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Illiterate America

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About Illiterate America

It is startling and it is shaming: in a country that prides itself on being among the most enlightened in the world, 25 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 newspaper. An additional 35 million read below the level needed to function successfully in our society. The United States ranks forty-ninth among 158 member nations of the UN in literacy, and wastes over $100 billion annually as a result. The problem is not merely an embarrassment, it is a social and economic disaster. 
In Illiterate America, Jonathan Kozol, author of National Book Award-winning Death at an Early Age, addresses this national disgrace. Combining hard statistics and heartrending stories, he describes the economic and the human costs of illiteracy. Kozol analyses and condemns previous government action—and inaction—and, in a passionate call for reform, he proposes a specific program to conquer illiteracy. 
One out of every three American adults cannot read this book—which is why everyone else must.

Praise for Illiterate America

Studs Terkel

“Stunning… with passion and eloquence Kozol reveals a devastating truth… and offers a challenge and remedy.”

Joseph S. Murphy, New York Times
“A call to action, a manifesto… His enthusiasm renews our energies for the struggle before us, and gives welcome support to those committed to the notion that universal literacy and education are necessary for living a richer, better informed life.”

“Kozol… has assembled facts, rebuttals, and proposals—in an emotionally potent, ethically charged package.”

Jim C. Cates, Director of the University of Texas Adult Performance Level Project

"The most important book of the decade!"

Barbara Ehrenreich, in Mother Jones

"He writes with so much passion and grace, like a wrathful angel set loose upon the world with words...If it is a sin to read with pleasure about other people's illiteracy, then Kozol makes us deeply guilty."

Dallas Times Herald

"Compelling...gripping stories make a bold and impassioned statement about a subject we can no longer afford to overlook. It is a message worth reading and hearing."

Harold Howe II, Former U.S. Commissioner of Education

"An angry book and an important one...Its anger is legitimate; it rightfully accuses us of ignoring our illiterates. Then it goes on to suggest remedies we can't afford to ignore."


"Kozol has fashioned a jewel of a book, one that every American should be able to read."

Chicago Tribune Book World

"An alarming look at national tragedy...raises fundamental questions about national priorities."

Harry Levin, Babbitt Professor of Literature at Harvard

"This book live sup to the culture shock of its title...not only does it alert us with facts and figures to a crisis in our way of life, but it confronts the problems and explores the answers with sympathy and sensitivity."

The New York Times Book Review

"Kozol's enthusiasm renews our energies for the struggle before us, and gives welcome support to those committed to the notion that universal literacy and education are necessary for living a richer, better informed life."

Detroit Free Press

"Kozol's book is painful to be read, but his words are powerful and his fervor up-lifting...he is fighting for the ignored and forgotten, and we ought to be grateful."

Business Week

"Kozol writes with passion and immediacy!"

Library Journal

"Passionate and disturbing, Illiterate America is both a consciousness raiser and a primer for action."

Benjamin Spock, M.D., Author of Baby & Child Care

"An eloquent plea that Americans recognize the appalling frequency of illiteracy...a tragedy which handicaps--occupationally, politically, and emotionally--a third of the citizens of our rich, 'advanced' country."

The Miami Herald

"His book is so fiery and moving that when you put it down, you may want to find out what you can do to help."

The Dallas Morning News

"It's time to listen to Jonathan Kozol's cries once again!"

Illiterate America: About
Illiterate America: Praise

Read an Excerpt:

Illiterate America

Chapter One: A Third of the Nation Cannot Read These Words


You have to be careful to not get into situations where it would leak out…if somebody gives you something to read, you make believe you can 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 to work at 9 A.M.


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


“Run this over with me. Just made sure I get the gist of what you really want.”


The editor, unsuspecting, takes this as a responsible 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.


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 a mechanical precision on a pile of several other recent copies of the New York Times. There they will remain until, when two or three or 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 pick up 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 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% 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-year-olds are functionally illiterate. That figure is expected to climb to 50 percent by 1990.


Fifteen percent of recent graduates from urban high schools read at less than sixth grade level. One million teenage children between twelve and seventeen 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 gradebook. 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 retained 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 Country, 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 sample 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 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 people. The President has asked tat 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 Israel and other people can end illiteracy, then so can we. The responsibility is our own and our government’s. I will not shirk this responsibility.”


Today the number of identified nonreaders is three times greater than the 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 literary crisis and to a collapse at standards at the secondary and the college levels, the National Commission on Excellence in Education warned: “Our Nation is at risk.”

Illiterate Amerca: Excerpt
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