The Silent Crisis: The Threat of Mass Illiteracy

Despite enormous efforts, despite a battery of programs and remedial regimes and the emergence of an entire sub-industry of school consultants and marketeers, the capacity to read and write across the English-speaking world shows evidence of steep decline. This should be a cause for community concern. Poor literacy is strongly associated with anti-social behaviour. Very literate people seldom enter the prison system, which suggests that widespread literacy is part of a good inoculation against criminality.

In most Western societies, the prison population has the highest concentration of illiteracy. In an interview with the Shannon Trust, a charity that promotes reading in United Kingdom jails, the journalist Stephen Moss was told that 50 per cent of British prisoners are functionally illiterate. The Literacy Project Foundation in the United States estimates 85 per cent of juvenile offenders have trouble reading, while other research estimates the illiteracy rate in American jails to be at least 75 per cent.

This essay appears in December’s Quadrant.
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In 2015, the ABC reported that only 40 per cent of Victoria’s prison population had sufficient literacy to cope independently in the workforce. Or, put around the other way, 60 per cent of Victoria’s prisoners cannot read and write well enough to cope in most workplaces.

Lower literacy is related to poorer life choices, worse health, shorter lifespans and poverty. On a grander measure of human value, illiteracy denies people the ability to participate fully in their society. For at least a hundred years, basic literacy has been the necessary qualification for virtually all useful employment and for meaningful community involvement.

Literacy—sufficient to understand and produce complex texts—is even more important for our future. Fluent literacy is essential for citizens in any intellectual democracy that wishes to flourish. Since the beginning of popular democracy, the system has been safeguarded by vigilant citizens. The strength and stability of a democracy rest on the ability of its citizens to debate, understand and engage with complex ideas. Such engagement requires literacy above a basic standard. If much of modern political discourse seems to be emotional, visceral and simplistic, it may well reflect the inability of many in the electorate to handle complex ideas.

While the properly literate segment of society is shrinking across the Western world, vast “islands of illiteracy” have started to swell and spread. In some cities, entire suburbs and street blocks are now occupied by people who cannot read. In these places, virtual hieroglyphics take the place of text in corner stores and local businesses.

How serious is the problem? In the United States the Washington Post reports that 20 per cent of the adult population of Washington state cannot read. This represents about three million people. The National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that in reading, “46 per cent of white students scored at or above proficient. Just 17 per cent of black students and 25 per cent of Latino students scored proficient.” Put another way, this means that more than half of all white students in the United States do not achieve proficiency in English, and for black students, a staggering 83 per cent are not proficient.

In some centres, such as Detroit, 93 per cent of students are either illiterate or lag well behind expected literacy achievement. The reappearance of mass illiteracy in the United States has prompted documentary investigations such as Making America Read, which explores some of the reasons children are not learning to read, and the efforts to help illiterate students as old as fourteen to catch up. Despite some success, after-school programs and government interventions seem to make little difference. Metropolitan islands of illiteracy are growing.

In the United Kingdom, it was shown in 2001 that illiteracy had exceeded 1912 levels. By 2016 the United Kingdom was last out of twenty-three OECD countries on the literacy rates of sixteen-to-nineteen-year-olds. The United Kingdom is the only OECD country where the literacy of sixteen-to-twenty-four-year-old people is below that of people aged fifty-five and over.

In Canada, a manual produced by Canadian police services titled Literacy and Policing in Canada: Target Crime with Literacy includes the estimate that 42 per cent of the working Canadian population have “lower literacy than is needed to cope with the increasing information demands in our society”. The manual states that “two out of every five Canadian adults—9 million people—can’t read well enough to do everyday tasks”. The manual concludes that the average literacy score for Canadians is “near the bottom of Level 3”. Level 3 reading is defined as the basic minimum for a person to be employable and able to cope in an information society. If the average score for Canadians is near the bottom of such a level, most of its citizens are certainly not sufficiently literate to engage in complex political processes.

Illiteracy is something that the public-facing machinery of government now regularly takes into account. In a guide book titled Renting Out Your Property: A Lessor’s Guide produced by the West Australian government, landlords are advised, “Your explanation about the tenancy is likely to be important too as half of Australians aged between 15 and 74 years have ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ literacy skills.”

These figures stand in stark contrast to official statistics in many Western countries that typically claim literacy rates around 99 per cent. How could this be when it runs counter to the research of many academics and the experience of so many people?

The answer is that official statistics are often compiled from the results of national testing regimes that measure students against “national standards”. These standards are typically set low and the vast majority of students are able to pass them. When the standards are suddenly raised, the number of students able to achieve them plummets.

In an effort to improve literacy, state governments have introduced higher standards. The new standards have caused a nearly 30 per cent decline in reported student proficiency. The West Australian reported in 2019:

Just 62.6 per cent of Year 7 students reached the proficiency standard for reading last year, compared with 93 per cent listed as reaching the national minimum standard in the 2017-18 Budget papers. And 64.3 per cent of Year 9 students achieved proficiency in reading, compared with 92 per cent reaching the national minimum.

