What's Wrong With Literacy Programs

Revolutionary Cuba treated literacy as a form of liberation. US literacy efforts rely on charity and volunteerism. The difference in approach is striking.

It was September 1960, less than two years after Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista had been overthrown by Fidel Castro’s revolutionary forces. In a speech that lasted over four hours—one of the longest in U.N. history—Castro went before the General Assembly to issue a scathing indictment of U.S. and European imperialism and colonialism in the Global South and to declare the values of his newly socialist nation, one which would guarantee all people healthcare, education, housing, work, and gender and racial equality. He also declared Cuba’s commitment to end illiteracy, which impacted nearly 25 percent of Cubans overall but over 40 percent of people in rural areas. He said:

In the coming year, our country intends to start its great battle against illiteracy, with the ambitious goal of teaching every single inhabitant of the country to read and write…. [O]rganizations of teachers, of students, of workers, are going out, that is—the entire people, is preparing itself for an intensive campaign to wipe out illiteracy. Cuba will be the first country of [the Americas] which, after a few months, will be able to say it does not have one single solitary illiterate in the country. 

“A few months” and “not one illiterate” may seem like exaggerations, to say the least, but Cuba was indeed about to undertake one of the most ambitious, successful, and inspiring literacy campaigns in the world. (Other impressive campaigns took place in revolutionary China, Nicaragua, and Russia.) Long-time education activist and writer Jonathan Kozol visited Cuba twice in the 1970s to report on the literacy campaign and the nation’s education system. In his 1978 book Children of the Revolution: A Yankee Teacher in the Cuban Schools, he notes that, for Castro, literacy, along with healthcare and land reform, was “one of the three most serious struggles which the revolution had to undertake.” 

A 1984 UNESCO report detailing case studies of literacy campaigns around the world concluded that Cuba’s results had been “dramatic.” In the course of less than a year, during 1960-1961, over 700,000 Cubans were taught how to read and write by 250,000 volunteer teachers. Over 100,000 of them were under 18 years of age, and over half were girls and women. Workers were also recruited from factories, and participation by the teaching profession was made compulsory in the later stages of the effort. The youngest teacher, Kozol writes, was 8 years old, and the oldest student was a 106-year-old woman who had been born into slavery. Youths called brigadistas (evoking a military “brigade”), many from urban, middle-class backgrounds, were sent to the campo (countryside) to teach campesinos (rural peasants) who lived without running water or electricity in dirt-floor homes near the fields where they worked. Recruitment posters went up all over the island, along with notices in newspapers and on TV, radio, and billboards. Participants, both teachers and students, would look back on the literacy campaign as one of the most important and transformative experiences of their lives.

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Over half a century later, in a 60 Minutes interview, Democratic presidential nominee Bernie Sanders would praise the Cuban literacy campaign. Sanders said that “it’s unfair to simply say that everything [about Cuba] is bad.” He went on: “When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing?” He said in a later segment, “I think teaching people to read and write is a good thing.” For making such a commonsense statement, Sanders was criticized by Democratic opponents. Pete Buttigieg thought it was wrong for Sanders to highlight “the literacy programs of a brutal dictator,” and Tom Steyer (remember the businessman with the plaid ties?) said, “I don’t think it’s appropriate to be giving [Castro] a lot of compliments.” Joe Biden’s campaign said the comments were “deeply offensive.” But as commentator Ben Burgis pointed out at the time, Bernie was right about Cuba, and it’s perfectly reasonable to praise the Cubans for their accomplishments. “Cuba did make tremendous strides in literacy, infant mortality, racial desegregation, doctor-patient ratio, and many other areas after the revolution. When the subject comes up, [are we] supposed to pretend not to know that all of this happened?” Burgis wrote.

Revolutionary Cuba sought to unite its people, bridging divides in gender, age, class, race, and geography so that everyone could work toward ending illiteracy in the country. The literacy program was just part of a broader effort to provide everyone a high-quality education as the country undertook a transition to socialism. It turns out that the U.S. could learn a lot from Cuba’s literacy campaign about the kinds of values needed to address the problem of low literacy.


