Jonathan Kozol


1 -- A Third of the Nation Cannot Read These Words

'You have to be careful not to get into situations where it would leak out ... If somebody gives you something to read, you make believe you read it ...'

He is meticulous and well-defended.

He gets up in the morning, showers, shaves, and dresses in a dark gray business suit, then goes downstairs and buys a New York Times from the small newsstand on the corner of his street. Folding it neatly, he goes into the subway and arrives at work at 9 AM.

He places the folded New York Times next to the briefcase on his desk and sets to work on graphic illustrations Or the advertising copy that is handed to him by the editor who is his boss.

'Run over this with me. Just make sure I get the gist of what you really want.'

The editor, unsuspecting, takes this as a reasonable request. In the process of expanding on his copy, he recites the language of the text: a language that is instantly imprinted on the illustrator's mind.

At lunch he grabs the folded copy of the New York Times, carries it with him to a coffee shop, places it beside his plate, eats a sandwich, drinks a beer, and soon heads back to work. [4]

At 5 P.M., he takes his briefcase and his New York Times, waits for the elevator, walks two blocks to catch an uptown bus, stops at a corner store to buy some groceries, then goes upstairs. He carefully unfolds his New York Times. He places it with mechanical precision on a pile of several other recent copies of the New York Times. There they will remain until, when two or three more copies have been added, he will take all but the one most recent and consign them to the trash that goes into a plastic bag that will be left for pickup by the truck that comes around during the night and, with a groaning roar, collects and crushes and compresses all the garbage of the occupants of this and other residential buildings of New York.

Then he returns upstairs. He opens the refrigerator, snaps the top from a cold can of Miller's beer, and turns on the TV.

Next day, trimly dressed and cleanly shaven, he will buy another New York Times, fold it neatly, and proceed to work. He is a rather solitary man. People in his office view him with respect as someone who is self-contained and does not choose to join in casual conversation. If somebody should mention something that is in the news, he will give a dry, sardonic answer based upon the information he has garnered from TV.

He is protected against the outside world. Someday he will probably be trapped. It has happened before; so he can guess that it will happen again. Defended for now against humiliation, he is not defended against fear. He tells me that he has recurrent dreams.

Somebody says: WHAT DOES THIS MEAN? I stare at the page. A thousand copies of the New York Times run past me on a giant screen. Even before I am awake, I start to scream.'

If it is of any comfort to this man, he should know that he is not alone. Twenty-five million American adults cannot read the poison warnings on a can of pesticide, a letter from their child's teacher, or the front page of a daily paper. An additional 35 million read only at a level which is less than equal to the full survival needs of our society.

Together, these 60 million people represent more than one third of the entire adult population.

The largest numbers of illiterate adults are white, native-born Americans. In proportion to population, however, the figures are higher for blacks and Hispanics than for whites. Sixteen percent of white adults, 44 percent of blacks, and 56 percent of Hispanic citizens are functional or marginal illiterates. Figures for the younger generation of black adults are increasing. Forty-seven percent of all black seventeen-yearelds are functionally illiterate. That figure is expected to climb to 50 percent by 1990.

Fifteen percent of recent graduates of urban high schools read at less than sixth grade level. One million teenage children between t velve and seventeen percent cannot read above the third grade level. Eighty-five percent of juveniles who come before the courts are functionally illiterate. Half the heads of households classified below the poverty line by federal standards cannot read an eighth grade book. Over one third of mothers who receive support from welfare are functionally illiterate. Of 8 million unemployed adults, 4 to 6 million lack the skills to be retrained for hi-tech jobs.

The United States ranks forty-ninth among 158 member nations of the U.N. in its literacy levels.

In Prince George's County, Maryland, 30,000 adults cannot read above a fourth grade level. The largest literacy program in this county reaches one hundred people yearly.

In Boston, Massachusetts, 40 percent of the adult population is illiterate. The largest organization that provides funds to the literacy programs of the city reaches 700 to 1,000 people.

In San Antonio, Texas, 152,000 adults have been documented as illiterate. In a single municipal district of San Antonio, over half the adult population is illiterate in English. Sixty percent of the same population sample is illiterate in Spanish. Three percent of adults in this district are at present being served.

In the State of Utah, which ranks number one in the United States in the percent of total budget allocated to the education sector, 200,000 adults lack the basic skills for employment. Less than 5 percent of Utah's population is black or Hispanic.

Together, all federal, state, municipal, and private literacy programs in the nation reach a maximum of 4 percent of the illiterate population. The federal government spends $100 million yearly to address the needs of 60 million peo ple. The President has asked that this sum be reduced to $50 million. Even at the present level, direct federal allocations represent about $1.65 per year for each illiterate.

In 1982 the Executive Director of the National Advisory Council on Adult Education estimated that the government would need to spend about $5 billion to eradicate or seriously reduce the problem. The commission he served was subsequently dismissed by presidential order.

Fourteen years ago, in his inaugural address as governor of Georgia, a future President of the United States proclaimed his dedication to the crisis of Illiterate America. 'Our people are our most precious possession ... Every adult illiterate ... is an indictment of us all ... If Switzerland and Israd and other people can end illiteracy, then so can we. The responsibility is our own and our govemment's. I will not shirk this responsibility.'

Today the number of identified nonreaders is three times greater than the [6] number Jimmy Carter had in mind when he described this challenge and defined it as an obligation that he would not shirk.

On April 26, 1983, pointing to the literacy crisis and to a collapse in standards at the secondary and the college levels, the National Commission on Excellence in Education warned: 'Our Nation is at risk.'

2 -- Matters of Equivocation:
Dangers of the Numbers Game

Donny wanted me to read to him. I told Donny: 'I can't read.' He said: 'Mommy, you sit down. I'll read it to you.' I tried it one day, reading from the pictures. Donny looked at me. He said, 'Mommy, that's not right.' He's only five. He knew I couldn't read ... Oh, it matters. You believe it matters!

One of the classic methods of equivocation, in literacy as in every other area where social justice is at stake, is to adhere to endless, self-repeating statements that 'we don't yet know enough,' 'we need more research,' 'we are just not sure.' A certain degree of caution is essential in an area of human misery that, by its very nature, challenges detection and fends off enumeration. A Else humility, on the other hand -- what certain activists have aptly called 'Fake Humblehood' -- can also be self-serving. Politicians can exploit a laborious sequence of reiterated doubts to postpone action even in those areas of which they are quite certain. Intellectuals can underwrite their income while purporting to be doing 'the essential groundwork' that has already been done ten years before.

Dozens of studies of this subject have been conducted since the early 1970s. Many of them advance the ritual of recondite complexification to the point at which the reader's main reaction is exhaustion in the face of numbers and capitulation in the face of doubts as to 'the proper definition' of the very words we use and 'the criteria' by which we speak of an illiterate man or woman 'in the context of American society.' Fifteen years later, the same [8] debates take place; and some of those who were contributors to the debates of 1970 are telling us once more that we may not yet have at hand 'suffficient information' to be sure of 'where we go from here ...'

Taking action even in the context of a limited confusion ought to be one obligation of a conscientious scholar; but the confusion in this instance is compounded by the contradictory information that emerges from a multitude of government reports.

The U.S. Department of Education tells us (1983) that 23 million American adults are totally or functionally illiterate. An additional 23 million function at a level which is marginal at best.

In a separate statement, the Office of Vocational and Adult Education states that '74 million Americans ... function at a marginal level or less.'

A third release, distributed by the White House on September 7, 1983, states that '26 million Americans are functionally illiterate ... An additional 46 million Americans may be considered marginally functional, for a total of 72 million Americans who function at a marginal level or below.'

In another statement, the Director of the National Institute of Education tells us (January 1984) that an estimated 23 million adults are functionally illiterate while, six months later, Newsweek reports that 26 million are functionally illiterate. Newsweek adds that this is one fifth of the adult population, a calculation which diminishes the adult population of the nation by 40 million people.

The Bureau of the Census meanwhile states that 'virtually 100 percent' of 'the general population' are literate but that the figure is 'about 96 percent' for 'members of minority groups.' The Bureau drew most of its figures from a written answer to a printed form.

A natural reaction to this arithmetic saga might be the unfortunate humility that paralyzes action on the pretext that 'nobody knows.' In actual fact, we do know now a great deal more than when the numbers game began. Some of the most compelling evidence has been assembled in a Ford Foundation study carried out by David Harman and Carman St. John Hunter and published in 1979. More recent data gathered in the six years since provides us with a realistic picture of the crisis we confront.

In 1973, the Adult Performance Level (APL), a study carried out at the University of Texas under the direction of Dr. Norvell Northcutt, employed a list of sixty-five 'objectives' -- areas of competence which were associated with Northcutt's definition of 'adult success' -- in order to identify how many adults were unable to cope with the responsibilities of everyday life. Previous efforts had done little more than to establish 'simple literacy' and did so purely on the basis of the years of school a person had completed. Literacy, by this standard, indicated little more than the capacity to sign one's name and perhaps to under- [9] stand a handful of three-letter words. The Texas study therefore represented an important breakthrough in the effort to describe American realities in 1973.

The U.S. Offfice of Education, applying the standards of the APL, calculated that, during the early 1970s, 57 million Americans did not have the skills required to perform most basic tasks. Of that number, almost 23 million lacked the competencies necessary to function. The remaining 34 million were able to function, 'but not proficiently.'

Looking at a different body of criteria, Hunter and Harman reported that a maximum of 64 million persons sixteen and over had not completed high school (and were not presently in school) in 1979. While rejecting grade-completion levels as reliable determinants of literacy levels, Hunter and Harman drew attention to the fact that numbers drawn from two entirely different sources (grade completion and the APL) appeared to be so close. Hunter believes that a figure in excess of 60 million is a realistic estimate for 1984.

Calculations from other groups and other scholars indicate that even this is a conservative projection. Harvard professor Jeanne Chall, while understandably impatient with the numbers game, states that total estimates of 75 to 78 million seem to have some merit.

Most important in untangling these numbers, the authors of the APL have made their own updated calculations. They have done so in a manner that can render the statistics less abstract:

Given a paycheck and the stub that lists the usual deductions, 26 percent of adult Americans cannot determine if their paycheck is correct. Thirty-six percent, given a W-4 form, cannot enter the right number of exemptions in the proper places on the form. Forty-four percent, when given a series of 'help-wanted' ads, cannot match their qualifications to the job requirements. Twentytwo percent cannot address a letter well enough to guarantee that it will reach its destination. Twenty-four percent cannot add their own correct return address to the same envelope. Twenty percent cannot understand an 'equal opportunity' announcement. Over 60 percent, given a series of 'for sale' advertisements for products new and used, cannot calculate the difference between prices for a new and used appliance. Over 20 percent cannot write a check that will be processed by their bank -- or will be processed in the right amount. Over 40 percent are unable to determine the correct amount of change they should receive, given a cash register receipt and the denomination of the bill used for payment.

From these and other forms of evidence, the APL concludes that 30 million men and women are now 'functionally incompetent.' Another 54 million 'just get by.' This total of 84 million far exceeds all other estimates that we have seen.

Rather than throwing up our hands once more, we should recognize some explanations for these latest areas of disagreement. Some of the figures refer to [10] 1973 compilations. Others represent an effort to update these figures, but all methods of updating cannot be identical. No one can be certain which of several methods is the best. Other differences depend on where we draw the line between the categories 'functional' and 'marginal.' Again, this is a somewhat random matter and it simply isn't possible, or worth our time, to try to legislate an arbitrary line. The points that matter, in my own opinion, are the following: Nobody's updated figure for the 'functional' and 'marginal' together is less than 60 million. The total present adult population (1984) is 174 minion. By even the most conservative calculations, then, we are speaking here of well above one third of all American adults.

In recent discussions with Hunter and with the directors of the Texas APL, I have proposed the following minimal estimates for 1984: 2S million reading either not at all OT at less than fifth grade level; 35 million additional persons reading at less than ninth grade level. Note that, in both cases, l am speaking of performance, not of years of school attendance.

It requires ninth grade competence to understand the antidote instructions on a bottle of corrosive kitchen lye, tenth grade competence to understand instructions on a federal income tax return, twelfth grade competence to read a life insurance form. Employrnent qualifications for all but a handful of domestic jobs begin at ninth grade level. I have argued, therefore, that all of these 60 million people should be called 'illiterate in terms of U.S. print communication at the present time.' Both Hunter and the APL agree that these are cautious figures. These, then, are the figures I have used within this book.

In this discussion I have been obliged to use grade levels as the benchmarks of desirable but unattained proficiency. The need to do this is a function of the need to offer standards that may have sorne meaning for those citizens whose only reference points are those which are familiar from their years in public school

Nonetheless, a certain caveat is called for. Grade equivalents have little meaning in an era in which grade completion has, at best, occasional connection with the levels of proficiency that numbers of this sort suggest. Wherever grade levels do appear, it will be helpful to remember that I do not have in mind the level of a person who has 'sat it out' in school for three or five or seven or twelve years. I am speaking of a person who can do what those who master the objectives of specific grades in excellent and successful schools can do: not what they are 'certified to have attempted.'

