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America the Illiterate

Posted on Aug 31, 2016

By Chris Hedges

  A dog-costume contest in 2008. (Tina Fineberg / AP)

Chris Hedges is on vacation and will return to writing his weekly Truthdig column on Sept. 5. While he is on break, we are republishing some of his past columns. This one originally ran on Nov. 10, 2008.

We live in two Americas. One America, now the minority, functions in a print-based, literate world. It can cope with complexity and has the intellectual tools to separate illusion from truth. The other America, which constitutes the majority, exists in a non-reality-based belief system. This America, dependent on skillfully manipulated images for information, has severed itself from the literate, print-based culture. It cannot differentiate between lies and truth. It is informed by simplistic, childish narratives and clichés. It is thrown into confusion by ambiguity, nuance and self-reflection. This divide, more than race, class or gender, more than rural or urban, believer or nonbeliever, red state or blue state, has split the country into radically distinct, unbridgeable and antagonistic entities. 

There are over 42 million American adults, 20 percent of whom hold high school diplomas, who cannot read, as well as the 50 million who read at a fourth- or fifth-grade level. Nearly a third of the nation’s population is illiterate or barely literate. And their numbers are growing by an estimated 2 million a year. But even those who are supposedly literate retreat in huge numbers into this image-based existence. A third of high school graduates, along with 42 percent of college graduates, never read a book after they finish school. Eighty percent of the families in the United States last year did not buy a book. 


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The illiterate rarely vote, and when they do vote they do so without the ability to make decisions based on textual information. American political campaigns, which have learned to speak in the comforting epistemology of images, eschew real ideas and policy for cheap slogans and reassuring personal narratives. Political propaganda now masquerades as ideology. Political campaigns have become an experience. They do not require cognitive or self-critical skills. They are designed to ignite pseudo-religious feelings of euphoria, empowerment and collective salvation. Campaigns that succeed are carefully constructed psychological instruments that manipulate fickle public moods, emotions and impulses, many of which are subliminal. They create a public ecstasy that annuls individuality and fosters a state of mindlessness. They thrust us into an eternal present. They cater to a nation that now lives in a state of permanent amnesia. It is style and story, not content or history or reality, which inform our politics and our lives. We prefer happy illusions. And it works because so much of the American electorate, including those who should know better, blindly cast ballots for slogans, smiles, the cheerful family tableaux, narratives and the perceived sincerity and the attractiveness of candidates. We confuse how we feel with knowledge. 

The illiterate and semi-literate, once the campaigns are over, remain powerless.  They still cannot protect their children from dysfunctional public schools. They still cannot understand predatory loan deals, the intricacies of mortgage papers, credit card agreements and equity lines of credit that drive them into foreclosures and bankruptcies. They still struggle with the most basic chores of daily life from reading instructions on medicine bottles to filling out bank forms, car loan documents and unemployment benefit and insurance papers. They watch helplessly and without comprehension as hundreds of thousands of jobs are shed. They are hostages to brands. Brands come with images and slogans. Images and slogans are all they understand. Many eat at fast food restaurants not only because it is cheap but because they can order from pictures rather than menus. And those who serve them, also semi-literate or illiterate, punch in orders on cash registers whose keys are marked with symbols and pictures. This is our brave new world.

Political leaders in our post-literate society no longer need to be competent, sincere or honest. They only need to appear to have these qualities. Most of all they need a story, a narrative. The reality of the narrative is irrelevant. It can be completely at odds with the facts. The consistency and emotional appeal of the story are paramount. The most essential skill in political theater and the consumer culture is artifice. Those who are best at artifice succeed. Those who have not mastered the art of artifice fail. In an age of images and entertainment, in an age of instant emotional gratification, we do not seek or want honesty. We ask to be indulged and entertained by clichés, stereotypes and mythic narratives that tell us we can be whomever we want to be, that we live in the greatest country on Earth, that we are endowed with superior moral and physical qualities and that our glorious future is preordained, either because of our attributes as Americans or because we are blessed by God or both. 

The ability to magnify these simple and childish lies, to repeat them and have surrogates repeat them in endless loops of news cycles, gives these lies the aura of an uncontested truth. We are repeatedly fed words or phrases like yes we can, maverick, change, pro-life, hope  or war on terror. It feels good not to think. All we have to do is visualize what we want, believe in ourselves and summon those hidden inner resources, whether divine or national, that make the world conform to our desires. Reality is never an impediment to our advancement.


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Virginia777's avatar

By Virginia777, November 10, 2008 at 5:34 pm Link to this comment

Talk about simplistic phrases, how about this one here “They still cannot protect their children from dysfunctional public schools”?

It is not only false, it is harmful and racist to call our public schools “dysfunctional”.

Idiotic thinking like this is what sends parents scurrying for elite private institutions.

And then watch how quickly they stop voting for school funding - not to mention, how much more deeply our society becomes segregated.

Public education is our hope for the future. It is where children learn tolerance and color blindness - lessons as important as any other.

Lets have some support here for our public schools, that are already under serious attack by the Right.


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By mill, November 10, 2008 at 5:33 pm Link to this comment

Kdelphi sought examples of how more might live better than ever - don’t have much besides my optimism to respond with ... but consider

the agricultural productivity revolution in the last 50 years has made a huge change in the quality of peoples’ lives ....  there is more high quality food available to more people around the globe as a result - I hope and expect that we will continue to learn more about managing and producing food so more people can eat well enough to thrive - there used to be a food shortage globally - now we have a food distribution problem, not a shortage problem

the energy revolution is already underway .... US manufacturers (those who are left) are much more energy efficient than they were before the 1970’s gas lines when OPEC first flexed it’s market-control muscles ... Europeans and the Japanese have done even better in energy conservation in commerce

and i expect even more amazing progress on efficient energy use as it grows into the national high-priority it should have been (curse Cheney for his “conservation as personal virtue” vapid remark early in the Bush Admin tenure) - we can live still better and use less energy in doing so- no examples to offer here, only optimism

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By Outraged, November 10, 2008 at 5:24 pm Link to this comment

Article excerpt: “Political campaigns have become an experience. They do not require cognitive or self-critical skills. They are designed to ignite pseudo-religious feelings of euphoria, empowerment and collective salvation. Campaigns that succeed are carefully constructed psychological instruments that manipulate fickle public moods, emotions and impulses, many of which are subliminal. They create a public ecstasy that annuls individuality and fosters a state of mindlessness.

