Two Americas, one of them literate

November 12, 2008 | By | 5 Replies More

Chris Hedges describes the divide at TruthDig, in his article entitled “America, the Illiterate“:

We live in two Americas. One America, now the minority, functions in a print-based, literate world. It can cope with complexity and has the intellectual tools to separate illusion from truth. The other America, which constitutes the majority, exists in a non-reality-based belief system. This America, dependent on skillfully manipulated images for information, has severed itself from the literate, print-based culture. It cannot differentiate between lies and truth. It is informed by simplistic, childish narratives and clichés. It is thrown into confusion by ambiguity, nuance and self-reflection. This divide, more than race, class or gender, more than rural or urban, believer or nonbeliever, red state or blue state, has split the country into radically distinct, unbridgeable and antagonistic entities.

If you are insisting on statistics, consider these numbers offered by Hedges:  “A third of high school graduates, along with 42 percent of college graduates, never read a book after they finish school. Eighty percent of the families in the United States last year did not buy a book.”

What does this illiteracy mean for politics?  Modern political campaigns “do not require cognitive or self-critical skills. They are designed to ignite pseudo-religious feelings of euphoria, empowerment and collective salvation.”  In this post-literate half-society, politicians “no longer need to be competent, sincere or honest. They only need to appear to have these qualities.”

And do consider the slide in reading levels of the language used during presidential debates over time.  Here’s the bottom line: Abraham Lincoln spoke at an eleventh-grade level, while George W. Bush speaks at a sixth-grade level.


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About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (5)

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  1. AnonaMiss says:

    I feel a little weird about this. It seems like the only times I post here are when I disagree with you guys, which only amounts to about 33% of the time, really. Usually either I disagree weakly enough that I don't feel it's really worthwhile saying anything, or it's an ideological difference between myself and your writers that I know commenting on would just lead to a face-off that leaves everyone unchanged and, in fact, more stubborn for the experience. (I've not had good experiences with you guys and being willing to hear people non-confrontationally when they disagree with you; we read in the tone we expect to hear and all that.) But really, this is a little bit ludicrous.

    The article comments upon the difference between the education levels of the target audience for the Lincoln-Douglas debates and the target audiences for modern debates as though the change in the target audiences of the speeches indicates a negative change in the overall intelligence or education level of the country. I seriously doubt this is the case. Lincoln and Douglas were running for President at the very nascency of the Industrial Revolution, a time which was marked by people leaving rural agricultural areas and lifestyles in favor of conditions which are universally agreed these days to have been appalling, with children being pulled out of school early or not being sent to school at all in order to spend more time in the factories and barely make a living wage for their families. It's a fair bet to say that the conditions they faced in their earlier, agricultural lifestyles would have been worse. Perhaps they wouldn't have been subjected to gory accidents so much (most machinery capable of causing that kind of damage was reserved for the very rich), but they would have worked no less hard and faced slow, agonizing starvation in no less proportion than did factory workers.

    (It's arguable that farmers and farm laborers would have had slightly better education than their urban counterparts because of the slow seasons in production which left time for such pursuits; but for the most part, Lincolns were just as rare if not rarer than they are today, because they didn't have access to a the social services and programs that we have in place today.)

    A mixture of these two groups, the poor farmers and the beginning of the poor factory workers, plus slaves, comprised the majority of the population at the time of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. The average US citizen was far less educated than today, yet political speeches were geared towards the more-educated. There's only one conclusion to reasonably take from this, and it's a conclusion that we still complain about to this day: the decisions were being made by the wealthy minority, while the lower-class waited to see how and by whom they would get screwed.

    In this context, it's a victory for the lower-class and the oppressed that political speeches have been dumbed down. Obviously we'd all rather that everyone was educated to the point that an 11th- or 12th-grade speech could hit everyone important, or everyone that would read or hear a transcript of the speech; but comparing the current situation to the 19th-century one and finding the 19th-century one superior is a slap in the face to all of the social work, education and progress we've made in the 20th.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    AnonaMiss: I think that we can do a whole lot better than we are doing. That's not an insult to social work at all. That Americans are increasingly illiterate means that they are stuck in the present, unable to dream as well as those who master the written word, unable to communicate as well and unable to think as well.

    I do believe that there is a dramatic decay in the ability of Americans to think in disciplined and productive ways. Ask teachers (I do), and they will tell you that kids (and adults) are glued to the mindless tube and that they can't focus well in class. Many teachers have told me that it is a dramatic decline and it terrifies them for what it means for America.