In this chapter I have also been obliged to make use of the category 'functionally illiterate' in order to refer to studies that have been conducted in the past. I do not like this term. Its connotations are all wrong and will be studied bter. Wherever possible, I will attempt to use instead two terms of my own choice: 'illiterate' in order to refer to those who scarcely read at all; 'semiliter- [11] ate' in order to refer to those whose reading levels are unequal to societal demands. At some moments, for the sake of unencumbered prose, I will combine both categories in the single phrase 'Illiterate America.' This does not indicate a loss of recognition of the spectrum that extends from marginal ability to none at all. What it does imply is that all 60 million are substantially excluded from the democratic process and the ordinary commerce of a print society. The distinctions are important for the organization of a plan of action; it is the totality, however, which defines a crisis we have yet to meet head-on.

One troublesome objection rears its head whenever we address this situation. Literacy, certain people say, is 'an elitist concept,' a residue of our excessive education, a 'hang-up' from our years at Harvard or Ann Arbor. The ordinary person, whether literate or not, 'can do a lot of things that are beyond our own hypertrophied imaginations,' possesses simple virtues that elude us, demonstrates an ingenuity and basic hardihood that render us incompetent by contrast, and may only be endangered by our overeager plans. 'People like that do very well without us. Why should we encumber them with cultural constraints they do not need? Why burden them with middle class ambitions which they may do very well without? Is literacy going to make someone happy?'

The simplest answer is provided by Jeanne Chall: 'Does literacy make men happy? Only highly literate people seem to ask [this] question. And only the well-educated seem to say that it does not. They are like the rich who doubt that money makes one happy. Significantly, such doubts come only after they have accumulated enough money and do not have to worry ... And so with the highly literate. They doubt that literacy will contribute to the happiness of those who are not yet literate only because they themselves use it so well and easily in living, working, playing, and in making choices ...' So well, indeed, that they are unaware of the advantages and options it affords.

The idealization of 'the simple and unlettered human being,' unencumbered by our burden of self-serving and at times destructive words, might have some meaning for a people who were not surrounded and conditioned by the print reality from which they are excluded but whose skilled practitioners control the chief determinants of their existence. No community in the United States today, not even one that dwells apart in the most isolated village, is exempt from these determinants.

This, then, is an issue we should put to rest. No matter how decent and how earnest in their views, those who raise such arguments in printed prose deserve at most a swift riposte. Soon enough, they will return to their typewriters.

This much we know, and this much we should have the confidence to state in clean and unencumbered words: Whatever the 'right number' and whatever [12] the 'right definition,' we are speaking of at least one third of all adults who live in the United States in 1984. The cost to our economy, as we shall see, is very great. The cost to our presumptions and our credibility as a democracy is greater still. The cost in needless human pain may be the greatest price of all.

'At this point,' wrote Michael Harrington, 'I would beg the reader to forget the numbers game. Whatever the precise calibrations, it is obvious that these statistics represent an enormous, an unconscionable amount of human suffering ... They should be read with a sense of outrage.'

Harrington wrote these words in 1962. We have been entangled in the numbers game too long. It is unlikely that we shall escape these rituals with any greater ease today than when those words were written. The only hope, in my belief, lies in that 'sense of outrage' which, with few exceptions, has been absent from the academic discourse on this subject for ten years.

In this book I will describe the problem and delineate a plan of action. Finally, I will do my best to shape a vision and refine a definition of that universal humane literacy which has eluded us so long but which represents a sane, essential, and realistic goal for a society that hopes to govern not by the mechanical and docile acquiescence of the governed but by the informed consent of those who are empowered to participate within the act of governance itself. I am speaking, then, not of a single tour de force, a pedagogic space shot or a technological quick fix. I am speaking of a humanistic longing to embark upon a voyage that will take more than a single decade or a single year: a voyage which, in the most capacious sense, will last as long as our adherence to American democracy prevails.

The Price We Pay

In 1975, a herd of prime beef cattle was destroyed by accident in Chicago. A feedlot worker could not read the labels on the bags that he found piled in the warehouse and fed poison to the cattle by mistake. He thought that he was adding a nutrition supplement to their feed basins ...
-- story reported in the New York Times

What does illiteracy cost America in dollars?

The Senate Select Committee on Equal Educational Opportunity estimated a figure of $237 billion in unrealized lifetime earnings forfeited by men twenty-five to thirty-four years old who have less than high school level skills. That estimate, made in February 1972, requires serious updating.

Direct costs to business and taxpayers are approximately $20 billion.

Six billion dollars yearly (estimate: mid-1970s) go to child welfare costs and unemployment compensation caused directly by the numbers of illiterate adults unable to perform at standards necessary for available employment.

$6.6 billion yearly (estimate of 1983) is the minimal cost of prison maintenance for an estimated 260,000 inmates -- out of a total state and federal prison population of about ~0,000 -- whose imprisonment has been directly linked to functional illiteracy. The prison population represents the single highest concentration of adult illiterates. While criminal conviction of illiterate men and women cannot be identified exclusively with inability to read and write, the fact [14] that 60 percent of prison inmates cannot read above the grade school level surely provides some indication of one major reason for their criminal activity.

Swollen court costs, law-enforcement budgets in those urban areas in which two-fifths of all adults are unemployable for lack of literacy skills, not even to speak of the high cost of crime to those who are its victims, cannot be guessed but must be many times the price of prison maintenance.

Several billion dollars go to workers' compensation, damage to industrial equipment, and industrial insurance costs directly caused by on-site accidents related to the inability of workers to read safety warnings, chemical-content designations, and instructions for the operation of complex machines.

While there is no way to prove direct causation in all cases, and while substantial unemployment would exist in any case among some sectors of the population -- whether people were illiterate or not -- it is reasonable to believe, based only on an update of the isolated items listed here, that we now incur a minimal annual loss of $20 billion in direct industrial and tax expenditures.

Health expenditures necessitated by the inability of the illiterate adult to use preventive health care measures are not documented. We cannot guess the vast expense required for obstetric or abortion services to women whose unwanted pregnancies are often linked to lack,of information caused by inability to read. So too with the cost of mental health care and of rehabilitation programs for drug users and for alcoholics. Emotional stress and frequently uninterrupted desperation are familiar patterns in the life of an illiterate adult. If there is no way to calculate these costs, we can believe that they run into many billions.

Business interests suffer in at least two ways.

In a decade of high unemployment, hundreds of thousands of entry-level and even middle-level jobs remain unfilled for lack of applicants with competence equivalent to need. The Wall Streetfioumal documents, across the nation, 'vocalized difficulties in finding clerical workers, bank tellers, nurses, para-legals ...' One of the nation's largest job-referral agencies reports that it is now impossible to find the personnel to meet employment orders.

A New York insurance firm reports that 70 percent of its dictated correspondence must be retyped 'at least once' because secretaries working from recorders do not know how to spell and punctuate correctly. Another insurance firrn reports that one illiterate employee mailed out a check for $2,200 in settlement of a dental claim. Payment of $22.00 had been authorized.

Less easily documented, but possibly a great deal more important than the problems of the work force, is the loss of contact between business and its clientele. An incorrectly comprehended mailing from a polling agency or from a market research firm is surely more misleading to the agency than one that is not understood at all. Marketing firms spend millions of dollars in the effort to End out what customers exist for planned or present services and products. [15]

Millions of people can't be reached. Millions more will offer useless or misleading answers.

Billing, banking, public disclosure information, customers' rights (above all, the right to be informed of what those 'rights' might be) depend upon communication through the mails. Yet even notices of undelivered letters left in the mailbox by the postal service will be read only with difficulty by a minimum of 35 million people. They will not be read at all by 25 million more.

Certified mail, registered letters, items that call for signature (sometimes for payment) on receipt -- all depend upon a superstructure of assumptions that can bear no relevance to millions of adult Americans. Most of us already find ourselves perplexed by complicated mailings that purport to tell us why electric service rises in expense each year, stipulate what portion of the bill is due to fuel expense, what portion represents a state or local tax, and advise us that electric power cannot be cut off to those who are 'the elderly, infirm, or parents of small children.' How many of those who need this information most can read it? What right has any business firm to call for payment from a customer who did not understand the prior basis of agreement? Legalities aside, the loss of any certitude that real communication has transpired represents a cost-deficient nightmare.

Virtually any financial item on the reader's desk -- a checkbook or bank statement or a summary of salary deductions -- will suggest the endless acreage of governmental and commercial chaos that underlies the seemingly efficient surface of American communication. Illiterates too frequently have no idea if the deductions from their paychecks ye correct. Too often they are not. We shall see the bitterness and justified suspicion this creates among those many millions who will have no way to know if they were cheated.

If business does not know its clientele, neither does government know its population. We have seen already the spectacular miscalculations of the Bureau of the Census. A nation that does not know itself is no less subject to the consequences of occluded vision than the blind protagonist of classic tragedy. Oedipus tearing at his eyes, Lear in his demented eloquence upon the moors, Gloucester weeping from those 'empty orbs' -- these are the metaphors of cultural self-mutilation in a stumbling colossus. Eyeless at Gaza, Samson struggled to regain the power to pull down the pillars that destroyed him and his enemies together. The U.S. Bureau of the Census meanwhile sends out printed forms to ask illiterate Americans to indicate their reading levels.

'Know thyself' is an injunction that applies to the United States today at least as much as to the body politic or to the separate citizens of Periclean Greece. 'Who am 17' This is a question that cannot be answered even in the most mechanical and trivializing sense by an illiterate democracy that governs nonetheless by a persistent faith in written words.

Whatever was meant by John Locke's social contract or by Rousseau's [16] general will is rendered meaningless within a context of denied participation. The governor does not know the governed. The census cannot total up its own demography. The candidate cannot fathom -- even where he cares to ascertain -- the needs or the beliefs of the electorate. The postman rings twice, leaves his little piece of incoherence in the hollow box, and those who patiently attend upon the answer will be waiting many years to understand why there is no response.


I have this notification on my desk. It came in the same envelope that brings the bill each month from the phone company. 'To comply with new mandated calling areas, we have asked the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) for permission to modify our optional calling plans. These modifications redefine the service areas ... Customers affected by this change are being notified by letter of their service options ... The FCC had ordered local companies to begin to bill you for an access charge to offset the loss of subsidy formerly provided ... This has changed. The change will amount to $2.00 monthly on your lines ... WHAT'S NEXI'? Starting in late 1984, other elements of long-distance calling will begin to change ... You'll be notified of all these changes well before they occur ...'

What's next?

Who will be notified? Who will be affected? How? By what? By whom? Many of us find it hard to navigate this jargon. Most at least can isolate the crucial words -- '$2.00 monthly' -- and take proper warning. Illiterates have no hope at all of calculating the expense of local service, let alone long-distance calls.

There is, of course, one possible alternative: Damn the rules. Tear up the bill. Call anyone you love or hate. Talk for an hour. Call collect. Call someone in Bolivia, Brazil, Vancouver, or Afghanistan. Nobody will collect the bill. Instead, you will receive another letter.

Newspapers are folding. Paper costs are high, but loss of literate readers is much higher. Forty-five percent of adult citizens do not read newspapers. Only 10 percent abstain by choice. The rest have been excluded by their inability to read. Even the most undistinguished daily papers are now written at an estimated tenth grade level. Magazines such as The Nation? The New? Republic, Time? Neu?su?eek, and The National Review are written at a minimum of twelfth grade level. Circulation battles represent a competition for the largest piece of a diminished pie. Enlargement of that pie does not yet seem to have occurred to those who enter these increasingly unhappy competitions. The only successful major paper to be launched in the last decade, USA Today?, relies on a simplistic lexicon, large headlines, color photographs, and fanciful weather maps that seek to duplicate the instant entertainment of TV. [17]

One might have thought that editors and writers, more than any other group in the commercial world, would have demonstrated more alacrity in leaming why their clientele has been reduced. Those who live by the word, in this case, now are dying by the intellectual asphyxiation of a populace to whom the word has been denied.

Booksellers and publishers of books are feeling the results of mass illiteracy too. According to a spokesman for McCraw-Hill, there was a steady decline throughout the 1970s in the sale and publication of hardcover books. While certain reports suggest that book sales have increased in recent years, they also demonstrate that only the more privileged sector of the population buys them. Growth in sales is caused by greater use of books by only one third of the population. Thirty-seven percent of adults under twenty-one do not read books at all. The United States ranks twenty-fourth in the world in terms of books produced per capita.

The legal system flounders in its own morass of indefensible defendants, incoherent witnesses, and injudicious jurists. It was first held in 1582 in England, and subsequently respected in the United States. in 1930, that 'a deed executed by an illiterate person does not bind him' if its terms have not been read to him correctly. This precedent, if strictly honored in 1984, would throw the legal system into chaos.

More disturbing questions have to do with those who serve on juries. High levels of literacy are not demanded by the courts as a prerequisite to jury service, but those who read at only marginal levels are reduced to passive roles in the deliberation of the jury. Lawyers frequently make use of print displays to explicate the details of a complicated case. Once sequestered, juries often study written documents and, sometimes, transcripts of the testimony heard some weeks or even months before. In arduous debate, the semiliterate or illiterate juror is too readily won over by the selectivity of a persuasive reader.