What an understatement.  How many times throughout this campaign have you come to the determination that it’s all just bullshit?  Petty this, and petty that, yet none of the major issues addressed in any qualitative manner.  Then we have the pundits…. you know, the ones who tell you what you thought about that generic comment.  Complete BS.

I think candidates should be required to use public funding and in addition each should be allotted the same amount of air-time to utilize as they see fit.  We OWN the airwaves after all and if the networks don’t comply…. pull their license.  This would stop at least a measure of the pageantry.

Aside from that, the price paid by those who haphazardly pay attention, then decide, then vote is bizarre.  Many seriously determine that petty matters and issues are inconsequential.  It would be difficult to maintain that it is “all their fault”.  Much of the campaign is a masterful illusion.  Should we be qualifying the lies and blaming the victims?  To me the argument is without merit.

If I posit an argument knowing it is false with the intent to deceive to an unwitting party, is it their fault?  In America we blame.  Would these same Americans blame other cultures for their ignorance if the same situations were in place.  We assume everyone has access to the same information or that they are taught the same “truths”.  But they are not…. in fact, more often truth is purposefully denied and as Hedges asserts, campaigns “are carefully constructed psychological instruments that manipulate fickle public moods, emotions and impulses, many of which are subliminal.”

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By Zeya, November 10, 2008 at 5:19 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Another title for your article could be “America, the Advertising Addict”  because for past last eight years, our country has been run by corporations masquerading as elected officials. All have convinced us consume, consume, and consume. And when we lacked the cash, we were conned into using credit cards. This mindless over-consumption has led our country to the brink of economic collapse. Let’s hope that since we’ve finally elected a bona fide human being to be our next President, corporations will cease to control our country.

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By mill, November 10, 2008 at 4:56 pm Link to this comment

Elwood suggested that the internet has much garbage information available to users.

Agreed.  But I represent that was true as well of printed materials - the 4th estate, for example, was more obviously biased in their coverage than they are now ... and would print some pretty egregious lies about public figures.

Critical thinking skills are critical to surfing the net, reading text, or any other intellectual endeavor where interpretation ranges beyond cofirmable facts.

SO ... I’m still an optimist.  More people can read in the US (as a percentage of population) than in the 20th Century.  And the reach of those who are literate has been greatly extended, not undermined, by information available through internet sources.

and about cash registers - why are pictures worse than words to get what you order?  We’ve been doing that on public restrooms for some time,  and most get into the correct facility, no?

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By Rosemary Molloy, November 10, 2008 at 4:46 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I suppose it’s no longer fashionable to blame televison for the drop in literacy, but I believe it’s as guilty as anything else.  It’s EVERYWHERE—in the supermarket, in doctor’s offices, in lounges and lobbies and waiting rooms, and it’s making us stupid.  I’m old enough to remember when there was much concern and discussion about the harm television does to children’s minds.  There were debates on what time limits were appropriate—an hour a day for older kids, maybe, and less than that for the younger ones.  I never hear that anymore—guess those concerned have slunk away.  And now, on top of what used to be called “the boob tube,” we have computers and iPods and phones that take pictures, and all kinds of other crap.  I don’t think there’s really any hope for those not born into an upper middle class family.  If only the ones who struggle most could understand that they have the means to get out of poverty in front of their eyes.

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By Ken, November 10, 2008 at 4:44 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Reader’s comment was critical of stats possibly sourced to “the owner of a small publishing firm.” For readers’ consideration, here is that site (which is current to 2008, not 2003) and its book industry statistics (whose sources are further referenced).

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By Stephen Smoliar, November 10, 2008 at 4:43 pm Link to this comment

Donovan, if the nit you are picking refers to the title, it may interest you that the title of the patriotic anthem is “America the Beautiful” (without any punctuation).  I assume the title was chosen to parallel the anthem to connote a jaundiced view of patriotism.  I also have no idea whether Hedges had to argue with an editor over how he wrote his title!

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By troublesum, November 10, 2008 at 4:42 pm Link to this comment

No one has mentioned music.  The love of rock, blues, and popular music betrays shallow emotions and we are emersed in a continuous stream of it.  There are people in their 60’s who have never outgrown rock music which I call hormonal music.  There is something wrong with a country of 50 and 60 year old teenagers.  They don’t know Bach from Beethoven or Mozart from Wagner and don’t want to.
We are emersed in shallow emotions and our music proves it.

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By NHFinn, November 10, 2008 at 4:42 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Mr. Hedges is, sadly, quite correct.  All too many Americans of all ages do not read, do not read well, do not read often and often do not read diverse, quality publications, articles, books, online essays, etc. 

I’ve taught and worked with many young people, including kids from the lowest to the highest walks of life.  Being an Ivy Leaguer does not mean one reads well or diverse writings, but they are far more likely too come from a home that does and are exposed to far more during their education.

Too many teachers at some high schools don’t have regular reading assignments, relying upon lecture, note taking, discussion and tests.  I was shocked in one school, as woodworking teacher, to hear of a state education workshop “Incorporating Reading Into the Classroom”. I assumed all teachers had regular reading assignments, as I did. 

In some cases, like my mom, though she only had a middle school education, she was extremely literate, well spoken and an excellent writer. We always had books and magazines and newspapers around the house at all times.  The library smiled when they saw me coming for another 10-12 books at an early age. 

Besides being able to read, one must also be interested in reading and be willing to explore diverse sources, gleaning what they can from it.  Being curious, being skeptical….learning how to learn.  Too many don’t seem to have critical thinking skills, which go back to reading and writing and listening and speaking.

When one only watches Fox News or listens only to Rush or reads only one newspaper (or pseudo newspapers) they ultimately have a hard time understanding issues and alternatives and being open to other ideas.  No one person or qroup has a market on facts or ideas.

Our local librarian (now gone) was only buying conservative and religious books for awhile and ignored all the top books from the various bestseller lists.  Thank goodness the new one understands what libraries are supposed to be.

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By Stephen Smoliar, November 10, 2008 at 4:36 pm Link to this comment

KDelphi, I am always fascinated by a word in one language that does not easily translated into another language.  On the case of your little paragraph, it sounds to be as if HYGGE is a way to characterize conditions conducive to conversation.  George Herbert Mead believe that both the mind and the sense of self are cultivated significantly (if not primarily) through conversation;  and he regarded “thinking” as the self conversing with itself (which is one way to approach the act of reading).  Is this consistent with your understanding of the word as a native speaker?

