Wednesday, January 5, 2011


OVER WHISKEY ONE NIGHT, the following was raised: “If you could pick just one major issue confronting America today, and you were to dedicate 100% of your efforts to its resolution, what would be the issue?”

Almost immediately, a list of concerns was aired:
  • The deficit we are leaving to our children;
  • The rise of corporate power in our democracy;
  • The intractable ways of our dysfunctional Congress;
  • The quagmires in both Iraq and Afghanistan;
  • The inability to confront climate change;
  • The social injustice of poverty;
  • The polarization of our populous brought about by the far right and the far left (but mostly by the far right, I must say, admitting my bias)…

A day or two mulling this question brought me to this singular conclusion: The major issue confronting America is our collective inattention to literacy.

When an author writes, he or she is engaged in an act of creativity. When a reader reads, he or she, too, is engaged in a creative act. The act involves making meaning from abstract symbols. It involves gathering data or information and drawing conclusions. It demands a tenacious examination of all of the elements present in order for a defensible solution to be proposed. (A lousy mystery is one where the writer throws in a fact or element right at the end to justify a conclusion. We’ve all read ‘em.) Literacy provides the foundation for making the abstract concrete; it affords us practice with questions for which we can devise answers.

WERE WE A MORE LITERATE SOCIETY, we would understand:
  • The value of money and influence (ours or the government’s) over time. We would recognize that there are limits to the good credit can do for us and that there are limits to the things we really need to have. We would embrace the consequences attached to debts we accrue.
  • “What’s good for General Motors is good for the US,” is credible only if the ethics driving the business balance what’s good for shareholders with what’s good for the country. We’d know that disconnects between the shareholder and the citizenry are natural and predictable because of that darned “love of money” oracle.
  • We vote for people to make policy on our behalf. We’d know that the implementation of autopilot initiatives and ballot box budgeting inhibit representatives’ ability to fulfill their responsibilities, while affording us opportunity to make policy the impacts of which we cannot fully conceptualize.
  • There are those who do not “hate our way of life” but are jealous of it; and that there are good people who fervently worship in a different manner. (We’d know this because we’d choose to read the Qur’an, rather than have somebody tell us what’s in it.)
  • It is easier to criticize the science than to actually do the science.
  • Assisting the poor to self-sufficiency doesn’t take away from us; it contributes to the betterment of all.
  • Nothing is absolute. There are aspects of life that can be done independently and for profit. And there are equally important societal functions that are done for all. Police and fire protection, education, the justice system and, perhaps, even health care (think: promote the general welfare) come to mind.

AUDI PARTEM ALTERAM: “hear the other side.” When literate, we “get” that the opponent’s point of view is not a threat, it is simply another point of view. When literate, we converse to answer common questions and solve common problems. When literate, we develop the tools necessary to address (dare I say?) all the major issues confronting America.

Societies lacking the logic, reason and thought commonly associated with literacy are mired in conflict, poverty, crime and ignorance. Security, safety and well-being suffer.

Preferring to not go there as a country, I'll put my efforts behind greater literacy for all.

© 2011
Church of the Open Road Press


  1. Some drink the kool-aid. I drank the whiskey. Great discussion and an excellent post Mr. B.

  2. PA: There needs to be a focus on critical thinking......or we're doomed.

  3. PA: I agree. The future depends on it.

  4. SD: Literacy....agree.....where does it fit today when texting, emails, and other ways we use to communicate to each other no longer requires correct spelling, punctuation, the proper way to structure a business letter....the list goes on. I...'ve never been good at spelling or punctuation...I still struggle when I need to use than or many times while watching a movie at home do you say what did they just say, I thought it was my hearing until I rememberd, the actors of ages back learned to project, enunciate with great elocuence, Lee can cover that much better then/than me,I........flip side of this...those of us that do not have those skill are more apt to communicate with texting,etc therefore stay in contact and even reconnecting. I'm quite sure all of the teachers in our large family would say we need to unlock the excitement of learning, especially reading in our children and adluts can't read. Sooooooooo sorry, I got on a role/roll. s

  5. All the more reason to value highly the critical work done by teachers throughout our country.

  6. "The critical work of teachers throughout the country".
    Boy, I wish I could agree with that. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure there are still teachers out there trying their damndest to graduate literate students. But they are failing.
    We have poured tons and tons and TONS of money down the education rathole...
    But talkin' ain't doin'.
    Schools today are wonderful structures, but their product sucks.
    And it won't change until we get back to the truth that families should have two parents who care for their kids education and are willing to reward success and negatively reinforce failure and anti-social behavior.
    And what's really sad?
    It won't happen until after the collapse.
    And the collapse IS coming.

  7. To be sure the next generation is literate...take away the cell phones and texting! On FB, I have many younger family members and I's so embarassed for them as I try to read what they just wrote? So at this point, don't blame the teachers...blame the parents for giving 10 year olds, and younger, cell phones and putting them on the path to illiteracy.

  8. "And it won't change until we get back to the truth that families should have two parents who care for their kids education and are willing to reward success and negatively reinforce failure and anti-social behavior."

    What I think you're saying here is that schools are failing because some kids have only one parent at home and parents have low expectations for their children.

