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Illiteracy and the Inequity of So-called American Democracy

In Jonathan Kozol’s “The Human Cost of an Illiterate Society”, the author addresses the prevalence of illiteracy in American society and how this prevalence is incompatible with democratic ideals. Hence, a literate population becomes a precondition to an egalitarian society. Kozol develops this point by using anecdotal and empirical evidence. Hence, he cites the various everyday disadvantages one is faced with when unable to read, such as being unable to read a menu in a restaurant to being unable to understand the report cards that their children bring home. Accordingly, with the prevalence of illiteracy, social functions cannot be realized, which trap the illiterates in a cycle of underclass existence. For Kozol, the solution is clear: promoting literacy is necessary to American democracy.

What is most striking about Kozol’s article is how he links illiteracy to American beliefs in democracy. In other words, the high number of illiterates itself indicates a greater failure within American government and policy that thoroughly undermines the democratic principles of the U.S., to the extent that, to quote Kozol, there are “special dangers that illiteracy would pose to basic equity in the political construction.” (240) The argument appears sound and persuasive: it is impossible to trumpet an egalitarian society if significant portions of the population are illiterate. For Kozol, therefore, illiteracy is a fundamental manifestation of inequality. People cannot participate in our everyday social functions, which heavily involve literacy if a good portion of the population is illiterate. Hence, the system is not egalitarian at its very core. However, perhaps Kozol overlooks the fact that illiteracy issues may be tied to poverty, and have a definitive cause and effect relationship. In other words, is not poverty also a clear and more foundational symptom of inequality in America, from which there are various side-effects, such as illiteracy? Nevertheless, Kozol makes a compelling argument as to why equity in society has to be stressed, if American can hope to call itself a true democracy. Otherwise, America is only a hypocritical ideological state.


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