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By Jack Stevenson, November 10, 2008 at 4:03 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Dear Mr. Hedges:

“. . .42 percent of college graduates never read a book after they finish school.”
“Eighty percent of the families in the United States last year did not buy a book.”
  It would be helpful if you were to cite references for these statistical data.

“. . .the awful reality that awaits us.”?
  This sounds a bit like the utterances of the fundamentalists that you criticize. 

  Thank you.

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By nikto, November 10, 2008 at 3:52 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

There’s a lot of truth in this article.

But I think what Hedges is referring to is more akin to SOPHISTICATION than “LITERACY”.

Plenty of Americans who can read just fine, CHOOSE ignorance, in spite of many a teacher’s efforts
to the contrary.
also met folks who may not read much, but they generally know what’s going on in their society, and don’t fall for the misconceptions.

Ignorance is easier than awareness, and less-cool, too, for many people.

And America’s myths are like numbing drugs that keep many people comfortably ignorant.

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By KDelphi, November 10, 2008 at 3:51 pm Link to this comment

I firmly believe that this is what is missing from US culture:

This is a word you will hear again and again here in Denmark: “hygge”. Different people might have different interpretations. Hygge can be just getting together with friends sharing a meal and maybe a bottle of wine, or it can be just sitting at home by yourself reading a book.

“Many Danes display a self-effacing modesty, to the extent that Carlsberg will only say that theirs is “probably the best beer in the world.” Yet, in their typically understated way, this little country (with a population about equal to that of Missouri) has made deeper inroads into the lives of Americans than most people think.”

Actually, I love Hamlet, and, hate The lion King.

It is pretty well established that most USAns read at a 10th grade level (it may be lower now). I loved Anarcissie’s comment that they want them to be able to “read a weapons manuel”

I agree with Folk—something is WRONG ideologically.. It is hard to put your finger on it, and it is hard for me to enunciate intelligently about it. But, it is there. I am cetrtainly not the only one who feels this.

elwood-I was “off the internet” for about 10 years.—pc was too old and i didnt have the money. I returned less than a year ago—I can assure those of you who have been on all along—it is NOT the same place. There is more censorhip, alot more SPAM, and the searches have all been googlized. They aer more standardized to fit the prevailing themes. I cant really give an example.FactCheck is often not factual!

Sam—I think USAns confuse “happiness” (and the pursuit of money) with peace, serenity, security and trust. “Happiness” is not a constant. And i am not even sure it is “achievable” on any level that can be maeaseured. The danes area said to be the “happiest people on earth”—but they will say that they compalain alot.or that it is not true. Or they will say “maybe. I dont now”.

Notice that I did not say that I dont think that people can be happy and content.

I guess I am trying to convey and lack of hubris and expectations of contentment adn a life well lived as substitutes for this “pursuit of happiness”

mill—I would truly like to hear some examples of how you think “more wil live better than ever!”. With dwindling resources, more globalization (Scandanavia in now practicing de-globalization”—but most uSAns remain convinced that it cant be done—bs)and global climate change—we are in for a rough road, no matter what we do.

As for people just “teaching others to read”—that woudl seem to be a pretty hit and miss operataon!~ Cant we just have publicly funded schools (at federal standards) that teach people?! Everyone else does.Everyone says “well its up to the parents”. Maybe, but a kid does not pick his parents. We do this “
health care for all children”, but ignore the fact that it wont do much good if the single parent is sick—who will take care of the chid or take them to the dr?“No child left behind”=—but, how wil they pass if their parents cant read? What if they dont have enough time to help? No child care? No proper nutrition?

I’ll tell you one thing i believe is wrong with out “culture” (or lack of it)(just guess)—capitalism. Even if you are a strict adherenet, I think you would have to admit that there is too much emphasis on it. Constantly marketing, buying , selling—it is not good for the psyche!It is not sustainable and , in my opinion, no fun.

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By writerman, November 10, 2008 at 3:33 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I believe Hedges is refering to the beneficial effects of reading as a process or intellectual discipline, that has merit in itself, which, once properly learnt can be used in other contexts as a useful tool.

Reading and literacy, are, I would contend, extremely important forms of exercise for the brain and the development of understanding and the ability to master the tapestry of information we are subjected to.

Words of a page are deceptively simple things. Black signs in line on a white background. In the english language there are only 27 letters, yet they can be made to represent so many sounds and words, interesting. Then there’s punctuation. Even simpler signs, yet very complex and bursting with information. It’s amazing how many different words and how much meaning can be created using such ‘primative’ signs and technology. It’s almost a kind of paradox, so much from so little.

There is an incredible and valuable interface created between the writer and the reader, two minds meeting and interacting. I believe this stimulates our imaginations and individual intellectual development almost beyond measure, and this is important and valuable.

I think, on a basic, yet profound level, that reading and words make us think better.

The very process of reading and understanding the written word, because of its limited and, at the same time, unlimited nature, forces us to engage with the process and develope very useful habits and abilities.

I think the post-litterate society is closely connected with the post-democratic society we are entering so rapidly. Icons are replacing concepts and words. We are seriously losing a lot and stunting our mental development. We are being entertained to death.

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By David, November 10, 2008 at 3:12 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I think the article’s observations are accurate, but I think there is a little missing in the historical context.  It appears that our culture tells us we are the best, the brightest, and the most civilized population (in the so-called developed world) that has ever lived.  In reality, much has not changed.  Two thousand years ago the rulers controlled the people by providing, as they said, “Bread and circuses” meaning food and entertainment such as gladiator fights.

So, that has not changed a lot.  However, I think we have actually improved a bit compared to 2,000 years ago… just a bit.  But that is not so bad, is it?  It all looks bad only if comparing today’s reality with the dream of a truly educated, wise, decision-capable population.  We are not there - not yet.

