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2016-02-14 16:05:27




Earlier this month, I visited a hilly corner of NorthCarolina to spend time with family friends. As we sat around the kitchen table, a formermusician whom I shall call Dave revealed that he had recently started an entrepreneurialsideline to supplement his meagre family income. During part of the week, he works in a localpawnshop but he does not lend out cash. Instead, Dave fills out application forms for peoplewho want to buy firearms — but cannot read or write. He only charges a few dollars for this butthe service is so popular that it provides a steady income. “Lots of people round here can’tread and write,” Dave told me with a rueful laugh. “But they all want guns. So they pay me todo that — I use their driving licences to get all the details.”


Welcome to an oft-ignored feature of America in 2015 — and I am not just talking aboutfirearms. These days, there is hand-wringing aplenty, particularly on the political left, aboutincome inequality. As a Financial Times series indicated last week, the gap between rich andpoor is yawning ever wider as the middle class shrinks.


But what is often forgotten is that this income inequality reflects and reinforces otherpernicious cultural chasms. Today, millions of Americans are enjoying the bonanza of aninformation boom, with once unimaginable power at their fingertips or, more specifically, on thebuttons of their tablets and smartphones. They are “haves”, in the sense of having access tothe 21st-century economy. But there is also an underbelly of “have-nots”, who lack access tothis economic and information engine, sometimes for the most basic reason of not being able toread or write.


Much of the time this underbelly is concealed; at least from people like me, fortunate to liveamong information-blessed urban elites who take reading skills for granted. But the issue issurprisingly widespread. And it is not just a problem of rural communities or non-whitegroups — indeed, many of Dave’s North Carolina clients are white.


According to a 2013 survey by the US Department of Education and National Institute ofLiteracy, 14 per cent of the adult population (or 32 million people) cannot read properly, while21 per cent read below a level required in the fifth grade. And 19 per cent of high-schoolgraduates cannot read. In the north-east, illiteracy is lower; in some southern states, such asMississippi, it is higher. North Carolina is in the middle. This rate has been remarkably stable inrecent decades, and it puts the US in 12th place among major industrialised countries (the UKfares only slightly better).

根据美国教育部(Department of Education)和美国国家识字研究所(National Institute of Literacy) 2013年开展的一项调查,14%的成年人口(也就是3200万人)不怎么识字,21%的人阅读能力低于5年级要求的水平。19%的高中毕业生不识字。美国东北部文盲率较低,而在密西西比州等南部一些州,文盲率则较高。北卡莱罗纳州的文盲率处于中间水平。最近几十年,这一比例一直非常稳定,它令美国在主要发达国家中排第12位(英国的成绩也只是略好一点)。

But what is truly startling — and tragic — is the degree to which “the link between academicfailure and delinquency, violence and crime is welded to reading failure”, as a report from theDepartment of Justice states. Apparently 85 per cent of juvenile delinquents and 70 per cent ofthe prison population struggles to read. Indeed, the link is so well established that pro-literacy groups claim that some states can predict their need for future prison beds bylooking at the literacy rates in schools. And, unsurprisingly, half of adults with poor literacylive in poverty, shut out of most 21st-century jobs. As Juli Willeman, head of the Pi Beta Phigroup, which runs literacy campaigns, observes: “Reading proficiency predicts futuresuccess.” Or the lack of it.

但正如美国司法部的一份报告所指出,真正令人震惊(且可悲)的是,“学业失败与青少年犯罪、暴力和犯罪之间的关联(很大程度上)要归咎于不识字”。据称,85%的少年犯以及70%的在押犯不怎么识字。事实上,这种关联如此明确,以至于扫盲团体宣称,一些州可以通过观察学校学生的识字率来预测未来监狱所需的床位数。不意外的是,不怎么识字的成年人中,有一半生活窘迫,被21世纪的大部分工作拒之门外。开展扫盲活动的Pi Beta Phi组织负责人朱莉维勒曼(Juli Willeman)指出:“读写流利预示着未来的成功。”不会读写则预示着未来的失败。

The good news is that these statistics are so shocking that they are provoking some policyresponse. A host of philanthropic ventures, such as Pi Beta Phi, are waging pro-literacycampaigns for adults and children. Most prisons now feature intensive literacy courses, notleast because prisoners who can read are far less likely to reoffend. The public education systemis also (somewhat belatedly) getting involved. In North Carolina, for example, a “retention”policy was launched three years ago that keeps any third-grade child who cannot read properlyin that class until they have mastered the basics. In October, North Carolina education officialsrevealed that 14 per cent of pupils were “retained” last year.

好消息是,这些统计数据如此令人震惊,以至于激起了一些政策回应。Pi Beta Phi等许多慈善机构正在开展面向成人和儿童的识字活动。如今,大多数监狱都开办了密集的识字课程,主要原因是识字的囚犯重新犯罪的可能性会大大降低。公共教育体系(虽然行动得有些迟)也在参与进来。例如,北卡罗来纳州3年前启动了一项“留级”政策,让所有没有真正掌握识字能力的三年级儿童留级,直至他们掌握基本读写能力。十月,北卡罗莱那州的教育官员透露,去年有14%的学生被要求“留级”。

But while these initiatives are laudable, they remain piecemeal compared with the scale of theproblem. The chance of America changing that dismal ratio anytime soon, in other words, lookslow; indeed, almost as low as changing the gun culture. So I would bet that my friend Dave willbe peddling his services for a long while yet. Call it, if you like, a paradox of America’s moderneconomy; and a nasty rebuke to anyone who thinks we all live in the innovative, internet age.





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