Cuba: 'The Lantern and the Book'

The brigadistas were given a crash course in literacy instruction at Varadero, a resort town that before the revolution had been an enclave for wealthy Cubans and international visitors. Its houses, estates, and hotels were repurposed into a training camp complete with nine dining rooms and a hospital that could care for 150 patients at a time. Expert reading teachers were on hand to help as the students spent up to ten days learning a teacher’s manual and learner’s primer (the latter was called Venceremos, or “we shall overcome”). Additional teacher volunteers would hold weekend sessions in the field to review lesson plans with the brigadistas. The goal, as Raúl Ferrer, the literacy campaign’s vice-coordinator, told Kozol in an interview, was to create

a new [teaching] path of our own: firm and clear, but not authoritarian; purposeful, sequential, and well-organized for pace, but never abusive, never condescending…. We emphasized to the brigadistas that the campesino, even though he is an adult, is extremely vulnerable in many ways. Courtesy—not falsified flattery, but feelings of respect and affectionate collaboration—seemed essential to convey right from the start.   

The method of teaching used “active words” similar to the radical approach created by Brazilian socialist and pedagogue Paulo Freire. “Active words” included the OEA, or Organization of American States, a regional body of governments in the Americas which the U.S. used to isolate Cuba economically, and the INRA, the National Institute of Agrarian Reform, which had “just begun the labor of land-distribution to the poor.” Themes for learners and teachers included “The Cooperatives of the Agrarian Reform,” “The People’s Store,” “The Land is Ours,” “The Right to a Home,” “Cuba Had Riches [but] was Poor,” and “The Abolition of Illiteracy.” Kozol points out that these words gave the campaign a political bias. (No doubt mindful of his American readers, he was careful throughout his book to note whether he detected whiffs of authoritarian indoctrination coming through in the people he interviewed.) But as Freire himself noted in the introduction to Children of the Revolution, “[E]ducation…. wherever it may be, can never be a neutral task.”

Revolution or no, there were risks to the project. First, as Kozol points out, in the year 1961, the failed U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion took place, and counterrevolutionaries stormed the island. Some of the brigadistas went off to military duty; the rest continued on, steadfast in their efforts. In the 2013 documentary Maestra (Spanish for teacher), nine Cuban women recalled their participation in the campaign as teenagers. Naturally, the women said, their parents were not thrilled at the prospect of their children going out into the countryside to work with adult strangers. Gina Rey, who was 14 years old at the time, said her mother “screamed to high heaven” when she heard the news about the campaign and totally refused to give her permission to participate at first. Daysi Veitia, who was 17 years old, said that her family didn’t like the idea and that it was her first time away from home. Adria Santana, age 13, forged her father’s signature on the permission form so she could accompany her older sister on the journey. Parents were right to be concerned—particularly by the brutal murders of two literacy workers by counterrevolutionaries at the time. There was even a terrifying experience, recalled by Santana, when someone came pounding on the house door late at night, yelling “Bring out the literacy teachers!” The campesinos held their ground and did not open the door. Kozol noted that Castro himself made “unstinting efforts to reduce the worries of [the brigadistas’] parents,” acknowledging in speeches the “sacrifice” the parents were making by allowing their children to leave home. He made sure that the children were closely supervised at the training camp and wanted them prepared for the culture they would encounter in the countryside.

If there were serious risks involved, there were also meaningful rewards. The women in Maestra spoke of how much they learned about life in the countryside, as some had never been outside the city up until then. They, like all the brigadistas in the countryside, were put to work with the campesinos in the field and with housework during the day, holding lessons by lantern at night, often on the kitchen tables of their students’ small homes. On weekends and evenings, the brigadistas were immersed in the cultural life of the campo, attending weddings, baptisms, birthday parties, and dances. 

Some literacy teachers, however, worked closer to home, especially if they were young. Griselda Aguilera, at 7 years of age, was assigned to teach a 58-year-old man who was “completely illiterate” close to her home in Havana. She remembered it as a “beautiful experience, very intense.” While it’s not clear that Aguilera was directly supervised during her time with her adult student—and modern parents would probably (rightly so) not allow such a young child to enter into this kind of situation without close supervision—the larger point is that this learning situation inverted the typical age differential between student and teacher.