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By samosamo, November 10, 2008 at 2:50 pm Link to this comment

Excuse my memory as it just may be part and parcel of that time in history when there were no labels on liquor bottles, beer bottles, wine bottles and cigarette packs warning of the danger of harm to a fetus during gestation. But, all through this post I keep sensing but have not actually seen reference to our Declaration of Independence’s proclaimation of a persons’s ‘pursuit of happiness’ which I believe is major part of this post’s theme. It is nothing that is guaranteed, just a part of life one should be able to have when conditions allow. But as with a driver’s license which was an earned priviledge but somehow became a ‘right’, the people in their utter ignorance have latched on to this little phrase in the Declaration of Independence to make it a part of the Bill of Rights. Hedges, you do a good job of bringing out what is not desirable in a country’s population and that means here in the USA.
Keep em thrilled, happy and dopey and they will surely not want to see, hear, talk or care about reality and thus will follow as lemmings to the sea. Here is the rub as people have also been conditioned here to expect and be given the right to pursue happiness to the utmost but to the neglect of a system they live with and in as that takes a back seat to the happiness in their pursuit. And boy howdy have the puppet masters ever played this for what it is worth. I doubt now that a major portion of people will be able to detect the loss of their trumped up world until it is too late and then then will look for a tv to turn on to find and answer out of their plight. Maybe their elected representative or senators or even their favorite athlete or rock star or nasqcar driver will give them a helping hand.
By the way, that deal of a driver’s license becoming a right instead of a priviledge surely has the support of the financial system gone terminal because of all that money to be made from the loans.

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By Stephen Smoliar, November 10, 2008 at 2:27 pm Link to this comment

Bea, I hope you appreciate the irony of your asking why Neil Postman’s book has not been cited in a discussion about illiteracy!  I, for one, think that our addiction to the Internet makes his book more relevant than ever.  This is particularly important when you consider what some of those addicts are saying about the best strategy for economic recovery:

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By OldManCA, November 10, 2008 at 2:27 pm Link to this comment

I attended California schools in the heyday—the 1960s.  My children have been through (and almost through) the California school system in the ‘90s and ‘00s. Schools vary greatly, for the most part ours (in an affluent suburb) have very good teachers; the physical facilities—outside of the over-emphasized sports facilities—are in sad shape. 

The main problem in California schools is concentrated in the less well-to-do school districts.  There the teachers tend not to be as good, the facilities are worse, and the parents are not as active in their children’s education (for a multitude of reasons.)

In our household, my kids (now 17 & 22) are avid readers, and serious book purchasers.  A common outing for the two of them—head to Borders to read and purchase books.  Each can read far faster than I can (attending law school reduced my pleasure reading speed). 

I think the key to raising children who like to read (and think) is the parents.  As long as the parents are able to read and able to make time to read with their children from ages 0 to 7 or 8, the children are likely to love reading. 

Active parents can minimize the damage caused by weak schools.  In too many schools the desire for pseudo-military discipline takes the fun out of learning. The “No Child Left Behind” test, test, test mentality is doing harm in schools.  Days wasted.  Teaching to the test.  Extra pressure, less learning enjoyment. 

I do worry for the upcoming generations if reading is not an activity that they willingly do, for fun, and continuous education.

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By Stephen Smoliar, November 10, 2008 at 2:11 pm Link to this comment

SusanSunflower, unless I am mistaken, Disney still offers a course in providing service as a corporate training offering.

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By elwood p.dowd, November 10, 2008 at 2:10 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Mill disagrees with Hedges, claiming that it’s not valid to measure literacy in the age of the internet by how many books are being sold. And I say that perceiving the web as a source of valid information or as intellectual enlightenment is like comparing a Dicken’s novel to an episode of Spongebob. Much of what young people find on the internet is worthless garbage- it’s either glorified spam or misinformation. Hedges is unfortunately,correct.

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By hippy pam, November 10, 2008 at 2:06 pm Link to this comment

TRUE STORY…I went to McDonalds last week for a burger and fries….The person taking my order had to PUSH BUTTONS with PICTURES on them….And they could not figure my change… most of our kids speak gangsta…YO..YO..YO..But NOT ENGLISH….

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By Bea Moreira, November 10, 2008 at 1:58 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This is EXTREMELY similar to Neil Postman’s “Amusing ourselves to death”. I wonder why nobody mentioned him yet…

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By troublesum, November 10, 2008 at 1:50 pm Link to this comment

S Smoliar
Of course they wouldn’t have had any need to get rid of Socrates had he been an obscure figure.

Someone said that the people who went to Shakespeare’s plays weren’t literate.  They were after they went to them.  I don’t know who David Kelly is but I have an idea there were many David Kelly’s in Shakespeare’s day.

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By Shenonymous, November 10, 2008 at 1:48 pm Link to this comment

Forgive a small diversion and FYI:
Stephen Smolliar:  The cradle of civilization was Greece.  Challenge away with any other culture if you will.  There is none in comparison.  Just a clip from ancient Greece and see how many and what type of the inhabitants attended to watch the fate of Oedipus, once again…but as an aside:  Socrates usually worked with small groups and sometimes one-on-one.  The largest one being at the Symposium at Agathon’s Big Blockbuster Dinner Party, oh by the way after a huge theatre presentation of Agathon’s tragedy.  Oh and in contrast, Aristophenes got to put on one of his comedies as well. 

But back to the theater.  You are a spectator at the festival.  You are so excited because Agathon’s first play is finally beginning. Your eyes travel around the theater of Dionysus, you see an amazing spectacle.  On the stage, a single actor begins.  It is called a prologue, and the chorus is about to appear and dance in the orchestra.  In the theatron, or seating area, 17,000 or so people (not too shabby for the small population in comparison to modern day megalopolises) mostly Athenian male citizens, but also including some women, metics (resident non-citizens), foreigners, and even slaves, are watching. Sitting in special seats in the front are the priest of Dionysus, and the 10 judges who have been selected.  As you gaze behind you over your shoulder, the acropolis and the Parthenon loom over you. What a great polis - now if only Agathon’s doesn’t do too well! Your playwright friend might have a chance.  No such luck, this time though.  He outdid himself with this group of plays. Who would have thought he would really have Athena turn Arachne into a spider at the end of the play? Oh my Zeus! What jealousy!  The audience seems shocked and thrilled at the same time. Some spectators do boo at the ending, though, so maybe your friend still has a chance. The other three plays of Agathon go better, though, and you are feeling a bit sick. You decide to skip the Aristophanes comedy in the afternoon, and go home to worry and try to sleep. The big day is tomorrow.

Ancient plays were publicly funded, but in a peculiar way. The wealthiest families in Athens were subject to “liturgies”, or special taxes, to fund major public expenses, including supporting a trireme (warship) for a year, and funding a play. The wealthy usually accepted this burden willingly as a public service, and also because it allowed them to win and maintain popularity if they carried out their duties with distinction. You prayed to Dionysus and Athena that you get a good patron, or choregos, who will not be stingy with the finances. It costs money to pay three skilled professional actors, to train the chorus, to get good costumes, and to create effective scenery. Ever since Aeschylus, Athenians have been used to more and more elaborate scenery and special effects, and you know it will be tough to win without them. Again, you wait awhile…and learn you have been favored by the gods: your choregos (a sort of producer) is Androgenes, known for his generous support. The poet he funded ten years ago put on a great set of plays, and won first prize!

