Reading essay The Human Cost of an Illiterate Society by Jonathan Kozol rekindles the candle of the horrors of illiteracy within us, a candle that has been extinguished by our hectic lives. As he quotes James Madison’s statement, “A people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives”, these words make us think about ourselves and the society around us.
A country is run by Government. That Government is chosen by people. And one third of them, who chose the government cannot read or write, and has no knowledge of the policies they offer to implement, their political background, and their achievements. This is really not a picture of democracy we have in our mind. All an illiterate person depends upon for knowledge of Presidential candidates is audio and visual media. Often they are misguided by the candidates and are exploited on the basis of race, culture, and religion.
Besides politics, Kozol points towards many difficulties an illiterate person faces in daily life. Let’s just start with the basic necessities of life, food and shelter. Even having means to buy it, an illiterate person cannot read the brands, labels and instructions on the food packing. All they depend on is visual recognition that once is identified to them by some literate person. They have to stick with the same food all year round.
An old couple lives in my neighborhood who cannot read and write, and they often come to me for assistance with their bills and letters. One day, I was walking by their house and they invited me in. They served tea and cookies, but I hesitated to eat those cookies as it looked strange. When I asked them what kind of cookies are these, the women replied “I don’t know about the type, but we always buy it by looking at the picture and color of wrapper”. When I asked them to show me the package, it turned out to be cookies for Dog’s. They were so embarrassed to know that they have been serving pet food to their guests.
Kozol also writes about the second basic necessity of life; shelter mentioning rent and lease agreements to explain difficulties among illiterates. If one needs to find a place to live, an illiterate person cannot read the classifieds in newspaper. Even if an illiterate person is standing in front of an apartment with a ‘To Let’ sign, he still remains unaware about the availability of it. Children of illiterate parents often face humiliation among other children in school because their parents cannot help them with their homework.
Children often mislead their illiterate parents to fulfill their own interests. Another problem is the internet. An illiterate parent can’t tell if the child is surfing the internet to get information or using it for purposes that are not allowed by law for his age.
Traveling is a nightmare for an illiterate person. Kozol reminds me of an incident. A family friend of ours could not read. He wanted to visit his daughter and was given visual directions like take a left at gas station with blue sign and he was supposed to make a right hand turn at the street across from two oak trees. The owner of that property cut the trees and this poor guy traveled forty miles beyond that point just looking for an intersection that has two oak trees.
My husband told me about a trucker who couldn’t read that he drove his truck to a military base that was restricted for civilians. There were clear signs but he could not read. He was arrested by military and was mistaken for a Terrorist. It cost twenty five thousand dollars on attorney fees to get himself out of the charges.
Kozol also writes about the weaknesses in the government policies about taking tests for a driving permit. California also offers the written test for a driving permit in different languages. But the person’s ability to read English is never tested whereas all the signs are in English languages.
My husband’s uncle lives in San Jose and is an illiterate. Daily, he travels the same route he was taught to his work. One day, that road was closed due to construction and detour signs were posted. He could not differentiate south from north and ended up coming back to the same street he lived on. He told us that he tried it several times but always ended up on the same street. My husband asked him, “what did you do then,” “Nothing, I just called sick” he replied.
These stories may sound funny, but they hide a deep sense of frustration, helplessness, and difficulties a person has to face existing in normal life. An illiterate person can never be independent or self dependent. He has to seek help of others to accomplish minor things such as writing a check. He cannot make his own decisions because of the lack of knowledge. One needs to be literate to become ones own ‘governor’ (James Madison). A literate person can drive the vehicle of life independently and confidently.