The women also emphasized that their work in literacy helped them to see beyond traditional gender norms and the machismo that they’d grown up with. Veitia said that girls had to stay home and do what their families told them to do but that the literacy campaign boosted her self-esteem. Rey said that after the campaign, she realized that she could aim higher and “didn’t have to settle for the future my mom planned for me.” In a 2012 article in Gender and History, UC Berkeley historian of Latin America Rebecca Herman concluded that “women’s participation in the [literacy] campaign was meaningful and transformative. It merits a place amongst the early triumphs for women’s condition in revolutionary Cuba.”

There were also moments of excitement and freedom. Diana Balboa spoke animatedly about the moment when a person “discovers they can read!” The learner would exclaim, “I can read! I can read!” Eloisa Hernández described a “sense of freedom and spiritual enjoyment” that was experienced by a person who had been taught to read and write. Learners described the experience in equally profound terms. A woman named Christina, whose story Kozol told in Children of the Revolution, was a live-in domestic servant in Havana who couldn’t read or write (nor could anyone in her family in the countryside). When she heard about the literacy campaign, she was determined to join. When she told her employing family of her intentions, they dismissed her from her position. She ended up being taken in by her literacy teacher, who became like a mother to her. She explained how learning to read and write enabled her to do political education as well as inspired her interests in and enjoyment of poetry, music, and ballet. She said: “Without the literacy struggle none of this, of course, would have been possible in my own generation. None of these things—a new apartment, a job I can count on, my daughters in their new schools, an afternoon at the museums…. music…. and ballet.”

In Children of the Revolution, Kozol wrote that “the campaign clearly was much more than a pedagogic act. It was a moment of political and moral transformation for large numbers of young people….” This is essentially what Armando Valdez, a former brigadista, told Kozol:

I never could have known that people lived in such conditions. I was the child of an educated, comfortable family. Those months, for me, were like the stories I have heard about conversion to a new religion. It was, for me, the dying of an old life and the start of something absolutely new…. I did not need to read of this in Marx, in Lenin, in [Cuban independence leader José] Martí…. I was excited to be part of something which had never happened in our land before.

In 1984, UNESCO published a report detailing eight literacy campaigns around the world, including that of Cuba. The author, observing that most literacy campaigns in the report took place in societies that were transitioning to socialism, noted that “a literacy campaign must be linked with larger educational, economic, political, developmental and cultural policies. After the first step of literacy, the road ahead to further education and development should be clearly in view.” Cuba had done this by linking literacy to its transformation into a socialist society which would redistribute wealth to those who created it but who had been kept poor (workers) and which would address racial and gender inequalities. Kozol would go on to detail the “further education” that Cuba would undertake after the ’61 campaign, also called the seguimiento, or follow-up: continuing literacy studies in the Battle for the Sixth Grade (efforts to achieve sixth grade-levels of literacy) and beyond, as well as the awarding of scholarships to higher education for brigadistas. 

On December 22, 1961, 95,000 brigadistas and teacher-mentors marched on Revolution Square in Havana to celebrate the campaign. They carried giant pencils “symbolizing the triumph of education” and raised a banner that said ¡Vencimos!. “We have overcome!”


The US: Pathologizing the Political

It’s easy to take for granted the level of skill needed to survive in everyday life: to read a newspaper (or this magazine); a medication label; an email; a set of instructions to prepare food or assemble furniture or cast a vote at the ballot box; or a bill or receipt or other important document. Adult literacy is characterized by six proficiency levels according to performance on the PIAAC, the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies. In practical terms, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, literacy is “the ability to understand, evaluate, use and engage with written texts to participate in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.” 

In the Cuban campaign, learners were brought to a first-grade level of literacy. While this was a profound achievement for Cubans, many of whom could only sign their names with thumbprints or Xs before the campaign, it is not, of course, full literacy or what we would today think of as “functional literacy” (which, for today’s U.S., corresponds roughly to a sixth grade reading level). As Kozol points out, this level of literacy would provide “no access to sophisticated news analysis, complicated technological instructions, serious essays, difficult verse, sensitive fiction, or the like”—in other words, a level we might consider essential for people to excel in higher education, engage in critical thinking about important issues, or to enjoy literature or the arts. 