All of this has long-term implications for the economic and social future of Western nations. The uncomfortable truth is that mass illiteracy—either outright or functional—is slowly returning to the prosperous First World, even as it is being slowly stamped out in the developing world.

Any sustained rise in illiteracy presents serious implications for crime rates, the quality of civic participation, the level of intelligent political discourse, economic growth, the mobility of class groups, and even levels of religious observance. Worse still, governments seem able to do little to stem the decline.

Many governments have responded to these trends in an effort to counteract them, yet often seem to be able to do little to stem the decline. This is because the decline is best explained by changing cultural values which fall outside the government’s ability to influence. In other words, it is not an issue of government competence or teacher ability. Teachers in Western nations do exactly what is required of them: they work hard, are supportive of students who present an array of social and behavioural problems, and try hard to engage their students. Governments in Western countries fund clean, safe schools.

But culture is something else entirely. Literacy and intelligence have been routinely ridiculed in youth culture for decades. Televisual entertainments have eroded the need for people to read in order to amuse themselves or to learn about a topic. Text-to-speech technologies can make reading unnecessary.  It is not surprising, then, to discover that among the two social groups that have experienced the steepest declines in literacy—the working and lower-middle classes—research tends to find that entertainment is increasingly more valued than education.

There are alarming implications for what could happen to our freedoms if we witness the emergence of a political and legal class who can function with virtually no scrutiny from a population that is too illiterate and therefore too disengaged to understand the language of power.

Jason Landless is a former university lecturer in education who holds a postgraduate degree in education.


13 thoughts on “The Silent Crisis: The Threat of Mass Illiteracy

  • Peter OBrien says:

    Thank you Jason, this may be the most important issue confronting the West, as all our societal protections (and pretensions) grew out of the improvement in literacy over the centuries.

  • Peter OBrien says:

    Apropos entertainment vs education, I was watching commercial TV this morning and an ad came on for the show Marriage t First Sight. A bevy of the show’s participants offered each other a series of the kind of inanities you’d expect but the one the struck me was the earnest young man, pledging to his prospective ‘bride’ – “I commit myself to you and this experiment”. I found this inordinately funny but underneath the humour, the fact that this show even goes to air shows just how far we have fallen.

  • Ian MacKenzie says:

    “20 per cent of the adult population of Washington state cannot read. This represents about three million people.” Well that explains the politics of that state. Ditto Michigan where in Detroit ” 93 per cent of students are either illiterate or lag well behind expected literacy achievement.” The Democrats seem to do well where there is “virtually no scrutiny from a population that is too illiterate and therefore too disengaged to understand the language of power.”

  • Peter C says:

    Peter C Thank you for this excellent article which I found surprising and very disturbing as it indicates we have much trouble ahead of us – as it appears very large numbers of people do not want to learn – , and I will read it again tomorrow so as to much better absorb its detailed content.

    In case interested a little background. Like many in my age group my primary education was at a two roomed two teacher country school with about 54 students when I attended, commencing 1937. I still consider I had an excellent education. There were about 8 in my classes for secondary education in a River Murray country High school – an hour from home by school bus – and again I consider I had an excellent education. My wife who also had an excellent education attended a one room, one teacher country primary school. Her excellent teacher went on to be Chief Executive in charge of the education system in South Australia, but NOT as Minister of Education.

    Again for interest and long, long, long ago in my working career, I had two experiences with people with education difficulties, one about 1963 and the other about 1972/73. One was a man – in the lower South East – who came and asked me to write him a letter so he could post it to a Government Welfare Department as he was in trouble with them. I also gave him a copy. After he explained the problem I wrote the letter for him which apparently solved the issue. Thereafter whenever he saw me in the pub he would send a drink down the bar for me.

    The other case was about 1972/73 and for a 65 years or so aged Lady – who lived in about the middle of Eyre Peninsula – who had not been able to go to school due to the remoteness, distances involved and no school bus. When I knew her I think the remote small town school nearest to her still only had one teacher. The much larger town I was in had a several school buses which took an hour and a half each morning and night to complete their run and stayed out at the end of their run each night and came in again next morning. At her request I used to write business letters for her to post – after she explained what she wanted in them. These letters must have been successful as over two or three years she came back several times and I kept writing letters for her and read them to her and gave her a spare copy each time to keep, show her son or her friends

  • Stephen says:

    This article from Quillette, which is published by young Australian women, Claire Lehmann, is a broadly relevant look at the subject of reading through a different lens.

    When I was a kid in the fifties radio didn’t have much for children and we didn’t have TV at my place until the early sixties. At first Noddy and then Biggles novels, borrowed from the library, gave extra practice to the skills learned at primary school. If it was dark or raining outside there few other distractions available. Kids these days have Youtube and G-d knows what else on the internet.

  • lbloveday says:

    Quote: “Teachers in Western nations do exactly what is required of them: they work hard, are supportive of students who present an array of social and behavioural problems, and try hard to engage their students.”

