No. 748

The young man thrust a paper at me, squinting into the sun, “Hey, man, can you tell me where this is?” I was a visitor to Detroit myself, but one glance at the scribbling told me the answer to his question. I pointed to the street sign barely 15 feet above us. It was right there.
I said, “Can’t you see the sign?” He looked sheepishly at me, pulled the paper back and headed toward the street, and then it hit me. The reason he had to ask me, a stranger, was not because he had not seen the sign. It was because, he couldn’t read it. He was not alone. An astonishingly 47 percent of residents of Detroit, nearly one of every two adults in this predominately African-American city, are functionally illiterate.
By way of contrast, the figure for Vietnam is 6.7 percent and 1.7 percent for Croatia. Being functionally illiterate relates to the inability of an individual to use reading, writing and computational skills in everyday life: filling out a job application, reading traffic signs, figuring out an election ballet, reading a newspaper, understanding a bus schedule or product label - or finding a street address on a sheet of paper. In the richest country on earth, 23 percent of adult Americans – 44 million men and women -- cannot do these things.
What I have just shared with you is part of an article that appeared in Newsweek back on Sept. 30, 2002. It was written by Shashi Tharoor, someone I had never heard of, so I decided to do some research on this writer and his background. What I learned was very surprising and a real indictment on literacy in our country. Shashi Tharoor was born in 1956 in London and educated in Bombay, Calcutta, Delhi, India, and the United States. He holds a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. He has also had a very distinguished career working for the United Nations and, by the way, earned his Ph.D. at age 22, so he is clearly an intellectual.
As an author, Shashi Tharoor has written many editorials, commentaries, and short stories in Indian and Western publications. Thus his article referred to earlier articles, published in Newsweek. You may ask, “Why are you telling me this?” Well, several reasons, but mainly because here is a man, a native and educated mainly in the country of India, writing about the sad state of literacy in the most prosperous nation on earth. When I was growing up, and for much of my adult life, I have viewed India as a poor, backward and uneducated nation, in the mold of the teeming mass of humanity that Mother Theresa ministered to during her lifetime.
My concept was wrong, especially as it applies today. Literacy in India is key for socio-economic progress. The Indian literacy rate grew to 66 percent in 2007, from 12 percent at the end of British rule in 1947. This is still way below the world average literacy rate of 84 percent, and India currently has the largest illiterate population of any nation on earth. However, to place this in perspective, the 2001 census indicated a 1991-2001 decadal literacy growth of 12.63 percent, which is the fastest ever on record.
Here is another important reason for sharing this with you. Over the past decade or so, the United States has outsourced thousands of highly technical jobs to India. This means, for a variety of reasons, that American workers are losing jobs to a nation whose literacy rates are vastly improving. Does a nation’s literacy rate really matter? You bet it does. We must focus and concentrate on improving literacy in America. Do you agree?
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Jim Davidson is a public speaker and syndicated columnist. You may contact him at 2 Bentley Drive, Conway, AR 72034. To begin a bookcase literacy project visit You won’t go wrong helping a needy child.)