If the high rate of convictions for illiterate defendants had not been so solidly established, none of this might represent a prejudicial aspect of the jury system. But trial by a jury of one's peers does, at the minimum, require a fair representation of poor persons. The number of illiterates among the poor and the nonwhite forces a choice that few defense attorneys would regard as any choice at all. Either they must look for jurors who are competent to judge and understand all written data but are of a diflferent class and race than the defendant; or they must attempt to find more sympathetic jurors who may not be able to read documents which other members of the jury will interpret for them. Since interpretation is too seldom neutral, and can never be entirely neutral, the jury process cannot represent a genuine judgment by one's peers.

Even one of the most common forms of litigation, that which arises from contract law, is undermined by the pervasive lack of literacy skills. Contracts, according to a treatise published first in 1844, were regarded as non-binding if [18] 'an intelligent understanding of [their] terms' was not established. If this view still holds in the United States today, the problem for the courts will be enormous. An obvious example was reported recently in Tennessee. Contracts for the residents of housing projects were examined by some reading specialists and lawyers and were found to have been written well above a college level. Knowing the way most housing agencies are run, we cannot believe that anyone has read . these contracts to the tenants; yet it is for breach of terms within such documents that people are evicted.

The social ideology of the United States and of Great Britain has been built on contract law. If this form of law cannot survive the test of reading competence within the population, the contract system and the social edifice that it supports will be no better able to sustain themselves than any other aspect of American society described above.

The U.S. military pays a high price too. Thirty percent of naval recruits were recently termed 'a danger to themselves and to costly naval equipment' because of inability to read and understand instructions.

The Navy reports that one recruit caused $250,000 in damage to delicate equipment 'because he could not read a repair manual.' The young recruit had tried to hide his inability to read by using common sense and following the pictures that accompanied the text. 'He tried [but] failed to follow the illustrations ...' How many more illiterates are now responsible for lower-level but essential safety checks that are required in the handling of missiles or the operation of a nuclear reactor?

Some of the means used by the military to explain mechanical procedures are devastating in their banal degradation. Books resembling comics are one of the common methods of instruction. A five-page picture book is needed to explain the steps required to release and lift the hood of army vehicles. How long are the comics needed to explain the operation of those vehicles, to tell the semiliterate soldier where to drive and whom he is to rescue, kill, or capture when he gets there?

Illiteracy poses greater military risks than this. One that is potentially explosive is the disproportionate number of both poor and nonwhite men who are assigned the most subordinate positions and who therefore represent a disproportionate percentage of the frontline soldiers and of battle casualties in time of war. We have seen some instances of shipboard mutiny in recent years; one such instance was explicitly connected to the point established here. We can expect to see more frightening rebellions of this sort during the years ahead.

There are other military dangers. Many citizens will view with grave alarm the passive and noncritical status of uneducated soldiers trained at best to a mechanical efficiency in areas too tightly circumscribed to offer any vision of the moral or immoral consequences of their actions. Whether from the point of [19] view of the most jingoistic citizen, therefore, or from that of the most ardent pacifist, the present situation holds intolerable dangers. On this, if nothing else, both left and right can certainly agree.

What is the cost to universities and public schools?

Affluent people tend to look upon illiteracy with comfortable detachment. Their sole concern is that their children may be cheated of an opportunity for college preparation by 'adulterated' courses and by 'lowered' standards, both of which they have associated with the more inclusive policies of public schools and, in particular, with race desegregation. Many imagine they can isolate their children from these problems: a few by application to exclusive prep schools, the rest by tougher discipline and more remorseless tracking systems in the public schools. Sophisticated parents, on the other hand, have started to perceive that isolation of this sort is seldom possible today and that, where it still seems possible, the price that they will later pay for such shortsighted selfishness is greater than the short-term flairs.

Excellence at the top, in short, is intimately tied to the collapse of literacy levels at the bottom. Even in the richest suburbs there are well-concealed but frequently extensive neighborhoods inhabited by poor people. Children from those neighborhoods attend the same schools as the children of the rich. More to the point, the line that separates the inner cities from the suburbs will increasingly be broken down in years ahead. Present patterns of resegregation may appease the fearful; legal actions, even if they take another decade, will not leave these stark inequities unchanged. As school desegregation is more fully implemented, only the most isolated suburbs will remain exempt.

Tracking schemes, at present in resurgent fashion, will be recognized for what they are: archaic pedagogy and divisive social policy. Legal actions will be launched to fight the obvious denial of a child's civil rights which is inherent in the self-fulfilling prophecy of rigid track separations.

To state it bluntly: There will at length be no more places for all but the very privileged to hide.

Even for those who may contrive to isolate their kids during the years preceding college, higher academic life will be affected by the growing presence of the poorly educated and the semiliterate. Ethnic tensions consequent from this are seen already both in public institutions like the City University of New Yorlt and in private institutions such as Boston University. Even at graduate schools like Harvard Law we have seen a rapid growth of interethnic acrimony in the past five years. Nonwhite students with marginal entrance scores remain close to the bottom of the class; few are admitted to the prestigious Law Review. Recent policies that have facilitated their admission have been met with strong resistance from those students who have seen 'their' place assumed by someone who, according to the test scores, is less qualified than they.

Virulent graffiti on the redbrick walls and Georgian porticoes of Harvard [20] University remind us that the price of excellence for very few in early years of public school, If it is an excellence achieved by separation from the children of poor people, is an ethical contamination that even the most honored law school in the nation cannot manage to escape.

If conscience cannot turn the tide, perhaps it is the panic of self-interest which will finally do the job. Panic may not be a noble motive for redress of social wrongs; but there are sufficient grounds for panic, and perhaps the only reason that there is not more alarm among the population is the fact that most of us have never stopped to recognize the perils that surround us.

Imagine a familiar situation: The traveller walks into an airport lobby to obtain the ticket for a flight which has already been reserved. The well-dressed woman at the ticket desk projects a confident smile as she taps the buttons on a modern console, asks our seating preference, and hands over a computer-printed boarding pass. We never get to meet the men and women in their oil-coated overalls or jeans who do the more important work of checking out the plane we are about to board. Some of us might be alarmed if we should ever wander through the wrong door by mistake and watch the semieducated persons who attempt to figure out the charts and other manuals that instruct them in the safety details that the government requires: details most of us will never find the time to think about until it is too late.

Without warning, on May A, 1983, an Eastem Airlines jumbo jet en route to Nassau from Miami, crowded with passengers enjoying their first cocktail and perusing their newspapers, dropped three miles in the sky. Three engines had gone dead. By luck one engine came to life just as the pilot had prepared the passengers to ditch. The cause of engine failure was at length discovered. Nothing was wrong with the mechanical equipment. Two members of a ground crew had neglected to insert three tiny oil seals descnbed as 'O' rings into the fuel line during the routine check that took place prior to departure. The lives of several hundred people came within three minutes of extinction. The maintenance men, it was reported, 'hadn't read' the manual of instructions that the airline had prepared. Eastern Airlines never reported, and perhaps has never learned, whether the maintenance men had failed to look at the instructions or whether they had been unable to decipher them.

Failure to follow maintenance instructions led another man, in March of 1979, to leave unsecured the open valves that were a major reason for the nearcatastrophe at Three Mile Island; a catastrophe which, had it taken place, would have spread its radiation far beyond the precincts of a single neighborhood in Pennsylvania and might have endangered lives as far away as in New Jersey and New York.

Neither of these two events can be identified with evidence of inability to read. Nonetheless, the presence of so many millions of unrecognized illiterates in the work force guarantees that hundreds of mistakes, with consequences we [21] may never know, must take place daily. Many more will take place in the years ahead.

The Secretary of Education is correct. The nation is at risk. He very likely does not understand the nature of the risk that he describes. We are all held hostage to each other in this nation. There are no citizens, no matter how wealthy, no matter how removed they may believe themselves to be, who will not be forced to pay a formidable price. The items I have summarized above may prove to be among the least important of these costs, but these matters in themselves are great enough to mandate a dramatic, urgent, and immediate political response.

4 -- The Human Cost of an Illiterate Society

Poison: Contains sodium hydroxide (caustic soda-lye).
Corrosive: Causes severe eye and skin damage, may cause blindness.
Harmful or fatal if swallowed.
If swallowed, give large quantities of milk or water.
Do not induce vomiting.
Important: Keep water out of can at a11 times to
prevent contents from violently erupting ...
-- warning on a can of Drano

We are speaking here no longer of the dangers faced by passengers on Eastern Airlines or the dollar costs incurred by U.S. corporations and taxpayers. We are speaking now of human suffering and of the ethical dilemmas that are faced by a society that looks upon such suffering with qualified concern but does not take those actions which its wealth and ingenuity would seemingly demand.

Questions of literacy, in Socrates' belief, must at length be judged as matters of morality. Socrates could not have had in mind the moral compromise peculiar to a nation like our own. Some of our Founding Fathers did, however, have this question in their minds. One of the wisest of those Founding Fathers (one who may not have been most compassionate but surely was more prescient than some of his peers) recognized the special dangers that illiteracy would pose to basic equity in the political construction that he helped to shape.

'A people who mean to be their own governors,' James Madison wrote, [23] 'must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives. A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.'

Tragedy looms larger than farce in the United States today. Illiterate citizens seldom vote. Those who do are forced to cast a vote of questionable worth. They cannot make informed decisions based on serious print information. Sometimes they can be alerted to their interests by aggressive voter education. More frequently, they vote for a face, a smile, or a style, not for a mind or character or body of beliefs.

The number of illiterate adults exceeds by 16 million the entire vote cast for the winner in the 1980 presidential contest. If even one third of all illiterates could vote, and read enough and do sufficient math to vote in their sif-interest, Ronald Reagan would not likely have been chosen president. There is, of course, no way to know for sure. We do know this: Democracy is a mendacious term when used by those who are prepared to countenance the forced exclusion of one third of our electorate. So long as 60 million people are denied significant participation, the government is neither of, nor for, nor by, the people. It is a government, at best, of those two thirds whose wealth, skin color, or parental privilege allows them opportunity to profit from the provocation and instruction of the written word.

The undermining of democracy in the United States is one 'expense' that sensitive Americans can easily deplore because it represents a contradiction that endangers citizens of all political positions. The human price is not so obvious at first.

Since I first immersed myself within this work I have often had the following dream: I find that I am in a railroad station or a large department store within a city that is utterly unknown to me and where I cannot understand the printed words. None of the signs or symbols is familiar. Everything looks strange: like mirror writing of some kind. Gradually I understand that I am in the Soviet Union. All the letters on the walls around me are Cyrillic. I look for my pocket dictionary but I find that it has been mislaid. Where have I left it? Then I recall that I forgot to bring it with me when I packed my bags in Boston. I struggle to remember the name of my hotel. I try to ask somebody for directions. One person stops and looks at me in a peculiar way. l lose the nerve to ask. At last I reach into my wallet for an ID card. The card is missing. Have l lost it? Then I remember that my card was confiscated for some reason, many years before. Around this point, I wake up in a panic.

This panic is not so different from the misery that millions of adult iDiterates experience each day within the course of their routine existence in the U.S.A.

Illiterates cannot read the menu in a restaurant. [24]

They cannot read the cost of items on the menu in the window of the restaurant before they enter.

Illiterates cannot read the letters that their children bring home from their teachers. They cannot study school department circulars that tell them of the courses that their children must be taking if they hope to pass the SAT exams. They cannot help with homework. They cannot write a letter to the teacher. They are afraid to visit in the classroom. They do not want to humiliate their child or themselves.

Illiterates cannot read instructions on a bottle of prescription medicine. They cannot find out when a medicine is past the year of safe consumption; nor can they read of allergenic risks, warnings to diabetics, or the potential sedative effect of certain kinds of nonprescription pills. They cannot observe preventive health care admonitions. They cannot read about 'the seven warning signs of cancer' or the indications of blood-sugar fluctuations or the risks of eating certain foods that aggravate the likelihood of cardiac arrest.

Illiterates live, in more than literal ways, an uninsured existence. They cannot understand the written details on a health insurance form. They cannot read the waivers that they sign preceding surgical procedures. Several women I have known in Boston have entered a slum hospital with the intention of obtaining a tubal ligation and have emerged a few days later after having been subjected to a hysterectomy. Unaware of their rights, incognizant of jargon, intimidated by the unfamiliar air of fear and atmosphere of ether that so many of us find oppressive in the confines even of the most attractive and expensive medical facilities, they have signed their names to documents they could not read and which nobody, in the hectic situation that prevails so often in those overcrowded hospitals that serve the urban poor, had even bothered to explain.

Childbirth might seem to be the last inalienable right of any female citizen within a civilized society. Illiterate mothers, as we shall see, already have been cheated of the power to protect their progeny against the likelihood of demolition in deficient public schools and, as a result, against the verbal servitude within which they themselves exist. Surgical denial of the right to bear that child in the first place represents an ultimate denial, an unspeakable metaphor, a final darkness that denies even the tvilight gleamings of our own humanity. What greater violation of our biological, our biblical, our spiritual humanity could possibly exist than that which takes place nightly, perhaps hourly these days, within such overburdened and benighted institutions as the Boston City Hospital? Illiteracy has many costs; few are so irreversible as this.