Today, many of these activities are off-limits to the 43 million adults in the U.S. who are, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, noted to have “low literacy.” In other words, it’s not so much that people cannot read or write at all but that their level of literacy is too low for them to function in everyday life. In international surveys of adult competencies (PIAAC), the U.S. ranks behind other wealthy developed nations. For instance, in the 2012 assessment (the latest for which we have international comparisons), the U.S. ranked ninth among other nations in literacy proficiency among adults, behind Japan, Finland, the Netherlands, Australia, Canada, Korea, U.K., and Germany. 

In the early years of schooling, children are learning how to read. But by about the fourth grade, children are expected to read in order to learn other subjects. So a lack of solid reading skills portends academic trouble later on. The statistics on childhood reading are concerning. Reading is Fundamental, a nonprofit that aims to “disrupt the literacy crisis,” notes that 25 million U.S. children “cannot read proficiently.” What’s more, about two-thirds of fourth-graders read below their grade level, “setting them up for difficulty in school and beyond.” Dollar General Literacy Foundation notes that “a majority of high school graduates are not proficient readers.” 

 

Screenshot 2024-06-17 at 12.23.21 PMIllustration by Ellen Burch

 

In the U.S., literacy efforts aimed at children are primarily the responsibility of the public education system. Even though public education has been increasingly privatized and some on the Right suggest doing away entirely with the Department of Education, public education should be thought of as a civil rights issue. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who made literacy a part of his War on Poverty, certainly treated it that way. In 1965, Johnson’s administration enacted the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which brought the federal government prominently into public education funding. The Act was, “from its inception…. a civil rights law,” according to the Department of Education. The Act solidified the nation’s “commitment to equal opportunity for all students” and provided grants to states, especially for districts serving low-income students. It also tied funds to compliance with desegregation laws. The ESEA has been reauthorized—and morphed into different forms—over the years, from George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act to Barack Obama’s Every Student Succeeds Act. The legislation currently authorizes competitive grants to address literacy. 

The federal government’s involvement in adult literacy falls under a separate act, The Adult Education & Family Literacy Act, which also offers grants that are administered by various state agencies. (Johson’s 1964 Economic Opportunity Act marked the beginning of federal involvement in adult education.) One 2014 government update on the legislation, which was last authorized that same year, noted that 1.8 million individuals had received English literacy instruction per year. A drop in the bucket! A more recent 2022 investigation by ProPublica noted that access to federal adult education programs is “limited,” “increasingly insufficient,” and “highly dependent on geography and the political will of elected officials.” Funding levels have not changed much in over two decades, and “students often find themselves in overstuffed classes led by uncertified part-time or volunteer teachers.” Perhaps most concerning is that the program over the years has “morph[ed] into what is now effectively a credentialing program largely aimed at pumping out students with high-school equivalency or workforce certificates.” The article quotes Amy Pickard, an assistant professor of education at Indiana University Bloomington, who said, “The purpose of these programs is no longer to provide literacy education. That is not what they do anymore.”

Outside of the federal government and public schools, there are numerous societal efforts to promote literacy. When I was growing up, we had the PBS show “Reading Rainbow,” which ran from 1983-2006, and Pizza Hut’s BOOK IT! reading incentive program, which is still ongoing and is “the largest and longest-running corporate supported reading program,” according to the program’s website. Then there are literacy and reading nonprofits that offer grants, distribute books, or work with learners in some capacity. A non-exhaustive list includes Reading is Fundamental, Reach Out and Read, Reading Partners, the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, National Center for Families Learning (NCFL, founded by educator Sharon Darling, focuses on “family literacy”), and Dollar General Literacy Foundation. The Library of Congress awards financial prizes to nonprofits in its annual Literacy Awards. Just glance at the reports of these organizations and you will see references to the major impact they are having—millions of dollars, millions of books,1 millions of people.

The problem here, of course, is that we need so many extra-governmental organizations working to pick up where proper literacy instruction in public schools and continuing education efforts have fallen short. This probably has something to do with the way literacy is viewed in this country. The thing you notice about literacy rhetoric is that low literacy itself is framed as a problem of individuals. These individuals, in turn, tend to have other problems. What’s worse, we are often told, adults with low literacy cost society a significant amount of money and other resources. In short, they are noted to be financial drains on society.