And now back to Hedges and Darwinian logic.

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By Russian Paul, November 10, 2008 at 1:39 pm Link to this comment

OldManCa - I think the figures that Hedges uses in this article are actually rather generous…I’m freshly out of the California public school system and I remember very few kids who were able to read at an average level. Now in my adult life, the only regular reader I know was home-schooled.

I help children with their homework as part of an after-school program. Only two or three kids out of twenty are capable of spelling at their grade level. Many of my 5th grade students have no idea how to subtract or add. These kids are from well-to-do neighborhoods, where schools tend to have better funding. The problem is schools always spend the little money they get on new gymnasiums, bigger swimming pools and big screen TVs.

What’s really embarrassing is when the parents come to pick their kids up and join in on a game of scrabble…and they sit there, grasping for a three letter word, but it’s just out of their reach…

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By SusanSunflower, November 10, 2008 at 1:16 pm Link to this comment

The United States of America has the most docile almost narcotized labor force in the world as far as I can tell ... Between inadequate and lackluster k-12 education, the “necessity” of maintaining employment to avoid credit ruin, loss of health care, housing, and a thousand other faux “necessitities” ... with a quite real dash of concern about a McCarthy-like threat of black lists and unemployability ... and the bosses unceasing demands for labor concessions and greater productivity… all this work-work-work so you can spend-spend-spend.

About 14 years ago when I worked in hospital administration, new OSHA hazardous material regulations required that all employees using such materials pass written tests ... this led to the suprised that we had about 30 functionally and totally illiterate workers, several VERY long term employees, even a couple of line supervisors (who apparently used an “assistant” or “clerk” to both handle correspondence and help in the charade). Many had to be retired, it being no longer possible to accomodate them.

A year or two later, this same hospital began offering ESL classes before and after usual shifts, 1 hour 2 or 3 times a week. The same administration was astonished and gratified to find the classes filled almost immediately by mostly our large Hispanic work force (who particularly wanted reading and writing skills as well as greater fluency). The was, of course, concern that these workers might get BETTER jobs if their English improved too much.

Around that same time, Mike Hammer and Reengineering the Corporation was all rage among the beancounter in the administration—Finance, Human Resources, Legal the non-patient segment—and, ultimately, appeared to be winning when I left ... the idea was to reduce all jobs down to flow charts, if this, then that, THE DISNEY HOSPITALITY MODEL was considered in the same vein. No spontaneity, just “customer service” by script.

There are people being educated and groomed, but they are generally the children to the educated and groomed ... no NATIONAL high school graduation rate is relevant ... in many cities it’s abysmal and the way of counting is only NOW just beeing standardized ... some places counted “high school graduation rate” as the number of JUNIORS graduating and receiving a diploma the following year ... as opposed to the number of FRESHMEN actually accomplishing such a feat.

Even when I was in Middle School, kids were getting knocked up and dropping out ... as I understand it, they would not be counted.

Some cultures, like the Gypsys, traditionally disapproved of education as it upset the traditional lines of power, much as women are kept uneducated to keep them in their place. Nothing new under the sun. In a country with as many creationist fundamentalists as we have, who’s surprised? Dismal.

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By Donovan, November 10, 2008 at 1:15 pm Link to this comment
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Funny how TruthDig is doing this article on illteracy when they can’t even use a comma.

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By Russian Paul, November 10, 2008 at 1:12 pm Link to this comment

Unfortunately, Hedges is right - This is an idiocracy, which I believe has purposely been constructed to quell dissent. Our schools have failed us. TV preoccupies, subdues, and brainwashes us. The vast majority of young adults laugh at the idea of reading a book that isn’t required by work or school. I think it is getting worse than before, and education reform is something this country really needs.

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By Stephen Smoliar, November 10, 2008 at 1:00 pm Link to this comment

troublesum, just remember that Socrates was so far out there in the forefront that the ruling class decided that the best thing to do would be to get rid of him!

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By OldManCA, November 10, 2008 at 12:56 pm Link to this comment

Sources for some of the facts asserted in the piece would be nice.  I find the statement:

“A third of high school graduates, along with 42 percent of college graduates, never read a book after they finish school. Eighty percent of the families in the United States last year did not buy a book. “

to be particularly troubling.  Is there backup for this claim, or is this an oft repeated urban legend? If the statement is correct, I am truly sad for our nation, world and species.

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By Simon, November 10, 2008 at 12:52 pm Link to this comment

Strong, well argued Chris, but suggest you misse the role of the FCC’s 1987 abolition of the Fairness Doctrine in creating political illiteracy, by opening the airwaves to the unchallenged windbags and demagogues that we live with today. With no obligation to present alternate views, the media enshrined dimensionless analysis.

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By Northerner, November 10, 2008 at 12:49 pm Link to this comment
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While I don’t disagree with the basic premises of the article, there are a few red flags that undercut the author’s credibility. We’re informed that 80% of American families didn’t buy a book ‘last year’, that 1/3 of high school graduates and 42% of college graduates never read another book after graduation.

These numbers are neither referenced nor particularly believable. For example, a higher percentage (42% vs 33%) of college graduates than high school graduates stop reading books after graduation?

Looking around, these exact statistics appear in footnotes to Wikipedia (Literacy in the United States), referenced from a web page ( with a copyright date of 2003, which in turn cites the owner of a small publishing firm. Rigorous, indeed.

Blindly using Wikipedia as a source of quantitative information kind of undercuts the punch of an article pointing out the “dumbing down” of America. Even the dog seems a bit embarrassed…

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By thebeerdoctor, November 10, 2008 at 12:38 pm Link to this comment

nrobi’s comments gets close to describing the elitist idiocy of Hedges’ rant. Does he actually believe that the people who attended Shakespeare’s plays were literate? Sorry Chris, but even the great bard Bill was in the entertainment business. If he were alive today, he most likely would be a rival of David Kelly. To claim the written tradition is all important is to deny the oral tradition’s importance.
Also, Hedges has got the gall to say that fast food is cheap. That is false. But hey, he is the Superior Man, if you do not know that, just ask him.

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By mill, November 10, 2008 at 12:14 pm Link to this comment

Mr. Hedges takes a very dark view of the American version of the human condition.