Even the roof above one's head, the gas or other fuel for heating that protects the residents of northern city slums against the threat of illness in the winter months become uncertain guarantees. Illiterates cannot read the lease that they must sign to live in an apartment which, too often, they cannot afford. They cannot manage check accounts and therefore seldom pay for anything by [25] mail. Hours and entire days of difficult travel (and the cost of bus or other public transit) must be added to the real cost of whatever they consume. Loss of interest on the check accounts they do not have, and could not manage if they did, must be regarded as another of the excess costs paid by the citizen who is excluded from the common instruments of commerce in a numerate society.

'I couldn't understand the bills,' a woman in Washington, D.C., reports, 'and then I couldn't write the checks to pay them. We signed things we didn't know what they were.'

Illiterates cannot read the notices that they receive from welfare offices or from the IRS. They must depend on word-of-mouth instruction from the welfare worker -- or from other persons whom they have good reason to mistrust. They do not know what rights they have, what deadlines and requirements they face, what options they might choose to exercise. They are half-citizens. Their rights exist in print but not in fact.

Illiterates cannot look up numbers in a telephone directory. Even if they can find the names of friends, few possess the sorting skills to make use of the yellow pages; categories are bewildering and trade names are beyond decoding capabilities for millions of nonreaders. Even the emergency numbers listed on the first page of the phone book -- 'Ambulance,' 'Police,' and 'Fire' -- are too frequently beyond the recognition of nonreaders.

Many illiterates cannot read the admonition on a pack of cigarettes. Neither the Surgeon General's warning nor its reproduction on the package can alert them to the risks. Although most people learn by word of mouth that smoking is related to a number of grave physical disorders, they do not get the chance to read the detailed stories which can document this danger with the vividness that turns concern into determination to resist. They can see the handsome cowboy or the slim Virginia lady lighting up a filter cigarette; they cannot heed the words that tell them that this product is (not 'may be') dangerous to their health. Sixty million men and women are condemned to be the unalerted, high-risk candidates for cancer.

Illiterates do not buy 'no-name' products in the supermarkets. They must depend on photographs or the familiar logos that are printed on the packages of brand-name groceries. The poorest people, therefore, are denied the benefits of the least costly products.

Illiterates depend almost entirely upon label recognition. Many labels, however, are not easy to distinguish. Dozens of different kinds of Campbell's soup appear identical to the nonreader. The purchasa who cannot read and does not dare to ask for help, out of the fear of being stigmatized (a fear which is unfortunately realistic), frequently comes home with something which she never wanted and her family never tasted.

Illiterates cannot read instructions on a pack of frozen food. Packages sometimes provide an illustration to explain the cooking preparations; but illus- [26] trations are of little help to someone who must 'boil water, drop the food -- within its plastic wrapper -- in the boiling water, wait for it to simmer, instantly remove.'

Even when labels are seemingly clear, they may be easily mistaken. A woman in Detroit brought home a gallon of Crisco for her children's dinner. She thought that she had bought the chicken that was pictured on the bbel. She had enough Crisco now to last a year -- but no more money to go back and buy the food for dinner.

Recipes provided on the packages of certain staples sometimes tempt a semiliterate person to prepare a meal her children have not tasted. The longing to vary the uniform and often starchy content of low-budget meals provided to the family that relies on food stamps commonly leads to ruinous results. Scarce funds have been wasted and the food must be thrown out. The same applies to distribution of food-surplus produce in emergency conditions. Government inducements to poor people to 'explore the ways' by which to make a tasty meal from tasteless noodles, surplus cheese, and powdered milk are useless to nonreaders. Intended as benevolent advice, such recommendations mock reality and foster deeper feelings of resentment and of inability to cope. (Those, on the other hand, who cautiously refrain from 'innovative' recipes in preparation of their children's meals must suffer the opprobrium of 'laziness,' 'lack of imagination ...')

Illiterates cannot travel freely. When they attempt to do so, they encounter risks 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. While ingenuity can sometimes help a man or woman to discern directions from familiar landmarks, buildings, cemeteries, churches, and the like, most illiterates are virtually immobilized. They seldom wander past the streets and neighborhoods they know. Geographical paralysis becomes a bitter metaphor for their entire existence. They are immobilized in almost every sense we can imagine. They can't move up. They can't move out. They cannot see beyond. Illiterates may take an oral test for drivers' permits in most sections of America. It is a questionable concession. Where will they go? How will they get there? How will they get home? Could it be that some of us might like it better if they stayed where they belong?

Travel is only one of many instances of circumscribed existence. Choice, in almost all its facets, is diminished in the life of an illiterate adult. Even the printed TV schedule, which provides most people with the luxury of preselection, does not belong within the arsenal of options in illiterate existence. One consequence is that the viewer watches only what appears at moments when he happens to have time to turn the switch. Another consequence, a lot more common, is that the TV set remains in operation night and day. Whatever the [27] program offered at the hour when he walks into the room will be the nutriment that he accepts and swallows. Thus, to passivity, is added frequency -- indeed, almost uninterrupted continuity. Freedom to sdect is no more possible here than in the choice of home or surgery or food.

'You don't choose,' said one illiterate woman. 'You take your wishes from somebody else.' Whether in perusal of a menu, selection of highways, purchase of groceries, or determination of affordable enjoyment, illiterate Americans must trust somebody else: a friend, a relative, a stranger on the street, a grocery clerk, a TV copywriter.

'All of our mail we get, it's hard for her to read. Settin' down and writing a letter, she can't do it. Like if we get a bill ... we take it over to my sister-inlaw ... My sister-in-law reads it.'

Billing agencies harass poor people for the payment of the bills for purchases that might have taken place six months before. Utility companies offer an agreement for a staggered payment schedule on a bill past due. 'You have to trust them,' one man said. Precisely for this reason, you end up by trusting no one and suspecting everyone of possible deceit. A submerged sense of distrust becomes the corollary to a constant need to trust. 'They are cheating me ... I have been tricked ... I do not know ...'

Not knowing: This is a familiar theme. Not knowing the right word for the right thing at the right time is one form of subjugation. Not knowing the world that lies concealed behind those words is a more terrifying feeling. The longitude and latitude of one's existence are beyond all easy apprehension. Even the hard, cold stars within the firmameSnt above one's head begin to mock the possibilities for self-location. Where am I? Where did I come from? Where will I go?

'I've lost a lot of jobs,' one man explains. 'Today, even if you're a janitor, there's still reading and writing ... They leave a note saying,.'Go to room soand-so ...' You can't do it. You can't read it. You don't know.'

'The hardest thing about it is that I've been places where I didn't know where I was. You don't know where you are ... You're lost.'

'Like I said: I have two kids. What do I do if one of my kids starts choking? I go running to the phone ... I can't look up the hospital phone number. That's if we're at home. Out on the street, I can't read the sign. I get to a pay phone. 'Okay, tell us where you are. We'll send an ambulance.' l look at the street sign. Right there, I can't tell you what it says. I'd have to spell it out, letter for letter. By that time, one of my kids would be dead ... These are the kinds of fears you go with, every single day ...'

'Reading directions, l suffer with. l work with chemicals ... That's scary to begin with...'

'You sit down. They throw the menu in front of you. Where do you go from there? Nine times out of ten you say, 'Go ahead. Pick out something for the both of us.' I've eaten some weird things, let me tell you!"

Menus. Chemicals. A child choking while his mother searches for a word she does not know to find assistance that will come too late. Another mother speaks about the inability to help her kids to read: "I can't read to them. Of course that's leaving them out of something they should have. Oh, it matters. You believe it matters! I ordered all these books. The kids belong to a book club. Donny wanted me to read a book to him. I told Donny: 'I can't read.' He said: 'Mommy, you sit down. I'll read it to you.' I tried it one day, reading from the pictures. Donny looked at me. He said, 'Mommy, that's not right.' He's only five. He knew I couldn't read ..."

A landlord tells a woman that her lease allows him to evict her if her baby cnes and causes inconvenience to her neighbors. The consequence of challenging his words conveys a danger which appears, unlikely as it seems, even more alarming than the danger of eviction. Once she admits that she can't read, in the desire to maneuver for the time in which to call a friend, she will have defined herself in terms of an explicit impotence that she cannot endure. Capitulation in this case is preferable to self-humiliation. Resisting the definition of oneself in terms of what one cannot do, what others take for granted, represents a need so great that other imperatives (even one so urgent as the need to keep one's home in winter's cold) evaporate and fall away in Ace of fear. E;ven the loss of home and shelter, in this case, is not so terrifying as the loss of self.

"I come out of school. I was sixteen. They had their meetings. The directors meet. They said that I was wasting their school paper. I was wasting pencils."

Another illiterate, looking back, believes she was not worthy of her teacher's time. She believes that it was wrong of her to take up space within her school. She believes that it was right to leave in order that somebody more deserving could receive her place.

Children choke. Their mother chokes another way: on more than chicken bones. People eat what others order, know what others tell them, struggle not to see themselves as they believe the world perceives them. A man in California speaks about his own loss of identity, of self-location, definition:

"I stood at the bottom of the ramp. My car had broke down on the freeway. There was a phone. I asked for the police. They was nice. They said to tell them where I was. I looked up at the signs. There was one that I had seen before. I read it to them: ONE WAY STREET. They thought it was a joke. I told them I couldn't read. There was other signs above the ramp. They told me to try. I looked around for somebody to help. All the cars was going by real fast. I couldn't make them understand that I was lost. The cop was nice. He told me: 'Try once more.' I did my best. I couldn't read. I only knew the sign above my head. The cop was trying to be nice. He knew that I was trapped. 'I can't send out a car to you if you can't tell me where you are.' I felt afraid. I nearly cried. I'm forty-eight years old. I only said: 'I'm on a one-way street ...' "

The legal problems and the courtroom complications that confront illiterate adults have been discussed above. The anguish that may underlie such matters was brought home to me this year while I was working on this book. I have spoken, in the introduction, of a sudden phone call from one of my former students, now in prison for a criminal offense. Stephen is not a boy today. He is twenty-eight years old. He called to ask me to assist him in his trial, which comes up next fall. He wl11 be on tn'al for murder. He has just knifed and killed a man who first enticed him to his home, then cheated him, and then insulted him—as "an illiterate subhuman."

Stephen now faces twenty years to life. Stephen's mother was illiterate. His grandparents were illiterate as well. What parental curse did not destroy was killed off finally by the schools. Spent violence is repaid with interest. It will cost us $25,000 yearly to maintain this broken soul in prison. But what is the price that has been paid by Stephen's victim? What is the price that will be paid by Stephen?

Perhaps we might slow down a moment here and look at the realities described above. This is the 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 nationsqorethan our own, have found it natural to correct?

The answers to these questions represent a reasonable test of our belief in the democracy to which we have been asked in public school to swear allegiance.

5 -- The Disenfranchised:

Silent and Unseen

Im 33 now and finly made a go. But the walls are up agent. and this time I don't think I can go around them. What Im I to do. I still have some engeny left. But running out. Im afraide to run out. I don't know if I can settle for noting.
-- letter to the author, 1983

It is difficult for most Americans to place full credence in the facts described.

If we did, we would be forced to choose between enormous guilt and efficacious action. The willingness of decent people to withhold belief or to anaesthetize their capability for credence represents the hardest problem that we need to overcome in dealing with the dangers that we know in abstract ways ut somehow cannot concretize in ways that force us to take action.

One reason for the nation's incredulity, of course, is the deceptive impact of the U.S. census figures. Until recent years, these figures have been taken as authoritative indices of national reality. While it has been recognized for decades that the nonwhite population has been underrepresented in the census, it may be that it is not black people but illiterate adults who represent, in categorica! terms, the largest sector of invisible Americans. Many blacks and other minorities decline, for fear of government intrusion, to respond to written rms. Illiterates do not 'decline'; they cannot read the forms at all.

This, however, is not the only explanation. Illiterates find it painful to Identify themselves. In a print society, enormous stigma is attached to the adult [31] nonreader. Early in the game we see the evolution of a whole line of defensive strategies against discovery by others. 'Lying low' and watching out for 'traps' become a pattern of existence.

An illiterate young man, nineteen years of age, sits beside me in a restaurant and quietly surveys the menu. After a time he looks at the waitress, hesibtes as if uncertain of his preference, then tens her: 'Well, I guess I'll have a hamburger -- with french fries.' When she asks what he would like to drink, he pauses again, then states with some conviction: 'Well, I guess I'd like a Coke.'

It took me several months, although I was this young man's neighbor, to discover that he could not read a word. He had learned to order those three items which he felt assured of finding in all restaurants. He had had a lot of hamburg and french fries in nineteen years.

Peter had been victimized initially by some incredibly incompetent officials in the Boston schools. He could not look for backup to his family. His father could not read. His mother had died when he was very young. This was a oneparent family which, unlike the stereotype that is accepted as the norm, was headed not by an unmarried woman but by an undereducated and religious man. But Peter had been victimized a final time by some of those (myself included) who were living in his neighborhood and who ought to have perceived that he was literally frozen in the presence of the written word.