"Literacy is the key to solving everything." 

These are the opening words on the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy website. Linger on the site, and you’ll see the word everything switch out to the following words: healthcare, poverty, crime rates, and unemployment. When you click on the initial quote, you’re taken to another quote from Bush: “All the things I worry about in life would be better if more people could read, write, and comprehend.” These are remarkable statements—and very particular in their political implications. They reflect the individualism of the conservative ethic. Large societal problems are expressed in terms of the smallest unit and smallest skill: individual people reading. 

The claim that literacy can “solve everything” is just another version of the argument—made among liberals and conservatives alike—that education itself is the solution to things like poverty and inequality. As Jennifer C. Berkshire wrote in Jacobin in 2023, that “myth” arose in the 1970s as a direct challenge to the idea of economic redistribution. Investment in “human capital,” the bipartisan consensus went, was the way to prosperity. But this has proven very wrong. Americans are now more educated than ever—the percentage of people over age 25 who have college degrees or higher has risen significantly over the last two decades—yet income inequality persists (earners in the top 1 percent have pulled away from the rest), wages have stagnated compared to productivity since the 1970s, and the poverty rate has hovered between around 10-15 percent of the population since 1970.

The better way to think about literacy is not that it’s a solution to “everything” but that it is simply one of the social determinants of health. In other words, it is something that is strongly tied to one’s well-being. This is fact, not just analogy: the 2012 PIAAC found that those who come from higher socioeconomic status tend to have better literacy and health, and vice versa. The other social determinants of health, also called “social-infrastructural aspects of life,” are economic stability, healthcare access and quality, social and community context, and neighborhood and built environment.

Now consider the graphic below, which Dollar General Literacy Foundation, in its 2022 report, uses to explain “The Cycle of Low Literacy.” 

Source: Dollar General Literacy Foundation 2022 report.

 

The concepts on the wheel make sense, but the phrasing “cycle of low literacy” places undue focus on a single determinant of well-being. In reality, each social determinant of health can impact others, and people who are negatively impacted in one domain often suffer in another. For instance, African American children are disproportionately affected by asthma, environmental racism (such as living in polluted areas), underfunded and over-policed schools, and poverty, just to name a few adverse conditions. If a child is too sick with asthma to perform well in school and so develops low literacy skills and graduates from high school but ends up unable to get a job, it’s not simply the child’s fault for having inadequate reading skills. Reading or low literacy, in other words, is not the discrete starting point in this “cycle” that caused everything else. In this sense, low literacy ought to be thought of as just one among many unacceptable injustices faced by people.

Yet the literacy discourse seems to pathologize people with low literacy. Consider the following examples:

  • “Functional illiteracy relates highly to crime rates and to the great unemployment problem in this country.”Terrel Bell, Secretary of Education under President Ronald Reagan, 1983
  • “Low literacy is associated with higher rates of incarceration, which imposes a substantial, direct cost on federal and state governments.” —Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, 2021
  • “[L]ow literacy skills in adults are estimated to cost U.S. health care systems about $232 billion annually, as reported by the American Journal of Public Health.” —Kim Jacobs, Grit, Grace, and Gratitude: A Thirty-Year Journey (about the history of National Center for Families Learning), 2019
  • “The more literate you are, the less likely you are to have received public assistance. This trend holds true for many types of public assistance, including WIC (Women, Infants and Children), TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), SSI (Supplemental Security Income), and food stamps.” —Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy
The Bush Foundation website is filled with additional observations, including that low literacy portends poor health and excess use of inpatient hospitalization and emergency services. In the discourse, people with low literacy are often associated with words like “plague” and “crisis” and phrases like “cycle of poverty and crime,” “poverty-stricken” and “decay and poverty.” And the association of low literacy with conservative bogeymen like criminal activity/imprisonment, reliance on public assistance, and unemployment further serves to stigmatize and politically marginalize this group of people. (In one online video about Sharon Darling’s literacy efforts, the narrator talks about how “family literacy” will break the “unhappy circle of welfare and poverty” and “get people off welfare.” Darling herself talked patronizingly about helping people who live “at the bottom of the heap.”) This kind of discourse falls just short of outright calling people with low literacy of low or inferior stock, degenerates who are destined for deviant behavior and who will drain the economy or our society’s limited resources. 

