I’ve been thinking about how writing, storytelling, and literacy intersect (or not) in American culture.
For a long time, humans believed we were superior to animals because we were smarter. Then we learned how to measure the intelligence of pigs and dolphins. We assumed a dividing line between humans and animals was the ability to create and use tools. But we now know that other apes have that ability. We also thought that language was unique to humans, but we’re learning that other animals have language too.
Right now, I think what separates humans from the other animals is our ability to tell stories. (And that differentiation will end once we figure out how to interpret dolphin language and realize those clicks and whistles are some elder bragging about how much harder things were when he was a young dolphin and had to swim uphill both ways through icy waters to get food.)
Twenty-first-century technologies have given us a myriad of ways to access stories. We can view them on our TVs, cell phones, and computers. We can listen to stories via podcasts and audiobooks in our cars, on a plane, or while doing some other activity. We have books, magazines, and graphic novels to fill our hours.
Stories surround us.
And yet, being able to tell a story effectively isn’t necessarily a mark of literacy. After all, oral storytelling predates written language. And we’ve all been stuck listening to someone who cannot effectively tell a story (or a joke) without boring their audience.
The art of telling stories effectively isn’t something everyone can do. So why do we undervalue writers the way we do?
Americans depend on good writing for most of our entertainment. Hollywood actors, producers, and directors can call themselves “storytellers” all they want, but their work all starts with someone’s ability to tell a story using written language. Our podcasts, TV shows, and movies start with some kind of script. And writers craft those scripts.
Words are the foundation of American culture.
And yet, the World Atlas says the U.S. has a literacy rate of 86%, which puts us at 125 on a list of 197 countries.
The National Center for Education Statistics says that 13% of adults (aged 16-65) performed at the highest proficiency level (level 4/5) on a literacy scale in 2012. That same year, 18% of adult Americans scored at or below a literacy level of 1 on that same scale.
Concordia University in Portland has a roundup of literacy facts that frightened me. In 2018, more than 30 million adults in the U.S. could not read, write, or do basic math above a third-grade level. And 75% of state prison inmates either did not complete high school or could be classified as having low literacy skills.
As a writer and reader, I find those numbers frightening. I love language and words. To me, language has a musicality and magic that I find thrilling. Books are old friends that I turn to. They comfort me when I’m down, make me laugh, and allow me to see the world through another person’s eyes.
And yet, my love of books isn’t universal. I work at a library, and I’m reminded of that fact each day.
Some people struggle with dyslexia. Others are coming to English from another language, and the grammar and spelling rules of our language aren’t as friendly as we might like.
Perhaps worse still is how literacy has been a tool of social control, used to oppress different groups throughout our country’s history. Minorities, women, and new immigrants have often been denied access to education. And, although I wish this weren’t the case, that wasn’t just the case in “the bad old days.” We still have communities filled with people willing to deliberately underfund public education while paying large sums to have their children educated at private schools.
The line between the haves and the have-nots starts with words, language, and mathematics.
As a writer, literacy rates should concern me more than they have. It’s time to educate myself and start putting my money and time toward groups that are working to close the literacy gap.