Being ingenious and sophisticated far beyond his years, he was able to disguise his fear of words to a degree that totally deceived me. I might never have identified his inability to read if it had not been for an entirely social happenstance. One day, driving by the ocean north of Boston, I stopped to take him to a seafood restaurant in Gloucester. He broke into a sweat, began to tremble, and then asked if we could leave. He asked me, suddenly, if we could go to Howard Johnson's.

This, I discovered, was the one escape hatch he had managed to contrive. Howard Johnson's, unattractive as it may appear in contrast to a lobster restaurant beside the sea, provided Peter with his only opportunity for culinary options. Here, because of the array of color photographs attached in celluloid containers to each item on the menu, he was able to branch out a bit and treat himself to ice cream sodas and fried clams. Howard Johnson's, knowingly or not, has held for many years a captive clientele of many millions of illiterate adults.

Today, the other fast-food chains provide the pictures too. Certain corporations, going even further in the wish to give employment to illiterate teenagers, now are speaking of a plan to make use of cash registers whose keys are marked with product symbols in the place of numbers. The illiterate employee merely needs to punch the key that shows 'two burgers' or one 'Whopper.' It is a good device for giving jobs to print (and numerate) nonreaders. Obviating errors and perhaps some personal embarrassment, it pacifies the anguish of illiterates but it does not give them motivation to escape the trap which leaves them [32] powerless to find more interesting employment. Illiterates, in this way, come to be both captive customers and captive counter workers for such corporations.

An illiterate cattle farmer in Vermont describes the strategies that he employs to hide his inability to read. 'You have to be careful,' he explains, 'not to get into situations where it would leak out ... You always try to act intelligent ... If somebody gives you something to read, you make believe you read it.'

Sooner or later, the strategies run out. A man who has been able to obtain a good job in a laboratory testing dairy products for impurities survives by memorizing crystals and their various reactions. Offered promotion, he is told that he will be obliged to take a brief exam. He brings home the books that have been given to him by his boss for preparation. Knowing the examination is a written one, he loses heart. He never shows up at his job again. His boss perhaps will spend some hours wondering why.

Husbands and wives can sometimes cover for each other. Illiterates may bring home applications, written forms of various kinds, and ask their spouse or children to fill in the answers. When this stratagem no longer works (when they are asked, for instance, to check out a voucher or a bill of lading on the job) the game is up, the worker disappears.

Once we get to know someone like Peter, we can understand the courage that it takes for an illiterate adult to bretak down the defenses and to ask for help. Our government's refusal to provide an answer for the millions who have found the nerve to ask seems all the more heartbreaking for this reason. One hundred forty thousand men and women in the State of Illinois alone have asked for literacy help from local agencies which have been forced to turn them down for lack of federal funds. They have been consigned to waiting lists. How many of these people, having asked and been refused, will find the courage to apply for help again?

On the streets of New York City or Chicago, one out of every three or four adults we pass is a nonreader. Unlike the stranger who does not speak English, or whose skin is brown or black, the person who is illiterate can 'pass.' By virtue of those strategies that guard them from humiliation, illiterates have also managed to remain unseen.

Political impotence may represent an even larger obstacle to recognition than the fear of personal humiliation.

Others who have been victimized at least are able to form lobbies, organize agendas, issue press releases, write to politicians, and, if they do not receive responsive answers, form a voting bloc to drive those politicians out of office. Illiterates have no access to such methods of political redress.

We are told in school that, when we have a problem or complaint, we should write a letter 'to our representative at City Hall' or to an elected politician in the nation's capital. Politicians do not answer letters that illiterates can't write. The leverage of political negotiation that we take for granted and assign [33] such hopeful designations as 'the Jeffersonian ideal' is denied the man or woman who cannot participate in print society. Neither the press release nor the handwritten flier that can draw a crowd into a protest meeting at a local church lies within the reach of the nonreader. Victims exist, but not constituencies. Democracy is posited on efficacious actions that require print initiative. Even the most highly motivated persons, if they do not read and write, cannot lobby for their own essential needs. They can speak (and now and then a journalist may hear) but genuine autonomy is far beyond them.

Illiterates may carry picket signs but cannot write them and, in any case, can seldom read them. Even the rock-bottom levels of political communication -- the spray paint and graffiti that adorn the walls of subways and deserted buildings in impoverished neighborhoods -- are instruments of discourse which are far beyond the range of the illiterate American. Walking in a ghetto neighborhood or in a poor white area of Boston, we see the sprawl of giant letters that decry the plight of black, Hispanic, women, gay, or other persecuted groups. We read no cogent outcries from illiterates.

The forfeiture of self-created lobbies is perhaps the major reason for political inaction. Those who might speak, however, on behalf of the illiterate -- neighborhood organizers, for example, or the multitude of private literacy groups -- tend to default on an apparent obligation. For this, there seems to be at least one obvious explanation.

Community leaders -- black leaders in particular -- have been reluctant to direct the focus of attention to the crisis of adult illiteracy within the lowest economic levels of the population. Their reticence is based upon misguided fear. In pointing to the 44 percent of black adults who cannot read or write at levels needed for participation in American society, they are afraid that they may offer ammunition to those racist and reactionary persons who are often eager to attribute failure to innate inadequacy or who, while they may refrain from stating this, will nonetheless believe it. Naming the victim should not be equated with the age-old inclination to place blame upon the victim. Indeed, it tends to work the other way around. Refusal to name a victim and, still more, to offer details as to how that victimization is perpetuated and passed on is a fairly certain guarantee that people in pain will not be seen and that their victimization will not be addressed. Well-intentioned white allies of black political groups are even more susceptible to this mistake than most black leaders.

Sensible organizers understand that silence on this subject is a no-win strategy. If people are injured, injury must be described. If they have not been injured -- as the silence of some partisans dogmatically. implies -- then they have no claim upon compassion and no right to seek corrective measures. Blaming [34] the victim is vindictive. Naming the victim is the first step in a struggle to remove the chains.

If understandable, this hesitation on the part of many leaders is politically unsound. They lose the massive voting bloc which otherwise might double and, in certain urban areas, quadruple their constituencies. Black citizens, illiterate or not, may vote in overwhelming numbers for black candidates. When, as in some recent mayoral elections and in the campaign of Jesse Jackson in the presidential primaries of 1984, the options are a single black and one or more white candidates, the voting power of black people is self-evident. But when, in the more common situation, the choices are among a number of white candidates of widely differing positions (or, for that matter, a number of black candidates of widely diflfering degrees of merit), a black electorate which is substantially excluded from print access cannot make discerning or autonomous decisions. A physically attractive demagogue who knows the way to key his language to immediate and short-term interests of poor people may win himself a large part of the vote from those for whom his long-term bias and his past performance ought to constitute a solemn admonition.

Illiterate voters, cut off from the most effective means of repossession of the past, denied the right to learn from recent history because they are denied all access to the written record of the candidate (or to the editorial reminders of that record which most newspapers supply), are locked into the present and enslaved by the encapsulated moment which is symbolized by the sixty-second newsclip on TV or the thirty-second paid advertisement that candidates employ in order to exploit the well-organized amnesia of Americans.

Illiterate Americans, denied almost all contact with the print-recorded past, cannot eflfectively address the present nor anticipate the future. They cannot learn from Santayana's warning. They have never heard of Santayana.

Exclusion from the printed word renders one third of America the ideal supine population for the 'total state' that Auden feared and Orwell prophesied: undefended against doublespeak, unarmed against the orchestrated domination of their minds. Choice demands reflection and decision. Readers of the press at least can stand back and react; they can also find dissenting sources of opinion. The speed and power of electric media allow no time for qualified reflection. The TV viewer, whether literate or not, is temporarily a passive object: a receptacle for someone else's views. While all of us have proven vulnerable to this effect, it is the illiterate who has been rendered most susceptible to that entire domination which depends upon denial of the full continuum of time and its causations.

There is some danger of implicit overstatement here. Illiterate people do not represent a single body of undiflferentiated human beings. Most illiterates do not remain all day in front of the TV, silent and entranced, to 'drink it in.' Many, moreover, draw upon their own experience to discount or refute nine- [35] tenths of what they see before them on TV. Others can draw on oral history, the stories they hear, the anecdotes they have been told by parents or by older friends. Injustice itself is a profound instructor. Intuitive recognition of a fraud -- a politician or a product -- can empower many people to resist the absoluteness of control which television otherwise might exercise upon their wishes or convictions.

Nonetheless it is the truth that many illiterates, deeply depressed and socially withdrawn, do not venture far from home and, out of the sheer longing for escape and for the simulation of 'communication,' do become for hours and weeks the passive addicts of the worst of what is offered on TV. Their lives and even eating schedules have been parcelled out to match the thirty-minute packages of cultural domestication and the sixty-second units of purported information which present the news in isolation from the history that shaped it or the future that it threatens to extinguish.

Many of these people would not choose to undermine or to refute a form of entertainment which has come to take a permanent place within their home -- their one fast-talking friend; Many more have been so long indoctrinated to indict themselves, and not society, for their impoverished and illiterate condition that there is no chance of taking lessons from injustice. They cannot denounce what seems to them to be the normal world of those who have the 'know-how' to enjoy it. Nor can they profit from the Earnings of an older family member who is frequently too weary and depressed to speak at length about a lifetime (or a recent history) which he or she may not desire to remember and may have been led to view not as a blessing to pass on but as a curse to be denied or wished away.

For people like these (and there are many millions, I believe) the following is true: They live in a truncated present tense. The future seems hopeless. The past remains unknown. The amputated present tense, encapsulated by the TV moment, seems to constitute the end and the beginning of cognition.

Many black children, when they speak about their lives, do not seem to differentiate between the present, past, and future. 'I be doing good today.' 'Last year I be with my family in Alabama.' 'Someday I be somebody important.' In the year that I began to teach, knowing little about sociology and less about linguistics, I perceived this hrst as inability, then as unwillingness, to conjugate. l summarized my explanation of the matter in somewhat these terms: People who are robbed of history, whether by slavery or by the inability to read, do not have much reason to distinguish between past and present. Those who have been robbed of opportunity to shape a future different from the ones their parents and grandparents knew do not have much reason to distinguish between now and never.

I was equally perplexed by something else about the patterns of my students' speech. Even the continuous present tense that seemed to me to be the [36] common usage of these kids was not expressed in present indicative but in a form that seemed to hold subjunctive implications. The children did not say: 'I am.' They said: 'I be.' This too appeared to me to carry metaphoric meaning. Existence itself, I felt, had been grammatically reduced to a subjunctive possibility.

Now it turns out that all of this is true except the starting point, which is entirely incorrect and which derives from my lack of awareness of some basic points of history and speech. Many scholars I have studied since have made it clear that nonwhite children 'conjugate' as well as anybody else, that what I heard was not exactly what the children really said, that I was missing out on words as well as intonations that conveyed a sense of tense and mode to anyone (ad of their friends, for instance) who shared in a knowledge of the language which they chose to use and one that had a logic and consistency that I could not perceive. It is not 'a failure to differentiate' which was at stake. The differentiation was effected, rather, by a different body of linguistic rules.

Metaphors have a curious way of living beyond the point at which the evidence from which they grew has been discarded. It is now quite obvious to me that nonwhite children, whatever the thefts they have incurred, distinguish very well between the past and present No matter how grim the future may appear, they also distinguish clearly between 'now ' and 'never.' The fact that they can do so, and persist in doing so, may be regarded as a tribute to-their courage and indomitable refusal to accede before appalling odds. The metaphor, born of my first encounter with their pain and with a world I did not understand, remains to haunt me.

Whatever the language children use, the fact that matters here may be established in few words: Illiterate adults have been substantially excluded from political effectiveness by lack of access to the written word. Political impotence in tum, diminishes the visibility of those in greatest verbal subjugation and makes it all the harder for the rest of us to recognize the full dimensions of their need.

It is argued by some cynical observers that elected leaders are politically astute to follow policies which keep out of the voting booth those who, reinforced by substantive decision-making data, could not quite so easily be led to vote for those who do not serve their needs. I suspect that such observers have attributed a little too much shrewdness and a great deal too much keen farsightedness to those whose actions seem more often motivated by a nineteenth century myopia than by a sinister anticipation of the future.

Enlightened politicians, if they wise to win at once political success and moral credibility, soon may demonstrate the acumen of picking up an issue which can hardly fail to better their position. Few of the votes of those who have been viewed for so long as expendable are likely to be cast for politicians who [37] have done their best to cut off aid to programs that have given even fleeting glints of hope to those who cannot read and write.

This is the point at which to take a second look at the miscalculations of the census.

For one hundred years, starting in 1840, the census posed the question of the population's literacy level in its ten-year compilations. The government removed this question from its survey in the 1940 census. The reason, according to a U.S. Census Bureau publication, was a general conviction that 'most people [by this time] could read and write ...'

In 1970, pressured by the military, the Bureau of the Census agreed to reinstate the literacy question. Even then, instead of posing questions about actual skills, the census simply asked adults how many years of school they had attended. More than 5 percent of those the census reached replied that they had had less than a fifth grade education. For no known reason, the government assumed that four fifths of these people probably could read and, on this dangerous assumption, it was publicly announced that 99 percent of all American adults could read and write. These are the figures which the U.S. government passed on to the United Nations for the purposes of worldwide compilations and comparisons.