Beatrice Adler-Bolton and Artie Vierkant, in their 2022 book, Health Communism, described such “eugenic and debt burden” overtones to explain how the U.S. has “rationalize[d] political notions that not all people are in fact equal in deserving assistance or support.” They were talking about healthcare and about how, generally, poor, working-class, disabled, racialized, and minority populations are often portrayed as undeserving or cheats who are hogging up public resources. (For examples, think of the “welfare queen” defrauding the public or migrants from Mexico who are supposedly “straining resources” or “poisoning the blood of our country.”) But we could extend the analogy to any social good, including literacy and education, that is often tied to artificially scarce public funding. In this framework, the solution is for people to simply become worthy of obtaining what they need under market conditions. Just become literate, and you’ll be fine in other aspects of life. (And if you’re not able to, it’s your fault.)

If people with low literacy are portrayed as costly, underperforming burdens, then what better way to showcase the solution to the problem than with remarkable success stories? This is where it becomes necessary to make heroes of people who do manage to rise up out of their low literacy. This is something similar to what’s going on in the ‘Pass It On’ billboards, as explained by Stephen Prager in a recent Current Affairs article. As Prager explained, the billboards often feature people achieving heroic feats like participating in extreme sports while blind or disabled or donating to charity. But in focusing only on personal efforts to the exclusion of larger societal circumstances, the billboards “fetishize and amplify the idea of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.” 

One example of how these ideas show up in literacy stories can be seen in a December 2023 Washington Post article with the following headline: “Man taught himself to read, then set out to read 100 books in 2023. Oliver James kept it a secret that most of his life he couldn’t read. Now he shares his literacy progress on TikTok to inspire others.” At first glance, this seems like a great story of personal success. A man who “couldn’t read restaurant menus, street signs or text messages” [and] “relied on voice dictation tools to get by” decided to teach himself to read. This is, of course, extraordinary. But the story romanticizes James's personal achievements by not drawing much attention to the structural barriers he faced in life as a Black person. The story does note that “James was honest about the awful treatment he faced at an elementary school for children with special needs,” that he “struggled with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and behavioral issues, but never got the attention he needed to succeed as a student” and “bounced from school to school, as he was repeatedly kicked out for rebelling.” But the author never dwells on the fact that his elementary school suspended him when he was in the first grade. It’s a known fact that Black children and children with disabilities disproportionately receive harsh and harmful disciplinary actions in school, but this goes unmentioned. The story explains how James was at one point homeless and spent over four years in prison on weapons charges. There’s no consideration of why James, presumably, was not given literacy instruction during the ample time he was forced to spend behind bars. Ultimately, James received an award from the Bush Literacy Foundation for his achievement.

What I kept asking myself after reading this story was, Why did this man have to teach himself how to read? Why were there seemingly no literacy resources available, or known, to him despite the millions of dollars that get funneled into the various literacy nonprofits? 

A conservative reader may see this story as evidence of someone taking personal responsibility for their literacy problem and exhibiting bootstrap ethics, demonstrating “grit” to “climb out of poverty” and into “self-sufficiency” through learning how to read. But I see it as a cruel idealization of the fact that someone needed to demonstrate superhuman levels of dedication in order to achieve what society had in the first place wrongly denied him: an adequate education so that he could navigate the world through reading and writing. 


The Barbara Bush Foundation Literacy Gap Map highlights areas of the country with the highest percentages of people who score low on literacy assessments (the darker the shade of blue, the worse the literacy). Low-scoring communities are concentrated along the Texas-Mexico border and in the Southern states of the former Confederacy—in other words, areas with high concentrations of Latinos and African Americans.

Source: Dollar General Literacy Foundation, “State of American Literacy.” Data and Map: Barbara Bush Foundation Literacy Gap Map

 

The distribution of low literacy in the Southwest and South is not just a legacy of slavery and racist policies in housing, healthcare, and so forth, and it’s not just a reflection of the fact that non-native English speakers may not be functionally literate in English. It’s a direct reminder that literacy specifically—and education more generally—both remain political.