    "Schools today are wonderful structures, but their product sucks... We have poured tons and tons and TONS of money down the education rathole..."

    What I think you're saying here is that we over fund schools because the institution of the school cannot solve for parents who hold low expectations for their children.

    If you can share how schools in any way are responsible for the relationship between parents and kids, I'd be pleased to understand. Otherwise, how about encouraging parents to work with schools and how about ensuring schools have the resources necessary to promote literacy and learning regarding of whether parents abdicate their responsibilities.

    "Talkin' ain't doin'" Mr. Greybeard - and all you're doin' is talkin'.

  9. What an interesting discussion! I find it startling that a discussion about the vital need for a literate population leads, as so many important discussions do, to an opportunity to rip on public schools, and more specifically public school teachers.

    The assertion that the product of public schools "sucks" begs several questions. WHICH public schools? "Suck" in what way? And of course, "Who thinks so?"

    Many, many, many schools across the country are graduating many, many, many highly literate students. Today's students learn more in high school than many of us in a previous generation learned in the first years of college. They are subject to hours and hours of accountability testing that were unheard of "back in the day". Schools are educating a population that is vastly more diverse than in years past, and includes thousands of students who would have been considered "ineducable" not so long ago. The overall functional literacy rate in our country is still rising. Students today are expected to successfully complete algebra by the end of 8th grade. Many of our parents never took algebra, even in high school.

    So, are SOME schools failing? Yes. But huge numbers are succeeding. And succeeding spectacularly.

    Inevitably, discussions of "our failing schools" include comparisons of how our students are falling behind the rest of the world, can't compete, etc. That may be so, but we are clearly not ready as a nation to do what those other countries do to create that testing advantage. In addition, I have yet to see the convincing evidence that those higher test numbers, paid for in so many cultural ways, pay off in a concrete way in the world of industry, innovation, and economics that follows education.

    The question of who thinks our schools are failing is problematic as well. In my observation, not a single law maker, business person, pollster, talking head, radio talk show host, newspaper journalist, or sensational filmmaker has truly spent hours in a classroom any time recently. I'm not talking about the two hour political junket tour provided for "interested legislators", or the ridiculous "school site visits" by school board members who "observe" an entire school site in an hour. I mean really spent time in a classroom. Watched teachers interact with hours of kids, for days in a row, for weeks on end. Sat with a group of educators who discussed a child who has yet to succeed in school, and what more they can do to help. Hung out in a teachers' lunchroom, and listened to teachers talk about how to balance the hours of work they cannot finish at school with the needs of their own families. Sat with even one child and tried to explain the math concept that he or she hasn't been able to grasp, in spite of days or weeks of instruction, practice opportunities, and one-on-one tutoring during lunch.

    I am thinking that until they, or anyone else critical of the schools, do even one of those things, they are not qualified to even guess at what, or who, within the schools system "sucks".

  10. Posting some comments from a teacher friend of mine:

    Bush wanted to focus on results. Merit pay sucks because it forces teachers to focus on getting kids through tests - period- the focus is on achieving certain percentages, not on learning life long skills or the joy of learning itself. And, what many people do not know is that those kids who can't succeed on the tests and boost the school's numbers and standing, often get left out. Certain kids are excused from school on test days so as to not skew the results.

  11. Education is losing its focus. The emphasis used to be to teach students how to think. Innovation comes from people who don't respond with the "approved" answer to the problem but think about the problem and respond with creativity and innovation resulting in a new and better solution. With the advent of bushication, the emphasis in teaching was shifted from how to think to what to think. This emphasis is far more insidious than one might think because special interest groups can introduce propaganda into the curriculum and it can't be challenged because it is "what we are suppose to think." It is even tested so they can identify the non-believers and "re-educate" them. Imagine of the possibilities of turning an entire generation into followers who would do anything you told them. An entitled elite could literally take over the country and have an army of non-thinking drones to perform for the masters. Impossible you say? Think again. History is filled with examples of societies who realized that people who know how to think are dangerous and they were eliminated from the system and replaced with non-thinking, programed on what to think, followers. Thank you Mr. Bush for providing your elitist cronies with the first steps towards the end of democracy in the United States. Our response needs to begin with a return to educational priorities that emphasize independent thinking and problem solving. These are not as easy to "test" but the results speak for themselves.

  12. "Our response needs to begin with a return to educational priorities that emphasize independent thinking and problem solving." Yep.

  13. Anonymous hits the nail on the head about keeping struggling kids from taking required assessments in an effort to skew school-wide results to the positive. Truly this now reflects out-of-the-norm behavior by school officials, but it is a legitimate comment. Thanks for passing it forward, anonymous.

    In place, now are strict rules and sanctions for schools, administrators and teachers who engage in such nefarious behavior, up to and including dismissal. Parents may write a letter to request that the student opt out of testing, but schools may not tell parents that they may write the letter.

    I always prided myself in having within one or two students of 100 percent participation. Always bugged me that a family might take a kid out of school during testing week to go to Disney World because "heck, no teaching is going on that week anyway." Usually it would be a kid who would "skew" my school's scores to the positive.

    Dang! :-)