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ETpro's avatar

Is the US populace sliding toward functional illiteracy?

Asked by ETpro (34469points) April 27th, 2010

Note: this question was originally “I was like what’s up with guys that write like that?” but the moderators wouldn’t tolerate that play on styles.

I ask because I was reading The Federalist Papers last night, and was struck by the deeply thoughtful expository writing style of the authors of those collected essays. Today, not only are a limited number or gifted writers able to match such style, they wouldn’t bother for political expository writing because most Americans couldn’t read and comprehend it.

Sadly, today far too much of our political discourse is as insipid as “Your sic stupid!” and writing such as found in Hamilton, Madison and John Jay’s essays is completely inaccessible to the average high-school graduate. What can we do educationally, culturally, to turn back the rising tide of functional illiteracy?

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16 Answers

marinelife's avatar

With the advent of TV, email, and Twitter, that ship has sailed. I do not think you can turn back the tide.

ETpro's avatar

@marinelife That is indeed sad. Such a loss.

Mamradpivo's avatar

Absolutely. In fact, I imagine it’s been going on far beyond the dawn of new media. As we moved more and more into cities, language has changed. And it’s going to keep changing as society moves and changes.

That said, there are a lot of stupid people out there.

ETpro's avatar

@Mamradpivo I simply do not want to accept the inevitability of such a constant downward slide. I want to believe that our best days are yet tom come, not long since gone.

Zaku's avatar

Seems like media form itself isn’t the issue, nor even literacy, but sophistication of expression, and thought. Shakespeare was digestible by illiterates. Modern language decay, I’d like to blame on the idea of marketing to the lowest common denominator, combined with capitalist/corporate greed patterns. However I think there is also just a cultural reaction in the USA against “smarts” or something. I wish I were more confident that I understood what that is all about.

JeffVader's avatar

It does sem that way even from the outside…... & sadly the 51st State seems to be going down the same path :(

ETpro's avatar

@JeffVader Thanks. Yes, it is sad.

@Zaku You know, the swing toward corporatism may ultimately be what reverses the trend. I suppose a dull, easily bamboozled populace is good for the captains of industry up to some point. But such a workforce is anything but good for business.

jerv's avatar

ZOMG! U R rite!

Seriously though, why shouldn’t our skills be atrophying? Those of us not born rich are doomed to a life of squalor anyways. No amount of skill or hard work will make a difference since upwards mobility is an antiquated notion. It’s not like we actually need brainpower or skills for anything any more.

Also, there is a grain of truth to what @Zaku says about us Americans hating intelligence, and nowhere is that more apparent than on the Far Right.

ETpro's avatar

@jerv I know that many a debate with a rabid right-winger has ended when I supplied what I thought were convincing facts with references and they responded, “Your sic stupid.” I love the ones that carry on with “I know I’m right, and if you can’t see that, then you are just closed minded. I love that absurdity.

jerv's avatar

@ETpro Personally, I find it frustrating as hell. I have no problem with people who use the same facts I do and some form of logic to reach a conclusion that I do not agree with, but that sort of thing makes me weep for the future of humanity.

My take on it is that the human body is basically designed to power the brain, move it around to gather energy to maintain itself so it can keep giving the brain oxygen, and receive input from the outside world to give the brain something to do. Accordingly, if you aren’t going to actually use your brain then you really have no reason to live; no justification for your existence.

The_Idler's avatar

The advent of mass-communication has only highlighted the fact that the vast majority of people are not educated to a standard that would satisfy you.

The intelligence of the populace has not declined, but the target audience of the media has been broadened, if you want a positive spin, think of it as a blow to elitism in politics and media.

It has always been the way that the majority of people are uneducated. To be honest, we’d probably have the best ever standard of education now, if it weren’t for the massive influx of immigrants and the explosion of benefit-babies, who together disrupt the school system to such a degree as to doom nearly entire child populations of certain areas to mediocrity.

“I suppose a dull, easily bamboozled populace is good for the captains of industry up to some point. But such a workforce is anything but good for business.”
What systems of exploitation in history have produce the most powerful and wealthy ruling classes? In every instance you will see a common factor: restricted education.
Such a workforce IS good for business, or why would big business be so eagerly pushing the government to allow them to import millions of uneducated foreigners?

In the UK we have traditionally had very progressive labour laws and unions and other legislation protecting the rights and well-being of the workers. This is why big business wants to have a workforce of dullards, via employment agency, so they don’t know their rights and the company has no obligations towards them.
This has already happened, I have seen it first hand.

The ideal that the establishment is presumably striving towards is dividing the population in two, the educatable and the non-
They will educate as many people as possible, because, yes, technical skills and other expertise is profitable, but the rest of the population would most preferably be dumb robots.

jerv's avatar

@The_Idler Coming from New England, I have to say that most of the people I’ve run into in other parts of the country are rather under-educated by the standards I grew up with. Sure, not all of the people there are scholars, but at least they have enough math skills to count of correct change.

Now that I am in the Northwest, I deal with quite a few immigrants, but even those immigrants seem to have more academic intelligence (“Book smarts”) than many Americans, which implies that the education system in Mexico works better than many of the schools here in the US. Again, most of them are not rocket scientists, but they seem to be able to handle themselves in a manufacturing environment that requires knowledge of math and science better than many of my American co-workers. Oh, and they are bi-lingual too; something that cannot be said for many Americans.

I think it safe to say that there is a rise in actual anti-intellectualism here, and I honestly don’t think it’s coming from above.

The_Idler's avatar

anti-intellectualism requires support of the uneducated masses, but it is generally encouraged by the establishment, for the above reasons.

ETpro's avatar

@The_Idler I would like to believe that, but considering the level of prose in the Federalist Papers, and the fact that it was written with the intention of influencing the largest possible number of voters to vote for the new Constitution, I have to question that theory. Either Hamilton, Madison and Jay didn’t know their audience’s intellectual level (something I find almost ridiculously suspect) or their audience was capable of reading and thinking at a level that few university graduates today can match.

The_Idler's avatar

I just ran a search for “American democracy” to look at a brief history, because I wanted to check whether everyone had the vote at that point…? For example, in the UK voting was restricted to landowners or those renting property above a certain value.
This limited suffrage to those, who would have had formal education.

Whilst running that search I ran across the page about a french text “Deomcracy in America”, published in 1835–1840 after the reforms, which enfranchised all white men in the USA, and it has an interesting note:
American democracy was seen to have its potential downside: the despotism of public opinion, the tyranny of the majority, conformity for the purpose of seeking material security, the absence of intellectual freedom which he saw to degrade administration and bring statesmanship, learning, and literature to the level of the lowest. Democracy in America predicted the violence of party spirit and the judgment of the wise subordinated to the prejudices of the ignorant.

Pretty salient. This guy also predicted the issue of slavery to tear the country apart, and that Russia and the USA would become rival global superpowers…

ETpro's avatar

@The_Idler Amazing. Can you post a link?

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