Monday, August 10, 2009

Literacy Wars

Literacy declines as compulsory education rises ... according to John Taylor Gatto.

OR Compulsory schooling led to near 100 percent literacy... according to this encyclopedia.

Wonder who's right?

and then there's this site which shows illiteracy almost vanished as of 1979, whereas it is reported at 20 percent or more in the earlier part of the century. Wonder how it measures illiteracy? It says, a bit defensively, that:

The more recent focus on illiteracy has centered on functional literacy, which addresses the issue of whether a person's educational level is sufficient to function in a modern society. The earlier surveys of illiteracy examined a very fundamental level of reading and writing. The percent of illiteracy, according to earlier measurement methods, was less than 1 percent of persons 14 years old and over in 1979.
On the other hand, this site says that illiteracy almost vanished by 1930 but has skyrocketed since then. And here's another article that says the same thing.


This "functional literacy" testing is in itself a relatively new thing, about 80 years old. Statistics weren't kept until the 1930's, from what I read. Which makes sense -- the father of statistical science was Francis Galton, who was a frank eugenicist and early pioneer of some rather odd IQ tests.

This little gem of a definition of functional literacy is from UNESCO:

A person is functionally literate who can engage in all those activities in which literacy is required for effective function of his or her group and community and also for enabling him or her to continue to use reading, writing and calculation for his or her own and the community's development.
Something creepily circular and circumstantial about that definition.

A quite detailed analysis of literacy trends by the late Jean Chall.
A compendium of data here on adult literacy in the United States (PDF)

I don't know... .I have a hard time being trusting about anything to do with educational number-crunching nowadays.

I started on this rabbit trail to confirm the Gatto statistics, which shocked me. Then I ended up shocked in a rather different way by the apparent contradictions between different sets of data. To rely on any kind of objectivity in literacy statistics there would have to be some agreed-upon definition of what literacy is, how it ought to be measured, and by and on whom. That UNESCO definition is just asking to be boggled and confounded by some social agenda. Sigh.

And even the more specific, less bendable definitions usually involve crassly pragmatic views of what literacy is about:

A functionally illiterate person may well understand these words and more, but cannot read well enough to understand the things he must read in order to get by in his daily life, such as job advertisements, past-due notices, newspaper articles, complex signs and posters, etc.

I guess I know why I homeschool -- to make sure my kids can and will read, and not just posters and past-due notices, even if I can't necessarily ensure that every other kid in America can or will open the pages of a good book.


  1. I thought that Gatto's claims using the military records were pretty compelling. That seemed a good measure of literacy to me since it is data from a source that didn't really have a particular agenda and in fact would have been more likely to falsify in the other direction (as in accepting people during the draft).

  2. I read the first 2 articles -- fascinating! I had read the Gatto article before, but forgotten about it. I suspect you're right that much of the problem in studying literacy is a lack of a consistent definition of literacy. It is much like alcoholism research. It was always amusing to me to read the varying definitions of "moderate" drinking.


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!