The numbers in the 1980 census improved a bit on those of 1970. This time it was found that 99.5 percent of all American adults could read and write.

It will help us to assess the value of the U.S. census figures if we understand the methods used in 1980. First, as we have seen, the census mailed out printed forms and based most of its calculations upon written answers in response to questions about grade-completion levels. A second source of information was provided by a subdivision of the Bureau of the Census known as 'Current Population Surveys.' This information, based on only a small sample, was obtained by telephone interviews or home visits. In all cases the person was asked how many years of school he (she) had completed. If the answer was less than five, the person was asked if he or she could read. This was the full extent of the investigation.

It is self-evident that this is a process guaranteed to give a worthless data base. First, it is apparent that illiterates will not have much success in giving written answers to a printed questionnaire. The census believed that someone in the home or neighborhood -- a child or a relative perhaps -- could read enough to interview those who could not and that that person would complete the forms. This belief runs counter both to demographics and to the demands of human dignity. Illiterate people tend to live in neighborhoods of high illiteracy. In the home itself, it is repeatedly the case that mother, father, grandparent, and child are illiterate. Parents, moreover, try very hard to hide their lack of competence from their children and indeed, as we have seen, develop complicated masking [38] skills precisely to defend themselves against humiliation. The first assumption of the Census Bureau, therefore, must be viewed as fatuous at worst, naive at best.

Illiterates, being the poorest of our citizens, are far less likely to have telephones than others in the population. Those who do are likely to experience repeated cutoffs for nonpayment. Anyone who organizes in a poverty community takes it as a rule of thumb that mail and telephone contacts are the worst of ways to find out anything about the population. Experienced organizers also understand quite well that doorway interviews are almost certain to be unsuccessful if the occupant does not know or trust the person who is knocking at the door. Decades of well-justified distrust have led poor men and women to regard the stranger with his questionnaire and clipboard as the agent of a system which appears infrequently and almost never for a purpose which does not portend substantial danger. Bill collector, welfare worker, court investigator, census taker, or encyclopedia salesman -- all will be received with the same reticence and stealth. If the census taker should elicit any facts at all, there is a good chance that they will be facts contrived to fence him out, not to enlighten him as to the actualities of anyone's existence.

In the case of illiterates, moreover, living already with the stigma of a disability that is regarded as an indication of inherent deficit, there is an even stronger inclination to refuse collaborafion with the government's investigator. Many will profess a competence which they do not possess.

Finally, there is a problem with the question that the census seeks to pose. The fact that someone has attended school through fifth grade cannot be accepted as an indication that that person reads at fifth grade levd. People who are doing well in school are likely to continue. Those who drop out are almost always people who already find themselves two years or more behind the class and see no realistic hope of catching up. With the sole exception of those children who (as in the migrant streams) drop out of school because their families need another pair of hands to add a tiny increment of income, those who leave the schools in elementary years are those who have already failed -- or who have been failed by the system. The census, therefore, in asking people how long they have sat it out in public school, is engaging in a bit of foolishness which cannot easily be justified by ignorance or generosity. At best, by asking questions keyed not to attainment but to acquisition of grade numbers, the Bureau of the Census might be learning something vague about the numbers of adults who read at any point from first to third grade level. As we have seen, however, even this much information is unlikely to be gleaned by methods flawed so badly and so stubbornly maintained.

A census, of course, may have more than one purpose in a modern nation. Certain information is desired for enlightened national self-interest. Other forms of information are required for the purposes of international prestige. Literacy statistics are one of the universal indices of national well-being. The [39] first statistics listed in the 'nation profiles' that are used for international comparisons include illiteracy, infant mortality, per capita income, life expectancy. It can be argued, from the point of view of chauvinistic pride, that it is in the short-term interest of an unwise nation to report the lowest possible statistics for illiterates. In a curious respect,-therefore, the motives of the Census Bureau coincide with those of the distrustful or humiliated adult who is frightened to concede a problem that is viewed as evidence of human failing. A calamitous collusion is the obvious result: The nation wants to guard its pride. The illiterate needs to salvage self-respect. The former wants to hide its secret from the world; the latter wants to hide it from the nation. It is easy to understand, in light of all of the above, why a nation within which 60 million people cannot even read the 1980 census should offer census figures to UNESCO that announce our status as a land of universal literacy.

In the preface to a 1969 edition of 771e Other America, Michael Harrington pointed to 'the famous census undercount' of 1960. 'Almost six million Americans, mainly black adults living in Northern cities, were not enumerated. Their lives were so marginal -- rso permanent address, no mail, no phone number, no regular job -- that they did not even achieve the dignity of being a statistic.'

The same may be said in 1985 for the much larger number -- not 6 million this time, but some tens of millions -- who do not exist within the inventories of the Bureau of the Census. The census tabulations would be less alarming if at least the nation's scholars would agree to disavow them. Instead, too many scholars take these figures with a certain skepticism but proceed to rescue them from condemnation by allowing that they hold at least one particle of truth. Their resolution of the conflict works somewhat like this: They interpret the census as an accurate indication that there are 'no absolute nonreaders' in the nation. They then go on to indicate that -- on a higher level, and by using definitions more appropriate to a developed nation -- we are doing much less than we can. The second of these two points is correct. The first one is not.

The census itself, though unintentionally, suggests that 5 percent (over 8 million adults) read at third grade level or below. If we make some rough adjustments for the recent immigrants and the undocumented residents, but especially for all those the census doesn't reach and those who claim that they can read to get the census taker off their back, we can bet that well above 10 million adult residents of the United States are absolute or nearly absolute illiterates. The government, as we have seen, has now conceded an enormous crisis constituted by the 'functionally illiterate' in our society; but it has attempted to convey the somewhat reassuring thought that none of these people are 'nonreaders' in the sense that word would hold for Third World nations. In all likelihood, almost one third of those defined as 'functional' nonreaders would be judged illiterate by any standard and in any social system. [40]

It was Michael Harrington who spoke of 'an underdeveloped nation' living within the borders of America. This is an accurate description. There is a Third World hidden in the First World; because its occupants must live surrounded by the constant, visible, and unavoidable reminders of the comforts and the opportunities of which they are denied, their suffering may very wdl be greater than that which is undergone by those who live with none of those reminders in a nation where illiterate existence is accepted as the norm.

Even for those who read at fifth or sixth grade levels in this nation, the suffering, by reason of the visible rewards identified with verbal and with arithmetic competence around them, must be very, very great. 'The American poor,' wrote Michael Harrington, 'are not poor in Hong Kong or in the sixteenth century; they are poor here and now in the United States. They are dispossessed in terms of what the rest of the nation enjoys, in terms of what the society could provide if it had the will. They live on the fringe, the margin ... They are internal exiles.'

We know enough by now to treat the census figures with the skepticism and the indignation they deserve. History will not be generous with those who have compounded suffering by arrogant concealment. Sooner or later, the world will find us out. Neither our reputation nor our capability for self-correction can fail to suffer deeply from the propagation of these lies.

6 -- What Is Now Being Done?

But, though our perception be dim, it isn't dim enough to obscure one truth: that one mustn't despise the elemental needs, when one has been granted them and others have not. To do so is not to display one's superior spirituality. It is simply to be inhuman, or more exactly anti-human.
-- C. P. Snow

Scholars have identified by now the full dimensions of this crisis. Why is it that we have, as yet, achieved so little?

Four major national literacy efforts now exist. One is the government's official program, Adult Basic Education. A second is the U.S. military's program of remediation for its own recruits. Together, these two efforts claim to reach between 2 and 3 million people. The military, however, seldom accepts a person reading at below the fifth grade level. Adult Basic Education is not legally restricted from admitting persons reading at the lowest levels; but the traditional modes of ABE discourage their participation. Its methods of recruitment, its institutional setting, its replication of a school-like situation, its physical distance from the neighborhoods in which the poorest and least literate people live, as well as the mechanistic nature of the methods it employs, have virtually assured that few of those who read beneath the fifth grade level will begin, complete, or ever have a chance to hear about its programs.

For those who do participate, the figures for 'separation' (i.e., incompletion) are disastrous. Forty percent of those who enter ABE are 'separated.' [42]

Only thirty percent of those who leave these programs prior to completion do so because they have achieved their goals. Other reasons given in a recent poll are these: inconvenient scheduling of classes, physical distance causing transportation problems, change of address, conflicts with employers, lack of interest ... All, with the possible exception of employer conflicts, apply with equal force to dropout rates from public schools. Those who failed in public school are those, too frequently, who will be failed by ABE as well.

The other two programs are both privately supported. Laubach Literacy serves fifty thousand people. Literacy Volunteers of America (LVA). serves twenty thousand. These and several church-run programs do effective work with those they reach; but those they reach, as we shall see, are very few.

The same is true of the municipal and state-run programs. One of the largest urban efforts, recently begun in Boston, allocates $1 million for a population that contains about 200,000 semiliterate or illiterate adults: $5.00 yearly per nonreader. The California Literacy Campaign -- one of the most impressive of the statewide programs -- allocates $2.5 million for a nonreading population of at least 5 million. Funding for this program, undertaken with a federal grant, now depends precariously on state support.

Corporations such as Citibank provide in-service literacy help for some of their employees. Since many corporations turn to groups like LVA to operate their programs, numbers are deceiving. Those they serve, moreover, are employable already. What they learn is only what they need to function more effectively in areas specific to the profits of the corporations. Only I percent of all funds spent for training of employees by American corporations has gone to basic math and reading/writing skills as opposed to skills required to perform a narrow task.

If we speak of education, then, as something separate from mechanical job training, and if we describe not those who 'enter' but those who complete what they have set out to achieve, total figures for all programs in the nation do not much exceed 2 million. Even this is probably exaggeration. Government and corporations are not known for understatement of results. We can believe that far fewer than 2 million people are now being reached and also learning anything of substance.

Adult Basic Education is by far the largest program in existence. Federal funding for this program, after sixteen years of incremental growth, has been frozen at existing levels for the past four years and therefore, in consent dollars, has diminished. The $100 million budget now assigned to ABE needs to be viewed once more in context of the annual cost of $20 billion to taxpayers.

Many imaginative people are involved in Adult Basic Education. Most are [43] cognizant of its shortcomings. Many would like to introduce the relevant materials, decentralized learning centers, and the neighborhood involvement which might reduce the staggering dropout figures. Few serious people involved in ABE can feel much satisfaction in a program that purports to serve 2 million men and women but loses four in ten of those it reaches and which has been holding several hundred thousand people on its waiting lists for months and often years. Nor can many of these leaders feel rewarded by the consequences for those few who hae been reached and who have not dropped out. Only 8.5 percent of those who go through Adult Basic Education programs have been able to get jobs, or better jobs, as a result of ABE. Fewer than 2 percent of those who have completed ABE report that they have voted for the first time as a consequence of the instruction they received. We can understand why ABE has won so little popular support.

Those who work in programs where the chances for success have been so badly compromised from the beginning cannot long sustain an activist mentalib. The sense of failure and the arid and despondent atmosphere that gradually set in create a fatalistic mood, a sense of apathy, and finally an acquiescence in the bureaucratic status quo.

We need to ask another question too: not only how many people are now being served, but also who those people are.

People served, with very few exceptions, are those already on the edge of functional effectiveness or those who, literate in another language, do not suffer from a sense of broken hopes engendered by societal injustice. Those who read and write already in another language come out of one realm of confidence into a new arena of potential opportunities: one they are prepared to enter and within which they predictably do well.

Political refugees, many whose origins were middle class and most of whom were brought to the United States because of sympathies which correspond to U.S.. interests -- refugees from Laos and Cambodia, for instance -- tend to be reached with relative ease. These are the 'best examples' offered up to visiting journalists and scholars in the course of on-site visits. Marginal Americans who still can buy in on the promise of American prosperity and have reason to accept the myth of equal access (since, for these people, access is in fact imaginable) constitute almost the full remaining complement of those who now are given literacy help in the United States.

Those who are in the greatest need, who live in the most painful situations, whose friends and neighbors are most often burdened with the same or comparable dilemmas and can therefore offer least by way of intervention and support, those in the urban barrios and ghettos of Miami, New York City, Cleveland, Houston, San Antonio, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago, and those in the isolated rural areas of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, northern Maine, New Hampshire, West Virginia, and the Carolinas -- those in short who constitute [44] the major body of Illiterate America, the truly oppressed, the generational victims -- these are the people who have not been served at all.

'How do we find them?'

This is a dishonest question that is heard too often among literacy groups. Having first created programs which, by reason of their setting, timing, and dispassionate condition, cannot provide the context for a moral struggle that transcends the atmosphere of public school in which adult illiterates have failed already, literacy experts turn the tables on the clientele they have not won and ask each other 'where the people are' and 'why they don't respond ...'