In 1960, about 1/3 of US adults had achieved a high school diploma

Now it’s more than 2/3 of adults, collapsing across ethnic subgroups.

I don’t believe for one second that literacy is lower now in the US than it was back then.

Measuring literacy by books bought in the internet age is rather like measuring transportation capacity by counting buggy-whips in the age of the automobile.

The country just elected the better qualified candidate for president of the united states imho - certainly the more literate of the two, indiputably. how did all of us ignorant among the great unwashed accomplish such a thing?

Mr. Hedges writes about important issues, but I’m definitely the optimist relative to him -  i think more people will live better than ever before, and that such progress will accelerate with a President Obama as national leader.

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By Stephen Smoliar, November 10, 2008 at 12:06 pm Link to this comment

FENWICK, you have tapped into what, starting about ten years ago, the snake oil purveyors were pushing as “the knowledge economy.”  The standard mantra was:  “Knowledge is power.”  Needless to say, an organization concerned more about who dominates than with who knows what runs into trouble, the prime example being the excuse that we blew it on 9/11 because none of our many intelligence organizations could “connect the dots.”  These days the snake oil seems to have focused on Google providing “all the world’s knowledge,” an equally misguided prospect, which is why I, for one, am VERY afraid about the CEO of Google giving our President-elect economic advice!

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By Leefeller, November 10, 2008 at 12:00 pm Link to this comment

If I was running for political office, I would try to give my speeches at the second grade level, I just could not bring myself to the preschool level like Palin and Bush.

Hedges does promote a cornucopia of food for thoughts.

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By troublesum, November 10, 2008 at 11:56 am Link to this comment

One need only compare the salaries of teachers with those of sports figures and entertainers to see what we value most in the US.  Someone suggested that not everybody was a Socrates in ancient Greece.  True, but the point is that Socrates, Plato and his school were at the forefront of that society.  Their contribution was valued throughout society.
De Tocqueville said that where ever he went in the US, even in the then remote areas of Tennesee and Kentucky he always found at least two books in every home - the King James Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare.  We were not always an illiterate society.  What did public education have to do with creating illiteracy?  Ivan Illich used to say that no one ever learns to read in school.  Rather they learn to read when they get interested in something they want to know.

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By ZachP, November 10, 2008 at 11:47 am Link to this comment

Out of nowhere, from the Science Fiction literature class I took four years ago, the title of one of the short stories I read for it came to mind..“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”.  I wonder if it would be possible to share this article with the illiterate majority, or if we would have to break it down into pictures first?

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By Julie Nagle, November 10, 2008 at 11:45 am Link to this comment
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I did not have time to scroll through all of the comments posted.  I fault, to a large extent, our culture, if you will, our media for this sorry situation.  Ray Bradbury anticipated this intellectual decay in his modern classic “Fahrenheit 451” with the advent of television.  The computer and other technologies have taken this to new levels.  How prescient Bradbury was characterizing the protagonist’s wife Mildred going about her day with her seashell radios tucked into her ears (i-pods anyone), with the wall-sized television screens, etc. 

I do not specifically blame public education, and i am a public school teacher.  I blame our culture that values soundbites and images more highly than literacy.  I condemn television shows like Sesame Street of which our babies are fed a steady diet.  We bombard our youth with images and soundbites from birth, confuse image processing with thinking.  The faster the images appear, the faster our brains must work and the less processing is available to be applied to thinking.  The fire captain, Beatty,  carefully explains this to the protagonist in Fahrenheit 451. 

Our students don’t learn to savor, to mull over language, to consider alternate outcomes and viewpoints, to question, to relate, etc.  They have no time nor the opportunity in our culture. 

If parents would TALK to their children, listen to their children, read to their children for 30 minutes per day, what a difference we would see. 

The attraction of the popular culture, and the sheer quantity of time spent within that culture in contrast to the number of hours spent in school, not to mention the failure of the older generation to model reading/discussing/thinking contributes a good 80% to this problem that our public schools cannot beat alone. This is bigger than Obama, this is our culture.  We must take the responsibility to change it.

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By WriterOnTheStorm, November 10, 2008 at 11:43 am Link to this comment

Lurking beneath Hedges’ rhetoric is the assumption that magnificent truths exists, which, once prised out of the muck of falsehoods, diversions, pseudo-science, and idolatry, will right society’s ship once and for All. It’s a misguided and, in the hands of some, a dangerous kind of idealism. It has throughout history, lead to the zealotry behind much of the crime men have visited upon humanity.

And so it goes. The search for truth, and struggle to impose it on our fellow travelers is probably chiseled into our DNA. It’s not about wether the data transfer happens visually or verbally. Many an idealistic young intellectual has wound up slapping his old school mates into death camps once they got their hands on the handle of meat grinder they had hitherto forsworn.

Looking for simple answers to complicated questions—this is where the trouble starts. Simplify the question. Here’s a hint: it starts with you.

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By okcsteve11, November 10, 2008 at 11:40 am Link to this comment

Schopenhauer was no doubt sexist…kind of like Hedges is Bible-beltphobic.  We’re not all bad here, and change will never occur unless we get some help here in places like Oklahoma.  This is NOT a knock on Hedges, he does fine work.

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By Leefeller, November 10, 2008 at 11:33 am Link to this comment


Nice to see your posts. How do you remember something from 50 years ago?  Hedges, from what I understand is quite the Christian, so his writing usually has undertones from the 3000 year old goat herders manual. Except his interpretations of “goat hearderese” are the correct ones. (could not help my self, since Hedges enjoys and keeps up with soundbites media).

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By Still Life Living, November 10, 2008 at 11:29 am Link to this comment

In 1982, I attended a briefing for BYU college interns at the Old Executive Office Building in DC.  We were briefed by a fairly high official from the Reagan White House (I am not sure, but I think it was Richard Beal). 

My takeaway from that meeting was that the Reagan White House was fully aware of the split you are talking about.  The speaker said that it is not a question of the “haves” vs. “have nots”, rather it was between the “cans” and “cannots”. The discussion turned to the likely impacts on literacy, poverty, and the ability to adapt to technology. He further stated that this was probably the biggest threat to our country.

Obviously this belief was buried for strategic political ends.

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By David Gibson, November 10, 2008 at 10:34 am Link to this comment
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Mr. Hedges’ essay is a restatement of Neil Postman’s observations found in his book from 1985 “Amusing Ourselves to Death”.  Ironic that Hedges didn’t mention that we’d get a much fuller treatment of this topic if we read the book.  Perhaps Hedges knows his audience’s attention span is only two electronic pages worth.

