Literacy rates in America are astonishing and the negative physical and emotional ramifications of this trend affect the entire country. Is the United States an under cover third world country? We need to understand the severity of the problem and its impact on the world. Jonathan Kozol, a Harvard graduate, activist for illiteracy, and well known writer uses his civil liberty with power of the press to help bring attention to problems of illiteracy. In Kozol’s article, “The Human Cost of an Illiterate in Society,” he presents to his reader facts, and personal scenarios in order to effectively express his passion to bring attention to the huge problem of illiteracy in the USA. Kozol continues to work diligently as an advocate for literacy with hopes to end this crisis in America. We are reminded in his article the cause and effects of illiteracy in America was recognized long ago by James Madison when he wrote, “A people to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives. A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, it but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both” (39). Kozol suggests with intense passion that we need to unite as Americans and help fight this ever growing problem in society. Kozol’s emotional outreach by using real life examples help the reader understand the severity of how it feels to be illiterate, and how it will continue to haunt everyone in this country if we do not take a stance on the issue.
In Kozol’s article “The Human Cost of an Illiterate in Society” he examines how Illiteracy effects every aspect of our lives from political elections to grocery shopping. Kozol states “the number of illiterate adults exceeds by 16 million the entire vote cast for the winner of the 1980 presidential contest. If even one-third of all illiterates could vote, and read enough and do sufficient math to vote in their self-interest, Ronald Reagan would not likely have been chosen president” (39). This mind-boggling statistic indicates the trickle down effect of Illiteracy in America. Could we have possibly avoided a major recession if more people were literate? Kozol reminds the reader that there are folks in America who cannot read and only vote by picking out a seemingly trustful face, and don’t have the luxury of reading factual infestation while choosing. In reality, these folks are forced to make a decision based off emotions with very limited knowledge of the facts or platforms the candidates support.
Democracy in America is directly affected by literacy rates, and the government seems to prey on the high percentage of uneducated voters who in turn help the rich get richer and poor get poorer. I agree with Kozol that the problem of illiterate voters making a choice without understanding what they are choosing is a threat to our free society. Democracy is a form of government in which people have the right to choose and have equal rights. The lack of education creates more inequalities than any other factor among Americans, including race and religion. In order to save our democratic society we must consider the illiteracy rates in order to develop a nation that can effectively work to help one another truly acquire equal rights.
Kozol paints a realistic perspective on the problem as he describes personal experiences from illiterate Americans and how illiteracy negatively impacts their lives and families: “Even when labels are seemingly clear, they may be easily mistaken. A woman in Detroit brought a gallon of Crisco for her children’s dinner. She thought she had purchased the chicken that was pictured on the label. She had enough Crisco to last a year-but no more money to go back and buy food for dinner. ” (42). Kozol adds a human face to the readers mind and creates a thought provoking picture with his words as he entrances his reader using real life examples of the impact of illiteracy The burden of being illiterate topped off with the chore of managing a family is a struggle that must be exhausting. Kozol presents another heart tugging example as he explains “illiterates cannot read instructions on a pack of frozen food. Packages sometimes provide an illustration to explain the cooking preparations; but illustrations are of little help to someone who must “boil water, drop the food-without its plastic wrapper-in boiling water, wait for it to simmer, instantly remove,” (42). The humiliation of melting your food in a plastic wrapper due to the fact you cannot read is not only dangerous to consume, but emotionally tasking on the meal preparer.
It’s obvious from reading this article that illiterate people have limited choices in every aspect of their lives. These people are oppressed from the lack of education and depend solely on others for direction. The simple task of traveling is not a mundane and daily function for illiterate people. Kozol writes, “Illiterates cannot travel freely. When they attempt to do so, they encounter risk that few of us can dream of. They cannot read traffic signs and, while they often learn to recognize and to decipher symbols, they cannot manage street names which they haven’t seen before. The same is true for bus and subway stops” (45). This fact points out that most illiterate people cannot comfortably travel outside of a few blocks. The anxiety of trying to find their way to and from a destination is too draining – and embarrassing. They are essentially a prisoner in their homes. The irony of these people being stuck not only geographically but economically is heart wrenching. They are somewhat lost even when they are home. This is a state of human suffering that seems to be brushed under the bridge by most people.
The overall physical health of the illiterate and their families is always at stake. They cannot read labels of warnings on cigarettes packages. Kozol explains the impact of being illiterate has the general state of health of these folks: “Many illiterates cannot read the admonition on a pack of cigarettes. With the Surgeon Generals’s warning nor its reproduction on the package can alert them to the risks” (45). Once again, the illiterate person is persuaded to make a poor choice by a seemingly trustworthy face on advertisements. The government urges the poor to take care of themselves and make wiser choices about nutrition and health when reality is they don’t have the ability to take care of their health because it requires literacy which the government does not figure into the equation. The printed material they hand out freely at clinics is worthless to the uneducated.
Its time for America to understand that illiteracy is an epidemic. Illiteracy should be examined not only statistically but by observing the impact it has on people socially and physically. It seems the government intentionally neglects the problem and society has become desensitized to the issue. Where are the advocates for the less fortunate? Kozol suggest to the reader to reflect on the facts and scenarios he presents in saying “Perhaps we might slow down a moment here and look at the realities described above. This nation that we live in. This is a society that most of us did not create but which our President and other leaders have been willing to sustain by virtue of malign neglect. Do we possess the character and courage to address a problem which so many nations, poorer than our own, have found it natural to correct?” (47). We need to find our voices and use our literacy advantage to write our government leaders, ensure we cast votes for politicians who vow to improve our school systems, and volunteer our time and energy to help ensure all Americans are educated. We are all created equal and should experience the liberties and freedoms that our founding fathers fought so hard to obtain. I strongly agree with Kozol, it’s time to unite as a nation, combine our resources to ensure all Americans are literate.
Konzol, Jonathan. “The Human Cost of an Illiterate in Society.” Composing Knowledge: Reading for College Writers. Ed. Rolf Norgaard. New York; Bedford St. Martin, 2007. 38-47. Print.