WASHINGTON - An estimated in one in 20 U.S. adults is not literate in English, which means 11 million people lack the skills to perform everyday tasks, a federal study shows. From 1992 to 2003, the nation's adults made no progress in their ability to read a newspaper, a book or any other prose arranged in sentences and paragraphs. They also showed no improvement in comprehending documents such as bus schedules and prescription labels.
The adult population did make gains in handling quantitative tasks, such as calculating numbers found on tax forms or bank statements. But even in that area of literacy, the typical adult showed only basic skills, enough to perform simple daily activities.
Perhaps most sobering: Adult literacy dropped or was flat across every level of education, from people with graduate degrees to those who dropped out of high school.
Inside the numbers, black adults made gains on each type of task tested in the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, run by the Education Department. Hispanics, though, showed sharp declines in their ability to handle prose and documents. White adults made no significant changes except when it came to computing numbers, where they got better.
The results are based on a sample of more than 19,000 adults, age 16 or older, in homes, college housing or prisons. It is representative of a population of 222 million adults.
The 11 million adults who are not literate in English include people who may be fluent in another language, such as Spanish, but are unable to comprehend text in English.
Aside from the obvious question as to why our education system is producing functional illiterates, I think that there is a very real danger here.
First, I don't think it unreasonable to expect people who reside in this country to speak English. We simply must have a common language in this country.
Secondly, it's not unusual to encounter native-born Americans who have only a passing knowledge of simple grammar and who are completely dumbfounded by multi-syllable words - and I'm talking about people with college degrees. Their knowledge of history is equally thin.
Our culture, our civilization, is a thread that stretches from our past to our present. We cannot understand the present, much less prepare for the future, without a solid knowledge of the past and literacy is the only tool available to maintain our hold on that fragile thread.
At a time when our civilization is under attack, news such as this is especially troubling. How can we expect people who do not even understand our civilization to defend it?