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By Folktruther, November 10, 2008 at 10:29 am Link to this comment

This is the argument that Al Gore makes in his not totally bad book THE ASSAULT ON REASON.  I don’t know how much truth there is in it.  After all, most people have been illiterate for almost all of history. 

And the mainstream truth of polities, like the money and the violence, has been used to oppress.  Among he first Egyptian writing that survived involved collecting taxes.  And there is an amusing schoolgirl lament about schoolwork that has survived from around the -20th century.

What is no doubt true is that the vividness of TV instills what Michael Parenti has called a Make Believe truth.  It makes one beleive what may not be true.  But is this the reason that nearly half the voters voted for McCain after eight years of Bush?  Something else seesm involved, but I can’t say exactly what.

The ideological backwardness of Americans contrasts sharply with our techinical expertise.  American workers know a lot about things I don’t happen to be interested in, and their mastary of historical sports statistics and episodes in phenomenal.  But Leefeller is right, the power structure wants the population to be ignorant about power relations.

Something is the matter ideologically, and TV and lack of literacy is only part of the historical problem.  But I haven’t been able to state in a simple way what exactly it is. What is no doubt the case is Steve Biko’s comment before he was murdered.

  “The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”

And the ruling class knows how to oppress better than we know how to resist oppression.

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By Spiritgirl, November 10, 2008 at 10:23 am Link to this comment

Mr Hedges very insightful commentary although as you yourself have pointed out this phenomenon is not new.  While this partly explains the rise of a Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, “FOX/faux news”, etc., you really don’t have any suggestions for how we as a society must tackle this unconsciousness.  For the last 30 years there has been a collective pro-active stance at not just dividing the American populace, but to keep them sheeple!  All the while the corporate and the elite are fleecing the people!  A perfect example was “Joe the plumber” and the commercial where everyone was saying they are Joe the plumber.  I really don’t think people understood, that in real life “Joe” worked for a salary of approximately $45,000.00 p/yr, not only is that before his taxes (which he owed) were supposedly paid, but unless he had other sources of income would not have qualified him to receive a “business loan” to the tune of $250,000.00 to buy the place where he worked!

This little misrepresentation was made all too clear in the end of this charade when the announcer spoke of “spreading the wealth” around!  First off the wealth has been spreading for years, the wealthier have received tax breaks that have allowed them to be even more wealthy, the bottom 90% of Americans have been made to pay far more than at any other time since the gilded age before the Depression!  Americans have bought into the 30 second attention span trap at our own peril!  While I don’t have any suggestions, whatever we do needs to happen quickly, President-elect Obama only has 4-8 years in office, and time passes quite fast when there are soooo many illiterate heads to fill and time is passing quickly!  In the meantime, I would like to mandate an IQ test for future contenders to the Presidential Office - you must be smarter than a tsetse fly and you must not have ever worked in Hollywood doing anything other than going to school!!

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By Leefeller, November 10, 2008 at 10:21 am Link to this comment


Wasn’t he a sexist? Great posts, reason survives Hedges two Americas, divisive as it needs to be.

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By 2MEXdeAZ, November 10, 2008 at 10:21 am Link to this comment
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Hedge’s article leaves any thoughtful reader in limbo. Its basic presumption is that, somehow, from the more educated group of “print” readers, another world of not-so-educated non-print readers has emerged.

What nonsense. All anyone needs to refute this is to stand at any supermarket counter. The plethora of 5th grade level publications is enough to make me sick.

Where does this writer reside? On Mars, where there are no supermarkets?

I had credited Hedges with a better grasp of reality than he has displayed here. I hope he reflects on the ridiculous premises he has made to advance this specious essay.

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By dick, November 10, 2008 at 10:13 am Link to this comment
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We are ignorant and superstitious, and thus both fearful and prime targets for religious dogma.

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By Anarcissie, November 10, 2008 at 10:12 am Link to this comment

I believe Education in America is primarily a class filter.  I doubt if the ruling class wants its little workers to become illiterate; they will then be unable to read their weapons manuals.  Perceived increasing nonliteracy (not illiteracy, many who can read, don’t) may be a sort of rerun of McLuhanesque ideas.  Remember them?  Everyone was going to watch television instead of read books, and grope tubers in the markets instead of reading the boxes.

What I perceive is more people reading and writing than ever in media like this.

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By wordlover, November 10, 2008 at 10:05 am Link to this comment
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I don’t know why some of you are attacking Chris Hedges for merely speaking the truth. Being educated and literate doesn’t make one better, it makes one’s life better, because it is richer and filled with subtlety and nuance, the way that one’s life is richer, or better, for having heard Beethoven’s ninth symphony, or viewed a painting by Cezanne. If I can speak for Mr. Hedges here, I believe he takes very seriously the right of all people, everywhere, to be similarly transported by the power of words. Ultimately, none of us are here for very long; but proximately, how we spend those years makes a very great difference. To us.

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By nestoffour, November 10, 2008 at 9:43 am Link to this comment

great essay.  thank you.

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By okcsteve11, November 10, 2008 at 9:20 am Link to this comment

This reads like Schopenhauer was brought back to life to tackle the ignorant masses of the 21st century. Good stuff!

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By Celia, November 10, 2008 at 9:19 am Link to this comment
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When even this happens:

By G.Anderson, November 10 at 7:59 am #

“I’m not sure that illiterate is the right word for this. Because even those who have degrees are sometimes illiterate. How precious can a credential be, when the average University grade in this country is an A?

“Our University’s…”

I assume this person has a degree from the days before the universal 4.0, but can’t s/he do a plural noun?  I know they taught this in high school in the 1980s, when *I* was a student.

Because people are reading less and less, they are unable to speak and write in coherent sentences.  They speak in sound bites (using “like” and “I’m all”), and they write in simple sentences that don’t overwhelm the listener’s puny comprehension skills.

O tempora!

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By LibertyWatch, November 10, 2008 at 9:11 am Link to this comment

“Whoever controls the images controls the mind.” Timothy Leary. . . I had the privilege to attend one of Dr Leary’s last presentation. It was a “multimedia production” with Leary addressing the audience and relaying his thoughts and wisdom. A man who put “the pursuit of happiness” first and although he was quite controversial over his LSD use he was extremely intelligent. Probably after burning out his brain cells with chemicals, he still had more “smarts” than most average folks.

