the Office of Public Instruction, not the Montana University System.

UNESCO has declared the 1990s to be the decade of literacy. Its intention is to make wrong its own projection of 912 million illiterate adults by the year 2000. Its proclamation issues the challenge, "Recognition of the right to learn is now more than ever a major challenge for humanity." Creating literacy is vitally important, too important to be left to well-intentioned amateurs. It is disgraceful that that is the situation in Montana.

[The Montana Professor 1.2, Spring 1991 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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