Numerous surveys have been carried out to pose these questions. 'Student recruitment is [the] number one problem,' one group is reported to have found. The Contact Literacy Center tells us that an organization based in Chattanooga with the ultimate in low-key designations, CALM (Chattanooga Area Literacy Movement), finds 'that the ghetto area prospects do not respond.' Among the methods they have tried, but find most ineffective, are the following: door-todoor solicitation; 'skits' and 'plays' concerning literacy; 'placards' in all city buses; printed flyers mailed to social agencies, clinics, hospital emergency rooms, and laundromats; recruitment through low-income churches...

Looking at this list of methods which do not work for the 'ghetto area prospects,' we are forced to wonder why the two approaches to a liberating struggle that have always worked so well in grass-roots organizing efforts -- knocking on doors and working through the churchesWo not seem to work for groups with names and attitudes like CALM. I have seen hundreds of people respond when, in the company of five or ten dynamic neighborhood residents and with a handful of effective organizers from outside the neighborhood, I have walked for days from door to door, signing up black and poor white people to a*end the organizing session for a literacy center which was designated as a Freedom School. (We called it that, not 'CALM,' because we were not calm; nor were the crowds that packed the basements of the churches where we met and where our classes subsequently would be conducted.) Churches, if the ministers or members had been asked to join our earliest discussions, proved to be the settings for intensely moving rallies. It was out of one such meeting that a gentle and articulate young mother rose to ask me if I needed an assistant. Offering her help for free, she soon became the link to several dozen other neighborhood leaders and, still more important, to a total of 400 children and adults who soon signed up and regularly appeared for six or seven hours of instruction weekly. Within four months that woman had replaced me in my organizing role.

During those hectic and exciting months in which at least 200 persons nightly filled the basement of our church and overflowed into a network of apartments that we rented in the many semivacant buildings of the neighbor- [45] hood in which we worked, most of us (teachers and learners both) were also taking action on the words we learned and on the world of anguish and injustice which those words revealed. Literacy sessions that evolved around such words as 'tenant,' 'landlord,' 'lease,' 'eviction,' 'rat,' and 'roach' led to one of the first rent strikes in our city. Words, connected to the world, led -- not in years but in a matter of days -- to the reward of a repainted building, the replacement of illegal exits which could be opened only from outside the building, and the reconstruction of a fire escape that served the tenants of a building of five stories but could not be used because it had been rotted into empty air above the second floor. Success so vivid and concrete, within the troubled streets beyond the little rooms in which we worked, became the basis for additional recruitments.

Other groups which I have visited in San Francisco, Washington, New York have met with similar results from similarly comprehensive efforts to recruit (and to retain) illiterate adults by building, not a mechanistic replication of the public school, but something which at length is nothing less than a collective action-center structured upon words that can denounce the world in which the learners live and leading to events which, even by extremely modest stages, start the transformation of that world in ways that cannot fail to justify the classroom hours that have been expended.

None of the adults with whom I worked during those years was ever willing to settle for 'the functional abilities' of bottom-level job slots in available custodial positions. Dozens, however, soon became effective leaders in the struggle to desegregate the Boston schools. Two are now community advisers to desegregated schools. Several run neighborhood social service centers. Three (although they lacked a college education) received degrees from Harvard's Graduate School of Education and returned to work within the neighborhoods in which we met. The woman who stood up in church to volunteer to be my 'aide' is now a mortgage officer in Boston's largest bank.

Success of this exceptional degree could not be universal. Often we failed. We did not state it otherwise. We did not say our students failed. We knew that we had not been wise enough to meet their needs. Frequently, the damage done already in the public schools, as well as the entire syndrome of substandard housing, illness, and depression that our students knew, proved far beyond our powers to reverse. Of one thing, however, I am certain. Recruitment, no matter how difficult it appears, is never the real problem. It masks some deeper questions which too many of these passionless and top-down programs do not choose to pose: (I) Who is it who is doing the recruiting? (2) What is it, in effect, they are recruiting for? If the work is done exclusively by middle class outsiders, if it is done in ways that bear the marks of a school venture, and if the goals and the rewards that have been offered are domesticating in their nature and subordinat [46] ing in their tone, recruitment will forever seem to be the problem while the real one will not ever be acknowledged.

All of this omits the obvious absurdity of other methods which, as CALM reports, do not appear to work. It is hardly surprising that 'skits' and 'plays,' so redolent of juvenile activities identified with first or second grade, do not stir the exaltations of the adult victims of those dreary rituals of public school. Nor is it surprising that the placards posted in the laundromats or city buses do not draw a swift response from those who cannot read them.

'Illiterate? Sign up for classes on November 25, two blocks east of Kennedy, one block south of Main.'

Beneath the irony, some cruelty remains. The pretense of 'a problem in recruitment' in this situation is reminiscent of the ways that government officials speak of those who are reported to be hungry but who, as the experts tell us, do not take advantage of the food stamps and the surplus foods which are presumably 'there for the asking.'

'If they are hungry, it must be that they have chosen not to eat. All the needed services are now in place.'

These words are hardly more benighted than the language that we heard during the record cold and hunger that afflicted many sections of the nation in the winter months of 1983 and '84. If the government is failing at all, its representatives concede, it may be at worst a case of failing to make known the largesse which is presently available. This statement is made despite the documented fact of government reductions of the food stamp programs and even in the face of many documented incidents of near-starvation on the part of families that have run through all their food supplies and funds. Whether in literacy or in nutrition, both the problem and the answers are the same: There isn't enough. What little there is offends both by the way that it is offered and by the multiple humiliations which the applicant is forced to undergo. Answer: 'We've got to do a better job of making known available facilities ... Next, we've got to motivate the starving, the illiterate, to ride the bus and stand in line for what they may or may not find in stock when they arrive.'

Whether the offering is weary words or surplus cheese, those who line up are waiting still, and those who have grown weary of that wait are scarcely likely to respond to middle class inducements to 'apply' once more. Hunger -- whether cognitive or nutritive -- will not be relieved by methods such as these. Meanwhile CALM persists in finding more inventive ways by which to win 'the ghetto prospects' to the recognition that it might be wise for them to learn to overcome their inhibitions and to join the barren table for a nonexistent feast.

One bitter instance of 'a problem in recruitment' comes from literacy experts in the State of Florida. A poster developed in 1979 by the Florida State Department of Education for recruitment of illiterate adults is carefully de- [47] signed to simulate the 'Ten Most Wanted' criminal posters in the lobbies of the U.S. postal service.


White female between the ages of 16 and 44, currently unemployed and receiving public assistance. Must be lacking in basic reading and writing skills, and be willing to spend a few hours per week to improve literacy ability to a minimum of 5th grade. Call your local ABE for further information.

It is the stark photograph beside the text which makes the connotation unmistakable. If the goal here is to draw attention, it is certainly successful. If the goal is to attract adult nonreaders into literacy programs, we may wonder what results can be expected.

If this poster should succeed at all, we may suspect that its most damaging success is to instill the lowest possible self-image in potential leamers. Those who are not already drawn to criminal careers might have been given a good push in that direction by the anger which this poster, where it can be comprehended, might well be expected to incite. The dreadful format is, however, not the most degrading aspect of this poster. Conscious or not, the wording that is used (the reference to 'white female') represents a not-so-subtle slur. It summons up the far more common phrase ('black male') which is familiar from the bulletins and the alerts so often issued by police. Precisely by selecting the exact reverse, the poster resurrects the image of the stereotype ('black public menace') which it then seems to deny. An arduous and awkward effort to avoid the racial stereotype manages, in a shocking way, to place racism foremost in our fears.

Finally, we need to ask to whom the writing is addressed. Not to the illiterate white woman who can read at best at fourth grade level. The vocabulary chosen is far too complex. The intended reader then must be somebody else: someone who can read the words and recognize the culprit's face. 'Wanted' posters are not addressed to those the FBI would like to find. They are addressed to law enforcement officers, to civic-minded citizens, and those of vigilante disposition who might like to share in the excitement of the chase. This then is recruitment in the mode of the dogcatcher or the lynch mob. Few inducements to the world of printed words could be less tempting or more reminiscent of the worst traditions of the posse and the hunt. The poster was conceived, no doubt, with good intentions. Cruel assumptions nonetheless explode out of its mode of presentation. Who are we after? What is it our aspiration to achieve? Is this divine arrest or liberation?

It remains to emphasize, despite all the above, that neither recruitment nor accessibility represents the greatest reason for the failure of existing literacy efforts. Even if the programs that exist today were made available in every [48] neighborhood of every city and in every rural slum, and even if recruitment were enlightened and facilities immeasurably improved, they would make little difference. The ultimate obstacle is not one of technique but of political and ethical constraint.

People who suffer in a thousand ways apart from inability to read and write cannot be expected to achieve substantial gains in literacy skills if those skills are not directly linked to other areas of need and if those links do not consist of energizing words that can legitimize an often unacknowledged sense of rage. No program in existence on a national or statewide scale has ever dared to speak in terms like these.

Effectuated rage is a forbidden concept in the politics of adult education. It does not even need to be forbidden; the people who run these programs are not angry. They cannot elicit or respond to an emotion they do not experience. Neutralized by the advantages that they possess, anaesthetized by the credentializing process they have undergone, tailored by their lifelong training to an understated mode of temperate articulation, they do not feel -- and, if they ever felt, would rapidly suppress -- the sense of indignation which defines illiteracy not as a technical mistake, an error or an aberration in an otherwise just and equitable nation, but rather as one vivid symptom of societal oppression. The word 'oppression' does not appear in government reports nor in the voices of the people who control the major literacy programs of this nation. They have no inclination to make use of angry language of this kind. If they did, they would think twice before acceding to such inclinations. They are afraid (and properly so) that they would lose their governmental funds or forfeit the philanthropy that they depend on.

Even the best of programs that exist today are crippled by such feelings of dependence. Where government affiliations aren't at stake, it is the good will of the corporations and foundations that constrains them. University affiliations are at times still more restrictive. The research interests of the universities take precedence almost always over concrete actions, and such actions as may be permitted are repeatedly immobilized by academic language that intimidates by raising questions about 'insufficient knowledge' or 'potentially disruptive consequences.'

I was asked in 1979 to set up a 'National Literacy Center' at one of the major schools of education. Optimistic and somewhat naive, I set about the task of raising funds and organizing operations. Within one month I was accused of compromising academic interests by my failure to assign the first funds raised to salaries for doctoral assistants. By the second month I was attacked for failing to respect the primacy of research goals. 'We need to know a great deal more about the problem,' I was told. 'Psycholinguistics ought to be included. We have some doctoral candidates who could be employed for that component ...' By the end of six months I was locked into an alphabetic labyrinth of [49] professional subdivisions, no one of which could be excluded from the planning stage for fear of injuring their fragile dignity. Threatened interests bristle at the first sign that they might be superseded; rituals of pacification must be undertaken.

Drowning in neutral language, I discovered with a sense of shock that I had invested half a year in every possible aspect of adult illiteracy except adult illiterates. Despite the backing of a loyal and enlightened dean, I resigned abruptly and returned to literacy work within illiterate communities. 'Too bad,' a university administrator told me. 'You could have run a million-dollar program.'

It is too bad. A million dollars was available for research while not $100 was available for taking action on the things that we already know.

Research, however, is not the primary obstacle to passionate endeavor. Encrusted and competitive hegemonies represent the most immobilizing force. Each group already in existence, even the most progressive of these groups, seems to view the possible expansion of the literacy struggle with a thinly veiled alarm. Everyone wants more money and support, but no group wants to see that money go to someone else -- or something new. They compete with each other; but the deeper competition is with any unknown future venture that might render them tangential or eclipse them altogether by success. Anything that reaches 25 to 60 million people would inevitably eclipse all programs in existence. Any struggle rooted in politicized and grass-roots mobilization is bound to overshadow even the most earnest efforts of politically inhibited endeavors.

While lobbying for funds, therefore, such groups are cautious to ensure that any funds which come available will be assigned to programs like their own. The motives of individuals may be benign, but the function of their organizations is regressive. They speak of wishing to affect (not to transform) the future; but, most of all, they want to supervise that future. They claim an ideological neutrality, but this is not an honest claim. Their ideology is self-perpetuation. The consequence, in terms of dry and jargon-ridden verbiage, is worse than mere futility. It is a decorated impotence that chokes off all imaginative fury, ad bravado, and all sense of an imperative to strong mandated deeds.

The teachers' unions suffer from another inhibition. If they concede the true size of the problem, how can they avoid the risk that this may be imputed to their failures Hence the tendency to speak of 'problems' or 'dilemmas,' not of 'victims,' of 'exclusion,' of 'oppression.' To speak of those who are 'oppressed' is to suggest that there must be 'oppressors.' Words like these are interdicted by the pretense of political neutrality. Political passion does not grow from seeds as dry as these.

In response to a recent wave of national concern and to some belated media attention, literacy groups have now begun to coalesce in networks, coalitions, and the like. Some of these networks are better than others; one in [50] particular holds out the promise of attracting powerful allies in the ranks of the booksellers and some other corporate groups whose resources may enable us to draw attention to the needs of people who, up to this time, have never found the vocal advocates that they require.

