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Thursday, June 8, 2017

47. The National Adult Literacy Survey: The Underground HIstory of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

The National Adult Literacy Survey 

In 1982, Anthony Oettinger, a member of the private discussion group called the Council 
on Foreign Relations, asked an audience of communications executives this question: 
"Do we really have to have everybody literate — writing and reading in the traditional 
sense — when we have means through our technology to achieve a new flowering of oral 
communication?" Oettinger suggested "our idea of literacy" is "obsolete." Eighty-three 
years earlier John Dewey had written in "The Primary Education Fetish" that "the plea for 
the predominance of learning to read in early school life because of the great importance 
attaching to literature seems to be a perversion." 

For the balance of this discussion I'm going to step into deeper water, first reviewing 
what reading in a Western alphabet really means and what makes it a reasonably easy 
skill to transmit or to self-teach, and then tackling what happened to deprive the ordinary 
person of the ability to manage it very well. I want to first show you how, then answer the 
more speculative question why. 

The National Adult Literacy Survey represents 190 million U.S. adults over age sixteen 
with an average school attendance of 12.4 years. The survey is conducted by the 
Educational Testing Service of Princeton, New Jersey. It ranks adult Americans into five 
levels. Here is its 1993 analysis: 

1. Forty-two million Americans over the age of sixteen can't read. Some of this 
group can write their names on Social Security cards and fill in height, weight, 
and birth spaces on application forms. 

2. Fifty million can recognize printed words on a fourth- and fifth-grade level. They 
cannot write simple messages or letters. 

3. Fifty- five to sixty million are limited to sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade reading. 
A majority of this group could not figure out the price per ounce of peanut butter 
in a 20-ounce jar costing $1 .99 when told they could round the answer off to a 
whole number. 

4. Thirty million have ninth- and tenth-grade reading proficiency. This group (and 
all preceding) cannot understand a simplified written explanation of the 
procedures used by attorneys and judges in selecting juries. 

5. About 3.5 percent of the 26,000-member sample demonstrated literacy skills 
adequate to do traditional college study, a level 30 percent of all U.S. high school 
students reached in 1940, and which 30 percent of secondary students in other 

developed countries can reach today. This last fact alone should warn you how 
misleading comparisons drawn from international student competitions really are, 
since the samples each country sends are small elite ones, unrepresentative of the 
entire student population. But behind the bogus superiority a real one is 

6. Ninety-six and a half percent of the American population is mediocre to illiterate 
where deciphering print is concerned. This is no commentary on their 
intelligence, but without ability to take in primary information from print and to 
interpret it they are at the mercy of commentators who tell them what things 
mean. A working definition of immaturity might include an excessive need for 
other people to interpret information for us. 

Certainly it's possible to argue that bad readers aren't victims at all but perpetrators, 
cursed by inferior biology to possess only shadows of intellect. That's what bell-curve 
theory, evolutionary theory, aristocratic social theory, eugenics theory, strong-state 
political theory, and some kinds of theology are about. All agree most of us are inferior, 
if not downright dangerous. The integrity of such theoretical outlooks — at least where 
reading was concerned — took a stiff shot on the chin from America. Here, democratic 
practice allowed a revolutionary generation to learn how to read. Those granted the 
opportunity took advantage of it brilliantly. 

Name Sounds, Not Things 

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