Sunday, July 31, 2022

Literacy and Crime

I think a lot about literacy. In part, perhaps, because I am a writer and would like it if there were still readers around to read what writers write. 

I also think about it because of what I remember about how being able to read opens people's minds, enables them to engage ideas that ennoble them. 

About a half century ago I heard a man speak about Literacy Evangelism. His organization would go to villages and teach people how to read. The stories he shared about how much their self-worth increased never left me. "I am not just a beast or animal. I can read." The impact was profound.

These thoughts were re-awakened in me by Neil Gaiman's Art Matters and Other Insights for Writers. Early in the book he shares the importance of reading and how it makes us better people. He warns against trying to force books on our kids. If they are reading, that is good. If they develop a love of reading, that is great.

At one point Gaiman shared that politicians calculated how many prisons to build based on how many illiterate young people there were. Even if that is a myth, it's apparent that there is a direct correlation between literacy and living a successful life. (I could share a Michener anecdote here, but will save it until you ask.)

All this to say that our education has been failing our children and literacy rates have been dropping. How have we lost our way? How can we get it back? 

What follows are some stats about the relationship between incarceration and low literacy from

  • 85 percent of all juveniles who interface with the juvenile court system are functionally low-literate
  • Juvenile incarceration reduces the probability of high school completion and increases the probability of incarceration later in life.
  • High school dropouts are 3.5 times more likely that high school grads to be arrested in their lifetime.
  • High school dropouts are 63% more likely to be incarcerated than their peers with four-year college degrees.
  • Mississippi has the second highest incarceration rate in the nation. The average adult inmate reads on a sixth-grade level when admitted. Half of the state's inmates never finished high school.
  • The same article cites this disconcerting stat by Donald Hernandez in his book Double Jeopardy: "children who do not read proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma than proficient readers."

    Libraries are great. If you don't have the money to buy books, you can always borrow them. There are few things more wonderful than libraries.

    Thanks for reading.

    P.S. When my grandfather got married he was illiterate. Grandma, who had been a schoolteacher, taught him how to read and write so he could fill out a job application. I always remember him sitting in "his chair" in the living room with a newspaper in his hands, the television up loud.

    If reading is a struggle, don't give up. It's never too late to begin. Start where you are at and keep practicing. Find library books at your reading level and don't give up.

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