Willful Illiteracy and Politics

How did America sink to the level of politics being demonstrated this year?

According to available data, most people can read.  UNESCO reports a world literacy rate of


6.3%.  Armenia reports a literacy rate of 99.8%.  The developed countries of Western Europe and North America are excluded from these calculations.  The figures serve to make  most of the globe look good at the expense of Africa.

The literacy data is overstated, for a number of reasons:

  • Definitional variations of what qualifies as literacy — both in terms of compentency and in terms of how to count people who are fluent in something other than the “official” language;
  • Use of self-reported rather than objective information — consumers are reluctant to admit that they have trouble either reading or understanding what they read; and
  • Government reluctance to concede to the under-performance  of educational programs.

When stringent standards are applied to the US, the actual literacy rate may fall between 65% and 85%.  Many other countries probably are below that, not just African nations.  The UNESCO data seems errant and pointless.

However, the statistic doesn’t tell the entire story.  Tech manufacturers learned years ago that many people (most American males, certainly) don’t read instruction manuals.  Repairmen would go to customer sites and find the manuals stacked in a corner, still in their shrink wrap.  What’s the difference between someone who can’t read and someone who doesn’t?

How does this affect politics?  Think about it.

  • A person who hears a sound byte on TV may not have the tools to evaluate the truth of what he or she hears.
  • A person who hears a sound byte on TV may not even understand what it means.
  • The reporter and the politician both may lack the knowledge required to think through questions and give thoughtful answers.  So you get softball questions and bland, meaningless responses.  Or worse, you get mudslinging because the participants lack the knowledge to address issues at any level of detail.

There’s no evidence that most politicians or commentators are better than the general public in terms of reading.  Some were.  Theodore Roosevelt was an avid reader (in a number of languages) with a phenomenal ability to recall details of what he had read — and his policies are virtually the opposite of those propounded by the current Republican party.  There’s no one with Roosevelt’s literacy among current political leaders in the US.

Functionally, de facto illiteracy means that public policy isn’t made by politicians and can be immune to electoral events.  By default, policy is made by people with some level of technical knowledge — staffers and bureaucrats who are rarely visible to the public and aren’t elected.

What was the last book you read and how long ago?  Graphic novels don’t count.


  1.  Institut de Statistique de l’UNESCO (ISU), September 2015.
  2. A First Look at the Literacy of America’s Adults in the 21st century”, National Center for Educational Statistics, 2006.
  3. Kozol, Jonathan (1985). Illiterate America. New York: New American Library. ISBN 0-452-26203-8.
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literacy_in_the_United_States.

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