The necessary question, nonetheless, must be addressed: What is it that these net vorks are connecting? We cannot build a network out of fragmentized defeat. Ivan Illich once observed that, as societies lose faith in God, they build more intricate cathedrals. As literacy proprietors awaken to the failure of their dreams and the aridity of their ideals they join in coalitions. What do these networks literally do? They network nothingness. They form a coalition of historic losers. They 'keep in touch' -- or So they claim. With what? With one another's failure. Unless there is a sweeping transformation of the ways in which the current crisis is defined, and in the nature of the goals that we pursue, universal adult literacy in the United States will not find its genesis in groups like these.

Two recent, highly publicized events have helped to bring the literacy crisis to the national attention. One is of governmental origin. The other is a private venture.

The government's action, sponsored by the White House, is by far the less impressive of the two. The federal Adult Literacy Initiative, announced by Secretary of Education Terrel Bell in early fall of 19B3, included a total of eight items, only three of which proposed an effort that did not exist already and only one of which involved an allocation of new funding. Five of the proposals were for insubstantial gestures such as 'cooperation with the private sector,' counsel (but not financial help) to literacy groups already in existence, encouragement of 'liaison' with those programs that depend on volunteers, 'encouragernent' of state and local literacy councils -- and, alas, 'networking.' Two of the three more substantive proposals were to promote the use of college credit to encourage literacy volunteers (neither a new idea nor one the government could possibly enforce) and an emphasis on literacy work by federal government employees.

The one proposal that involved a bit of money for instruction was the onetime allocation of $360,000 for a pilot program using students on work-study grants for literacy action. The White House urged the colleges to view this as a model to become involved in literacy work in future years. No funding was proposed to make this possible. The White House, moreover, went out of its way to emphasize that only 'existing money' -- i.e., no new funds -- would be available. The point was promptly made that colleges and universities, relying as they do upon work-study funds for the employment of their students in the ordinary jobs (in cafeterias and dormitories, for example) which are needed for the maintenance of their institutions, could not be expected to assign more than [51] a small part of these funds to programs that were taking place off-campus and did not provide a subsidy for academic operations.

The government's 'initiative,' therefore, was even more deficient than that timid word implied. It wasn't a struggle. It wasn't a campaign. Above all, it was not a demonstration that the federal government had finally perceived its own responsibility to sponsor and directly fund an all-out answer to a crisis which it had defined as being national in scope and danger.

The White House initiative did perhaps have one real and unfortunate result. By offering to the press and public the illusion of a genuine commitment, the government managed to sedate some people with the notion that 'something important' was now going to be done. Those who accepted this idea were, to the degree that they had been persuaded, granted the self-exempting sense that it did not depend on them to launch this battle. 'Somebody else is doing something now. We can remove this issue, therefore, from our own front burner. If it is on the government's agenda, then it need not be on ours.' The White House initiative functioned in this way not as a mandate but as a disincentive.

The same had been true a decade before when President Nixon launched a similarly empty program known as 'Right to Read.' Six years later, the program was downgraded after being termed a failure by its own director. Reiteration of a decade-old deception could not fail to foster an enhanced sense of futility. Rituals of guaranteed or, at least, predictable defeat do something worse than disappoint. They also teach us to regard such disappointment as inevitable. To the degree that we accept such rituals without denunciation, we are colluding in the further subjugation of illiterate adults.

The other publicized event of 1983, the forming of an operational alliance among a number of previously isolated and too frequently competitive private groups, offered better grounds for optimism than the government's promotional endeavor. By pulling together both the major volunteer groups (LVA and Laubach), as well as Adult Basic Education and two of the largest scholarly organizations now involved in the teaching of reading and in the teaching of adults, and by combining them in a working coalition with the American Library Association and the nation's largest bookseller, B. Dalton, the private alliance offered hope of a reduction in the turf mentality I have described above. More important, the leadership role assumed by the booksellers and the library profession served to inject into the literacy debate an element that had been absent from all government reports and, indeed, from almost all discussion of the issue up to now. The problem had always been addressed in terms of dollar costs, employment, signs, instructions, menus, manuals, and the military needs, but never with reference to the use of reading skills in order to read books. Strange as it appears in retrospect, such an omission was probably an inevitable result of the demeaning mechanistic thrust of government concern. The role of the ALA and [52] of B. Dalton might serve henceforth as a clear reminder of the one historic and surpassing reason for the growth of literacy 400 years before and, a century later, here in the New England colonies: not to read booklets of mechanical instruction but in order to gain access to the spiritual endowment of a sacred book and, subsequently, to secular words -- to poetry, to literature, to history, as well.

My reservations in regard to coalitions nonetheless remain. Even with an open-minded willingness to find our allies where they may appear, we should recognize the fragile nature of such coalitions, as well as their susceptibility to government cooption fostered in part by niceties of sociable behavior which the established nature of this sort of coalition can too easily enforce as the accepted level of debate. In any event, whatever our longing to suspend our disbelief and to be grateful for all blessings, the minuscule impact of all public and nonpublic efforts undertaken up to now must force us to look first into our hearts -- not to another coalition -- for the answers.

Case Study: Beyond Statistics

Statistics have a dangerous capacity to undermine the vividness of many of these issues. Beyond the talk of coalitions, alphabetic organizations, and the like, there are at length real people. A recent incident reminds me of the terrible frustration that is undergone by those who keep on working day by day, and year by year, to lessen the anguish of the people in the neighborhoods they serve and to persist, with spirits high, despite the paltry and insulting levels of assistance they receive.

In December 1983, I am invited to an adult literacy center, not far from my home in Massachusetts. A single overheated room within the local 'Y' provides the setting for a program that employs three teachers to provide instruction to 400 adult pupils. A total of $60,000 yearly pays for rent ($8,000), salaries (the three instructors plus one woman who is secretary and coordinator of the center), all materials, recruitment, publications, phone expenses, and insurance.

'The students are here before I open up the door each morning,' says one teacher. 'Even in the coldest weather, they are waiting on the street. Many of these people need to take two buses and walk several blocks. They have to leave their home by 7:30 to be here at 9:00...'

Half the money for this center comes from federal funds; the other half is raised through municipal sources and by begging to the local corporations and foundations. One of their staff, a gifted woman who might otherwise increase the teaching force to four, has to devote her time to raising funds. Even with her best efforts they can allocate only $150 to each learner.

'Often we have twenty people sitting in this room at once. We can work [53] with maybe six or seven at a time. The rest just wait. They sit and wait for any one of us to give them help. Sometimes we have twelve or fifteen people here, just waiting. Some of those people don't come back. Problems come up. The kids get sick, the husband's out of work, the phone bill's due, the heating gets cut off ... Maybe they're just tired of waiting.'

This is the only adult literacy center in an impoverished mill town which is home to 80,000 people. Over 10 percent of adults in this town are unemployed. Many are third generation French Canadians, Italian, Irish, Greek. A smaller number come from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, the Far East.

'After teachers, the biggest problem is the shortage of supplies. Then the kinds of materials we get. Then the distance people have to travel just to be here'

There is only one copy of a workbook and one low-vocabulary reader in the center. Both are the outdated products of a firm that publishes 'adult materials for the adult nonreader.'

This is a gun.
It is Mr. Hill's gun.
It is his big gun.

'Forty-year-old women can't connect with stuff like this,' the teacher says. 'Easy? Yes. It's at the lowest level, like they say. But who is going to get energized with sentences like these? Isn't there something better?'

This is the Smith family.
The Smith family lives in the city.
That man is Jack Black.
Jack Black lives in the valley.
Jack is visiting the Smith family.

The point of the lesson is to emphasize short a. Along with Jack and Black, valley and family, these words are listed on the previous page: bag, basket, happy, marry, carry ... 'Why not angry? Angry is as short an a as happy, carry, marry! Most of the women who come through those doors aren't happy! They are angry -- and a lot more angry than they ever could be happy at the load of shit they have to carry with a guy they wish to God they didn't marry!'

I ask: 'Why don't you use that sentence? That sounds like a lot of energetic a's.'

'Energetic wouldn't do in Adult Basic Education,' she replies.

The teacher who is speaking is a forty-year-old Irish woman, once a reading teacher in the local public schools but recently laid off after a cut in funds. She has the steel blue eyes and weathered skin of someone who has worked hard all her life and has emerged from many sufferings, of which she is too proud to speak, with an unbroken spirit and a toughened decency that give to her [54] bleached hair and bargain-basement clothes, her raw thick hands and sharpedged jaw, a saving grace of dignity and strength that utterly transform the dreary space in which we sit and speak. I am reminded of a hundred other people like this, in a dozen other bootstrap operations of this kind, who have trusted me with their too-vulnerable toughness on a hundred other days in San Antonio and San Francisco and New York.

'This is the Smith family! That man is Jack Black! I don't know of anybody named Jack Black. No one by the name of Smith came in this room last year. Lots of Angelos, Morenos, some O'Vougalls, maybe an O'Neill... Who is America made of? Who thinks up these little books? I'd like to turn this page someday and find somebody with a name like Goldberg! Someone you could really meet. Someone whose name comes out of the real world. But this is the kind of books we get. And, as it is, we only got one copy.'

The learners come from all over the city; over half come from the project which is just across the street.

'If we had the money to set up some satellites, one in each of seven projects in this city, then to staff them, then to get some extra staff to teach, then to go to neighborhood meetings now and then and see what folks are saying and to pick up their ideas, we could reach 4,000 people in this city. As it is, we reach 400 -- and just barely. How many other folks are out there we will never see? How would they get here? What would it take for them to come? So many other things in life are wrong at the same time. I know what it's like. My job was cut. My husband worked for General Electric. He was laid off too. We got no warning. I've been through it all. I've lined up for food stamps, seen the way they treat you when you show up fifteen minutes late. You know what happens? They tell you that you have to make a new appointment. Then you got to sit at home and add up all of your receipts and bills, your phone bill and your gas bill and the money that you Spent on food. Anything you did for fun, you got to show that too. Add it up. List anything you earned. Show them your checkbook. Tell them if you've got a car... How do you think somebody does this? You sit up with your husband and you try to find all of the papers and receipts. You read the rules. You try to add it up. Now how would you do this if you couldn't read? How do you do it if you can't do math? Where do you find all of those little bits of paper? How do you make sure that you get to the right office on the right day at the right street, at the time that you're assigned? You spend an hour waiting in line. Then they say: 'You're fifteen minutes late! You got to make a new appointment!' Nobody needs to tell me what it's like for them. I know it. I've been there.'

She describes the cycle of depression that surrounds the lives of people she has tried to teach. 'First they need to find a baby-sitter so that they can come. If she can't she brings the baby with her. The baby screams. We don't have the funds to rent another room and hire someone else for day care. She goes to welfare and she asks for money for a baby-sitter. She doesn't qualify for money if [55] she hasn't been here. She can't hire the baby-sitter if she doesn't qualify. One woman, if her food stamps are late, she couldn't eat. She was so weak she couldn't come. But she wouldn't get the money if she couldn't prove that she had come.

'This woman comes in. She's bitter. Bitter at us. Bitter at everything. She brings her grocery receipt. She thinks that she's been cheated. She asks me to add it up. There are only three items. I add it up. She's right. She has been cheated. Not by any corner grocer -- by the A&P! So then I understand why she's so bitter. She's right to be bitter. Why shouldn't she be bitter? Who can she trust? Then how can she trust me?

'Another woman. She can read but she cannot do math. Her mother lives in Los Angeles. Her mother cannot read. She works for Perdue, the chicken man. She thinks that she's been cheated on her pay. She sends her pay stubs to her daughter. The daughter brings them in for class. She asks me if her mother's being cheated. I figure it out. The woman is right. She's cheated on withholding. I help her write a letter to her mother. She comes in to this little shabby place in Massachusetts to ask us to tell her if her mother has been cheated in L.A.! So we help her write an answer to her mother. Right there you have two very angry women. Add me -- you've got three. Why don't they use angry in this primer?'

I ask her what would be ideal conditions for the program.

'More money. More staff. More materials. Different materials. Three or four rooms. Day care for babies. Six other centers. Continuity and organization so that we could work with the same person at the same time on the same day for a year. Small groups. Groups of three or four. So they could give each other help and so they wouldn't feel they're all alone. That would be important. It would take money, and more teachers. I could organize a dozen groups. I could get together college kids I know to give a hand. We could do an oral history of -- . The stories of this city, of the GE plant, the old shoe businesses, the union stories, stories of the days when there were pushcarts, markets, clothes for sale all over town, the brickyards, and the immigrants, the stories ... We could do it. We could open up those doors.'

In five years they have worked with 1,400 people. There are over 15,000 people in the city who are said to be in serious need of educational assistance. Because of cutbacks in the schools, the numbers are increasing.

'Out in the suburbs,' I say, 'the kids are joking that they don't need math. They add things on their pocket calculators.'

'Not here they don't. They don't use calculators in this town. They add up on their fingers.'

Before I leave she tells me that she has two children who are handicapped. I ask how serious their problems are. The oldest has Down's syndrome. The youngest one was premature. He is two years old and still is in intensive care in [56] Boston. She seems embarrassed to be asked about her problems. 'I'm managing I'm getting paid. My husband's back at work.'

It is the week before Christmas. The center is decorated with a tinsel tree. Students are waiting for their teacher on the other side of the partition.