The title is somewhat misleading. Most Americans can read and write—they just happen to do both quite poorly. Americans in general cannot read or write well.
However, there are still illiterate Americans today, even with all the available education. In fact, illiteracy is worse than previous generations. But more important than illiteracy is that those who are able to read cannot read well. To show just how bad this is, some studies suggest incoming college students only read at a 6th or 7th grade level. (Here is a chart with some scary statistics about American literacy.)
It should not come as a surprise then that most Americans are also poor writers. (If you can’t read well, how will you write well?) This is evidenced by the number of high school teachers and college professors who complain about their students’ writing. In general, most college students are just terrible at writing papers. And these are supposed to be America’s “educated.”
Why Can’t Americans Read or Write?
The answer to this problem is quite simple. Americans cannot read or write well because they do not read or write often. Reading and writing are both skills that take practice. They require a working knowledge of the English language. No one is born with these skills. Rather, a person acquires them over time and with repetition.
Particularly concerning here is that reading and writing do not take that much work to become proficient in. They are skills that children learn at a young age, and they can easily be developed with regular practice. Just reading for 15 minutes a day can develop one’s reading ability. This shows just how little Americans read.
Schools deserve some blame here. Phonics has always been the best method to learn a language (learning how letters together make sounds). However, John Dewey made popular the look-say method (memorizing how words sound)—which has been disastrous. What should be a simple task that parents can teach their own children is now difficult for many kids.
Short reading and writing assignments should be part of almost every course at every level. But unfortunately, even when schools give such assignments, many students do not do them. So some of the blame here also belongs to parents.
Reading Requires Discipline
Educational leaders now speak of “curing” illiteracy, which is sad because these are skills basic to every level of education. Reading and writing are really just tools for learning. Just being able to do them is not in and of itself education. The fact that students attend schools for years and do not develop these skills raises the question—what are kids even doing in school?
That being said, school should not be the only (or even the primary) place were children read. Reading should happen in the home. Yet sadly, we no longer have a culture of reading in America. Most people do not read as a hobby anymore. Newspaper sales are down (though online news is up), and most Americans are lucky to read a book or two a year. And what they do read is fiction at a middle school reading level!
A major problem here is modern media. As if TV was not a big enough distraction, the Internet has made things even worse. Most Americans now live in a world where they spend little time in their day with no media distraction. The TV is on in the house for most waking hours, and people are addicted to their cell phones (and computers and iPads). Adults are responsible for their own choices here. But when TV and phones are a problem for children, parents deserve the blame.
Our modern society is in a much different position from prior generations. Before TV was invented, reading was the only option for learning about the world. The options were either sit there doing nothing or pick up something to read. But today, reading requires greater discipline and focus. One has to intentionally turn off the TV and phone and set aside time for a book. But human nature teaches us that most people will take the easier route. Distractions make it hard to read, so many people just don’t do it at all.
The Value of Reading and Writing
That most Americans cannot read or write well makes these skills even more valuable. Many jobs require a high level of reading and/or writing. As time goes on, fewer people will be qualified to do these jobs well, making reading and writing highly esteemed skills. Further, a high level of education in any subject requires a high level of reading and/or writing. Few people are thus able to attain such education because of limited reading and writing skills (or schools just lower the standards . . . ).
There will always be some people who are still able to read and write at a high level. More of the concern today is the masses. The majority of people may not need a high level of reading or writing to survive in this world. However, they and our society are worse off because of their failure to read. Those who do not read are often uninformed and misinformed. This is why we see so much ignorance among the American public.
The news outlets either slant information or give only half the story. Citizens therefore need to read from a variety of sources, including books. But people who don’t read books will not be exposed to much of the truth that is covered up or forgotten by the gatekeepers of political correctness (the media and public schools). The people, like sheep, will then go along with whatever the pundits tell them. Americans have reached a new low in this regard, seen in the popular belief in things like the gender wage gap. This myth has been completely demolished, yet the majority goes on believing it.
The problem in America is not illiteracy—the problem is a-literacy. It’s not that Americas cannot read; it’s that they don’t. And non-readers make less informed and less reasonable citizens. And less reasonable citizens do not question what the government or the leftist media tells them. Instead, they follow the waves of the times. It doesn’t matter if there are good arguments against same-sex marriage or the welfare state—they have never taken the time to read them.
But there is reason for hope. We are not all doomed to a life of sheep-like obedience to the state. Even if our own upbringing created bad habits for us, we can break them. We can shut the TV off, put our phones aside, and pick up a book and read. There are many great books out there on fascinating subjects. Even if it’s an easy reading level, it’s better to start somewhere. Then we can pass this habit on to our children. We can create a culture of reading. We as individuals, our families, and our society will be the better for it.