The powerful will go to great lengths to keep subjugated people uneducated, or just to neglect politically vulnerable populations. In the antebellum South, one way of keeping enslaved people powerless—and of maintaining the supposed “intellectual inferiority and inhumanity of African-descended people”—was through the use of anti-literacy laws. As the Oakland Literacy Coalition explains, “Plantation owners feared that literate slaves could write and use forged documents to gain their freedom.” In modern times, those deprived of education and literacy are poor children or children of color who often attend substandard public schools, prisoners, or people who lack the right immigration status (some in the GOP, for instance, would love to keep undocumented immigrant children out of public schools). 

Speaking to the political nature of the literacy problem in his 1985 book Illiterate America—in which he called for an “all-out literacy war in the United States”—Kozol wrote the following (we could easily substitute 2024 for 1985):

Illiteracy in any land as well-informed and wealthy as the U.S.A. in 1985 is not an error. It is not an accident. There is no way that it could be an accident or error. Illiteracy among the poorest people in our population is a logical consequence of the kinds of schools we run, the cities that starve them, the demagogues who segregate them, and the wealthy people who escape them altogether to enroll their kids in better funded, up-to-date, and more proficient institutions. It is a consequence, too, of pedagogic class selection which for many decades has regarded certain sectors of the population as the proper persons to perform those unattractive labors which no man or woman would elect to do if he or she received the preparation for more lucrative and challenging employment. Finally, it is a consequence of the illiterate condition of the parents of poor children—parents, in turn, who have been denied all recourse for self-liberation by the absence of a conscientious government initiative on their behalf.

Kozol also described a phenomenon in which illiterate (the term used back then) people pathologized themselves because they had internalized the idea that they were to blame for their powerlessness in society. However, he noted, the key to resisting this pathology was to see illiteracy as a political problem (with a political solution) rather than an individual failing. 

When people are powerless, [...] they are obliged to ask themselves…. “Am I inherently deficient? Am I lacking in intelligence? in energy? in will? If the answer is yes, I am inferior. If the answer is no, I am the victim of injustice.” Those who settle for the former answer are the victims of pathology. Those who can emerge from this pathology to choose the second answer are political.

What’s also striking about Kozol’s book is that he doesn’t romanticize people with low literacy. Adults he spoke to described keeping their illiteracy a secret, the fear they faced that they would be found out, and the “misery” of going through life without being able to navigate the world around them. They were unable to help a child with schoolwork, to read a medication bottle, or to read a lease or bill or restaurant menu. One man who worked as an illustrator went through a ritual of placing a fresh copy of the New York Times on his desk at work every day even though he could not read it. He relayed a recurrent dream to Kozol:

“Somebody says: WHAT DOES THIS MEAN? I stare at the page. A thousand copies of the New York Times run past me on a giant screen. Even before I am awake, I start to scream.”

Kozol also wrote: “You don’t choose,” said one illiterate woman. “You take your wishes from somebody else.” If, in the U.S., freedom is defined by choice, then people who do not have adequate literacy are not truly free.


Literacy as Liberation

As Leah Hunt-Hendrix explained in a recent interview, there’s a difference between charity and solidarity. Charity—the way we tend to do literacy efforts in the U.S.—is about donor and recipient, about someone imposing their will on another person. Solidarity, on the other hand, is about “both people being active agents and protagonists." The Cubans of the 1960s clearly exemplified solidarity in their literacy campaign: a coming together of people despite differences in age, gender, and race; militaristic urgency to tackle the problem for the good of the collective; and pride in serving one’s fellow citizens.