    The teacher union’s and Left-wing politicians’ solution to lifting results and improving standards is always to spend more money.
    One of the results of spending more money is a triumphant “We have reduced class sizes”, which is a sure recipe for reducing the average quality of teaching.
    Halving class sizes, for example, requires twice as many teachers, and presuming they are selected on a basis reasonably related to ability, their average ability must be diluted just as surely as doubling the number of teams in the AFL would result in a lesser average ability of players. Those students who get the best teachers will most likely do better in smaller classes, but those with the worst teachers will do worse than they would have in bigger classes with the best teachers.
    I was in classes of 40 in Year 12 double math (Mathematics 1 and 2 as they were known), my sister in a class of 56 in year 8 at the same school. These days it’s more like 20 and 30, but we were well educated and readied for work and, or, a rigorous university course, certainly more so than our children were.
    Then we have the lesser appeal to men of becoming a teacher – as a friend who clocked up 45 years of teaching before retiring said “I could no longer recommend teaching to any male – no man should have to put up with what I had to”, which again reduces the pool from which teachers are drawn and dilutes their average ability.

  • padmmdpat says:

    In 1966 I was in Grade 7 – a catholic working class boys’ school. In English class that year we read a book of Australian short stories, The Wind in the Willows, an anthology of poetry – from which we had to memorize 12 poems, Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and Julius Caesar. Why then and not now? I think we all know the reasons.

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    My maternal grandmother was born in 1880 in New Zealand. As the second eldest in a family of 10 children, she left school at 10 years of age to help her mother. By the time I got to know her well, I was in my mid-teens and she well into her 70s. Prior to that, I really only had her letters to judge her by. Beautifully written in old-fashioned copperplate, she was a fount of news and wisdom. She read the Sydney Morning Herald and all the books she could get her hands on.
    In her early 70s, she decided she needed a new “hobby” so she began to teach herself Pitman shorthand. It became one of my daily chores to read text to her which she took down in shorthand. Within a year or so she was proficient enough to take down the ABC News. She was remarkably accurate.
    Like others, throughout my Catholic boarding school education in the 40s and 50s, our classes up to Intermediate level were never fewer than the high thirties. The quality of our teachers varied, of course, but they were never less than adequate, and some were brilliant. In those days, the “signal to noise” ratio in our classes, and in our lives in general, was much, much lower than our modern children have to cope with. It’s a wonder they are able to absorb anything of significance, and it must be a task exceeding even that of Sisyphus for modern teachers to penetrate the “noise”.

  • Ian MacKenzie says:

    DT, my grandmother sounds very much like yours, although born 15 years later. Primary school to age 10, then farm work. None the less she was an avid reader, both of library books and an impressive collection of novels printed by Cassell and Company, many of which I now have on my shelves. She was very opposed to television, telling my mother that my brother and I would never read again if we had one. She was correct about my brother, but not about me.

    I suspect she was also correct in the wider sense, that electronic media, initially the television she didn’t like and more recently the internet she didn’t survive to see, have had a very negative impact on literacy. I’ve seen the slow decline myself, managing teams of technicians over the last thirty years. New hires struggle to string a coherent sentence together, whereas many of those of thirty years ago could have written an essay. The decline in the curriculum has also contributed no doubt, but there is no winding back the clock. Why would there be when electronic media form part of the bread and circuses even today’s politicians know is required for a docile population?

  • Alistair says:

    I’m always a bit skeptical about statistics that people quote in order to maintain their funding. For example – I’m amused by news reports that tell us “50% of school children are over weight or obese” (by experts on obesity grant-gathering) and then 50% of don’t get fed breakfast or lunch (by child welfare grant-gatherers). Seems like a little bit of lunch sharing could solve the whole problem at very limited cost to the tax-payer – so where’s the value to the grant-gatherers in that?
    Have experts in one area of grant-gathering ever solved a problem that then puts them out of work – or failed to find a problem that needs their expertise to solve?

  • lbloveday says:

    I am ever bemused when I read/hear the like of “50% of school children are overweight or obese”.
    As every obese person is overweight, it informs nothing that “50% of school children are overweight” does not. For “obese” to be useful they could use, eg, “50% of school children are overweight and of those 33% obese – meaning 16% of children are obese”

  • Lawrie Ayres says:

    I asked a principal why English and Maths were so poor and what she would do with the $250 our local Rotary club was donating to the school. Well the money would go to support the school breakfast program that caters for 30 of the 300 pupils. Maths and English have reduced hours because the curriculum is full of lessons once taught by parents and, unfortunately, lessons designed to alter society. When parents, or most often, parent, cannot feed their kids they are unlikely to teach them the norms of society let alone encourage the learning of basic Maths and English.

  • Lawrie Ayres says:

    PS It is important to be able to read but read what? The MSM for example tell you what they want you to know not simply give you facts for you to decide how to use. As we have seen from the US election wide spread voter fraud is simply not reported at all. The MSM is guilty of disinformation and propaganda so what is the purpose of reading if what you read is BS?

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