    Are you suggesting that typical Americans are as smart (or smarter) than they've been in past decades? If so, I don't agree.

  3. Erich,

    My personal opinion is that we're seeing an exacerbation of a condition that has never been much different. You and I are old enough to remember clearly the days before cable tv, the internet, and the supremacy of Mall Culture, and I for one cannot ever remember a time when I as a reader ever represented anything other than a minority of my peers, or for that matter of adults. I think our ability to track this stuff has improved and we see evidence as if it were a new phenomenon.

    In one respect I will agree, but we have to go back even further. For my father's generation (he grew up duing the Depression) school represented a viable alternative to dull, boring daily grinds, and learning to read well was, along with the occasional movie, the only way for active minds to escape. But even he was weird in his day for being a voracious reader.

  4. AnonaMiss says:

    As for people's relative level of smartness* over "past decades," that's so vague a question that it would be impossible to answer it even close to adequately without weeks of research. People write doctoral theses on tiny segments of that question. So I'll stick to talking about what my comment was about: comparing 1858 to the present day.

    The main thing I was trying to say is that a decrease in the education level of the targets of political speeches does not imply a decrease in the education level of the masses. It could, and I think in the light of history it does, indicate a shift in political power from the upper class to the middle and lower-middle class.

    This becomes even more apparent when you consider the uneducated underclass that weren't allowed to vote, and thus didn't need to be addressed in politicians' speeches. Slaves comprised 13% of the population in 1860 ( ), and about 50% of non-slaves were women. (Obviously about 50% of slaves were women too, but I don't want to double-count.) That means that 56% of the population of the United States was already excluded from politicians' target audiences – 56% which was on average far less educated** than the other 44%. Making claims about the education level of the entire country at the time based on AT MOST 44% of its population, which also happens to be the most-educated 44% of the population, is just silly.

    As for the education of those even allowed to vote: the Lincoln-Douglas debates took place in 1858. For comparison, the first mandatory school attendance law wasn't passed until 1852. It covered 8-14-year-olds in Massachusetts, and stipulated that they had to attend at only 3 months a year. While earlier "compulsory education" laws had certainly existed, they placed the responsibility squarely on the parents. If the parents couldn't afford to send their kids to school – even public schools cost labor hours, which are money – educating them at home, to their own satisfaction, satisfied those laws. And it stretches the imagination to think that, in the industrial urban environments which were starting to arise especially, this education would come down to much more than the barest of practical knowledge (addition and subtraction; sounding out words well enough to read the Bible***). In rural environments, where there were stretches of months when labor was cheap because it was mostly unnecessary, more time could be and likely was devoted to education; but as we discussed, this lifestyle was beginning to shift in favor of the urban one.

    So yes, I definitely think the average American is more well-educated now than they were at the time of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. I wish I had more meaningful data to give you, but a quick skim of Google doesn't reveal any literacy statistics reaching back that far.

    I do agree that the decrease in target audience for political speeches is in part based on the spread of mass media – but in a good way, I think, not a bad way. When information could only be spread by print, you couldn't reach the illiterate with a message, so the only people you could hope to influence were the educated. As radio and television have proliferated, the less privileged and thus less-educated have come into increasing contact with the words of the politicians, making addressing them more profitable.

    And finally! Here's a neat timeline of American education which I found both useful and informative:… . Compare for example 1889, when 84% of colleges were forced to have remedial classes for incoming freshmen (who were already better-educated than the average man, having not dropped out of school already), to 1954, when only 62% of colleges had remedial algebra classes for incoming freshmen. It's not conclusive, but it is suggestive.

    Sorry if parts of this got jumbled; it was composed in pieces over the course of a couple hours, and while I think it makes sense in the order I have it in now, I may be mistaken.


    * By the way, I think there's a difference between intelligence and education. Intelligence is a trait that can be augmented through effort (education) and maintained through continuous use, but also has a lot of genetic basis – like strength. I don't think the average intelligence level has probably changed much over the centuries. People have always been kind of stupid.

    ** Women were more well-educated than slaves, but any given woman was less well-educated than her husband or male relatives: families wealthy enough to afford education for their children would educate their sons first, and not approve of their daughters marrying down.

    *** Not that I think the Bible is particularly practical, but most people at the time thought it was.

  5. FRANK says:

    i am a American European person and i am amazed about the lack of knowledge in re of history that i have found both in America and Europe among young people in general

    People of my generation were more aware it seems of their past history both in Europe and America and one deplores this lack of education in our schools

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