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If there’s a politics capable of tackling literacy (and education more broadly), it’s a left politics of inclusion: everyone in, no one out. The movement that has in recent years best managed to communicate a politics of solidarity—and to inspire people—was that of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns of 2016 and 2020. In the fall of 2019, to an audience of 26,000 in New York City, Sanders said: “Take a look around and find someone you don't know, maybe somebody who doesn't look kind of like you. Are you willing to fight for that person as much as you're willing to fight yourself?” It was an unusual sentiment for a leader to express in a highly individualistic society like the United States. Leaders often deliver platitudes about how they’re going to unite the country, make America great, or be a leader for all people. They encourage a vapid patriotism based on strict borders, reduced spending, and threats of military escalation toward our enemies abroad. But they never ask us, the citizenry, to care as much about strangers as we do for ourselves. They never ask us to care about people who “don’t look like” us. They don’t encourage solidarity. But we need a pivot toward a more solidaristic society to solve the problem of low literacy and everything that comes with it. (Sanders—again reminiscent of the Cubans—has also used the language of “battle” in reference to climate change, which he describes as “our shared enemy.” We should have a similar goal to fight our shared enemies: low literacy, unequal education, and inequality more broadly.)

Literacy is supposed to empower people to be critical thinkers; it shouldn’t be seen as a skill that simply helps the most privileged get to the top of a predatory society. The reason to ensure people become literate is not necessarily to help them become economically self-sufficient or to ensure that they stop “costing” the healthcare system money. The reason is that it’s a basic human right—and a constitutional right, as one federal judge ruled in 2020 in a case brought against Detroit public schools for its “rodent-infested schools,” “unqualified and absentee teachers,” and deprivation of students’ “access to literacy.” Literacy has to be a public good guaranteed to all, just as education, healthcare, housing, a living wage, clean water and air, and other structural determinants of health and well-being ought to be.

In his State of the Union address in March of this year, President Biden called for “expand[ing] high-quality tutoring and summer learning time” with the goal of teaching children to read by the third grade. But tutoring and summer school take place outside the traditional school year. What we need to be doing is revitalizing public commitment to public education at all levels of government. 

In his latest book, An End to Inequality: Breaking Down the Walls of Apartheid Education in America, Kozol highlights many disturbing facts about public education: the punitive pedagogy, police presence, corporal punishment, and crumbling, toxic walls of schools, particularly those that teach mostly Black and Latino children; the removal of arts and the humanities from school curricula; the disappearance of school libraries and librarians; and the persistent segregation of schools. In interviews with educators and personal observations of schools, Kozol has noted a “‘grit’ ethos” in many of the schools serving minority children. The schools operate more like prisons in which teachers act like wardens trained to whip students into shape for their state-mandated tests without any time allowed for joy or spontaneity in the school day. He also points out that in recent years, some Biden administration legislation had included funds for school modernization. But Democrats axed it.

The Left needs to commit to addressing these problems and more. While a particularly vocal education demand coming from the Left in recent years has been the cancellation of student higher education debt (no doubt important), this in itself reveals a particular class bias and leaves out all the people who cannot even enter higher education due to lack of qualifications. Public education is, as sociologist and urban education scholar Pedro Noguera puts it, “the only social entitlement in American society that is available to all children” and is “among the closest things we have to socialism,” if in principle but not always in practice. In this vein, we need to strive to create, as Kozol put it in a recent interview, a “truly democratic, well-funded public school system.” While Kozol argues for a reinvigorated program of busing—sending children from poorer districts to more well-off schools—that intervention strikes me as far too narrow and only a starting point for a policy platform that would address the crises faced by public education. As Lauren Fadiman wrote in this magazine last year, “public schools are the ideological battleground of the future,” and the battle must be waged within schools as well as society at large.

The Left needs to fight back against the right-wing assault on education (subject censorship, privatization) as well as work to strengthen teacher unionization and support the fight for better pay and working conditions. Additionally, poverty, institutionalized racism, and school funding, Noguera writes, are among the structural issues that must be addressed in order for schools to be able to succeed in educating all children. The federal government must commit adequate funding and resources to adult education as well.

As Kozol wrote, “Politics is present in the heart of this injustice.” We need a fighting left politics of solidarity to solve the literacy problem—not more charity and idealization of individuals struggling against societal forces to learn how to read so that maybe one day, they, too, can get a piece of the pie that keeps being stolen from so many.

Thanks to Alex Skopic and Jennifer Dines for their insights and feedback.

NOTES

1. While book deserts,” places where children lack access to age-appropriate reading material, are indeed a problem, as Jennifer Dines, a bilingual reading specialist in the Boston Public Schools, told me, a lack of books is not the biggest problem pertaining to literacy. What is often lacking is proper instruction in the skill of reading.

 

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