Achieving Literacy

The inherent difficulty of literacy explains the continuing struggle for global literacy. According to UNESCO in 2008 the world adult literacy rate is 84%. However, this masks significantly poorer levels in areas such as sub-Saharan Africa where the number of illiterate adults has actually increased since 1994. It also obscures the relatively low level of literacy being measured. In the United States, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy,14% of the population in 2003 (~30 million people) were below the basic levels of literacy, defined as the most simple and concrete tasks. This finding remains constant from 1992. On the other end of the spectrum, only 13% of the population were capable of “complex and challenging literacy activities,” a decline from 15% in 1992.

The relatively large number of functional illiterates and the disturbingly small number of proficient literates are causes for concern. In a world where literacy is a prerequisite for success, those who are functionally illiterate are marginalized while those who are fully illiterate are outsiders. Similarly, even those who have basic or intermediate skills are clearly limited in their abilities to use visible language. These data suggest a crisis if mass literacy and the sophisticated use of reading and writing truly are a foundational characteristic of the citizenry of the 21st century and beyond.

However, while illiteracy remains a problem there is at the same time an explosion in publishing and reading. More books are being published than ever; more books are being read than ever. Daniel Evans Pritchard compares reading and writing in America in 1957 and the present (from the Pew surveys). His conclusion?

“Our dilemma is not post-literacy, but super-literacy. Americans have developed acute logorrhea over the past decade.”

Are you reading a book at present?



23% (~32 million people)


47% (~140 million people)

Publishing and Readers

New Book Titles

Books per Reader



1 / 2,600



1 / 496

Logorrhea maybe be happening because, for many people, writing helps them think. Many of us have had the experience of using writing to sharpen our thoughts and to refine our ideas. By putting our ideas into words we are better able to work through the complexities, refine the logic, and clarify our thinking. In this sense literacy is a tool for reflection and concentration; it lets us externalize our ideas and in doing so refine them. It works not because the tool is easy to use but because it is difficult.

Translating our ideas into words is hard, very hard. We write to clarify but we also feel a sense of loss (incompleteness); the words don’t fully capture our ideas. The nuances are lost and the impact is blunted. As a result the reader doesn’t grasp our full meaning or appreciate the full import. Literacy is the struggle between the writer and the reader. The battle is the distance that must be bridged, the gap that must be overcome. The inadequacies of words are never more apparent than when we struggle to make ourselves understood and “the words fail us.”

In The World on Paper: The Conceptual and Cognitive Implications of Writing and Reading (1994), David Olson provocatively asks “is it possible that literacy is over-rated?” He goes on to illustrate otherwise but in doing so he alludes to a way of thinking about post-literacy:

“writing and reading playing a critical role in producing the shift from thinking about things to thinking about representations of those things, that is, thinking about thought. Our modern conception of the world and our modern conception of ourselves are, we may say, by-products of the invention of a world on paper [and, we might add, a world in cyberspace].”

If literacy marks the transition from thinking about things to thinking about the representation of things (abstractions, ideas, thought) then post-literacy may be understood not as dealing with abstractions but embodiment. Later we will talk about post-literacy and dance.

The challenges of the contemporary world are extraordinary. Protecting the planet while enabling growth and increased wealth is coupled with deep divides between peoples and culture over core values, ultimate authority, and principles of action. We are amassing unimaginable amounts of data as we explore the expanses of the universe and the nano mysteries of the human mind. We understand enough of genetic technologies to enable massive breakthroughs and perhaps also to cause crippling disasters. None of these, and many other challenges, have simple solutions. Historically, humans have built new tools to make new discoveries and solve pressing problems. We rise to the occasion by transforming ourselves. Is alphabetic literacy a sufficiently capable tool to allow us to respond to these challenges?

Literacy is slow to obtain, imprecise in its use, limited in its ability to capture constantly changing circumstances, not widely distributed in a sophisticated way, and crippled by its multiple forms (e.g. different languages and notations). And, in exhibiting these characteristics, literacy has also structured our brains in such a way that it shapes how we comprehend and how we think. The tool has become a prison. The prison has isolated the inmates.


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