We have the non-education of the mass by a direct assault on education, when the government is only concerned with teaching kids how to balance their check books, and not stimulate thought and creativity. We have a society of folks who can not read technical manuals and can not appreciate the stacks of the libraries.

I believe it is deliberate and designed to give the “elite” ruling class more control over the mass of “consumers.” Show them what you make, tell them they want it and massage their brains with sound and images until they believe they “must” have it.
don’t teach them to read the legalize “fine print” when your product begins to kill them!

It is a disgrace how our public education has decayed over the last few decades. Mostly under Republican control, less and less funding for teaching while the elite send their children to private schools and private college campus. Perhaps I’m just being negative but the whole of the American society is at fault for failing to fund our educational system. My taxes increase every year with the school board constantly demanding more but the kids keep learning less and less???

Meanwhile the glass tit continues to feed and massage their brains. . .“Whoever controls the images controls the mind!”

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By samosamo, November 10, 2008 at 9:05 am Link to this comment

This is what I have had consciously and unconsciously come to realize through the years. Somewhere in my late teens, 30+ yrs ago, I began to realize the idiotic but actual dangerous routine of being FORCED to go to church to ‘get right with god’ was a sham. Since then I have rejected the ruse of orgaized religion, an emotional control placed on people that just cannot think for themselves. The ancient religions of indigenous peoples I find to be immensely more serving to an individual than the group therapy social club businesses posing as centers of salvation.
Then after my younger years of disney land tv, comic books and cartoons that more and more became the msm’s method of depicting life, I did not have to scratch my head too much to decide that this was crap. Same for all the spector sports venues I watched thinking that what I was experiencing was of value which rolled along all year long going from football to basketball to baseball and hockey that rung more emotions from me for no real reasons, empty bullshit was all it was and still is. I rejected all that utterly also.
Just before I moved into this house in may of 2000 I had cable tv and was growing more and more frustrated with the crap of the empty tv shows and the marketing(commercials) ploys being bombarded into my mind, so much so that I did not hook up an antenna, cable or satelite to my tv. Now I read. I want to know the truth and with the use of books and my dvd player on my computer and tv, I GET TO CHOOSE WHAT I WATCH WHEN I WANT TO WATCH IT.
And the information I obtained was very revealing in that it defined what I unconsciously knew, the mind control from all directions to keep mine and everyone else’s attention away from the real events, the real attacks, the real mind control being brought on through the religious, the political, the media just to make everyone subservient to their agendas.
What has bothered me was who was behind all this and why? It was not hard to figure after reading some books that the people that control the media(at least in this country and others)and the central banking institutions are behind it all, protecting their positions in the world to prevent others from encroaching on their ‘territory’. The ‘elite’. And they have done a masterful job which basically is broken down to de-educating the people(dumbing down) and flipping shiny bright trinkets to them(image based info) that will satisfy their empty heads.
That is how I see it now. I wish it were not so but it is. But I do know this, unless the human population recognizes the idiocy of a ever expanding human population which will not keep going and come to a rational way of decreasing the number, then a correction will be very ugly and maybe will happen sooner than later.

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By G.Anderson, November 10, 2008 at 8:59 am Link to this comment

I’m not sure that illiterate is the right word for this. Because even those who have degrees are sometimes illiterate. How precious can a credential be, when the average University grade in this country is an A?

Our University’s often turn out those who are not well educated, but rather possess a kind of half educated predjudice, and cynicism.

As Thorstein Veblein pointed out a long time ago, American colleges often subsitute technical instruction in place of education. At this point do American’s really understand the difference?

We seem transfixed on that piece of paper, as a validation of our intelligence, much like the Wizard of OZ’s, gift to the Tin Man. Yet college, like everything else has become big business, and education has become quite expensive.

Overpriced, often valued more for it’s symbolic nature than, for what it confers.

That being said I have know many people who graduated from Ivy League schools that are quite stupid, a friend with a graduate degree from Harvard in Psychology, who cannot read a word, and of course there is George W. Bush.

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By Leefeller, November 10, 2008 at 8:55 am Link to this comment

Illiterate society is the goal, for one Bush and company does not want people on the streets who would question them, especially if they they are smarter then them. Dumbing down is the plan and idea, to provide fodder for their wars. They want a society of Joe the Plumbers. 

Well, I am going out to buy my new gameboy now.

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By riverhealer, November 10, 2008 at 8:38 am Link to this comment
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Reverend Hedges - I “did not buy a book” last year. Yet I am reading your sanctimonious essay - online.

Are you claiming that literate citizens are somehow immune to the lies and manipulations of our political leaders? I think not.

Wonder what percentage of the population was illiterate in 1808? Based on your numbers it will take about another hundred years until the entire population is illiterate.

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By LostInAmerica, November 10, 2008 at 8:33 am Link to this comment

The picture of the dog is funny

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By Southern Gal, November 10, 2008 at 8:30 am Link to this comment
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I would like to see the Obama presidency give time and attention to the state of education in this country. With the high rate of drop-outs, the low levels of literacy in our high school graduates, the difficulty in obtaining student loans and the rising costs of attending colleges, how do we think that we can cope with the complicated present, not to mention the future? I don’t understand how these young people who drop out or slide by with no real effort to educate themselves think that they can make it in this world. There will always be a pool of workers that are better educated and willing to work for less in this global economy and corporations happy to go outside the country for expanding and operating businesses and hiring cheap labor. Not to mention the immigrants in this country illegally who will work for next to nothing in jobs that require lower levels of skills. The Obama adminstration should shine a spotlight on educational issues and work with states to think outside the box on ways to address our problems, including getting back to basics such as reading, writing, math, science, computer and media literacy and health.

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By nrobi, November 10, 2008 at 8:15 am Link to this comment

In other words, Mr. Hedges this has been a long time coming. There are no words to express the outrage I feel at the thought that you place yourself in the “elite” of the educated and privileged.
There is no way that in this country, you are any better than that worker, who slaves away at a job just to feed, clothe and house his/her family. Yet you set yourself apart from the masses by dint of a piece of paper that says you are educated. How distinctly and utterly rude, you are the height of arrogance. Erudition and education do not a concerned and compassionate citizen make.
The prime examples of a person, who makes their life’s work to identify with the worker, not only because of education but because of their commitment to better the lives of those who slave away at jobs that supposedly have no value, are Cesar Chavez, Malcom X, the Wobblies, as a whole, and Dorothy Day.
Among the many educated people who chose to live their lives for others, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
These are prime examples of people who chose to better the lives of those who make little or no money but live lives that make a difference in the economy. But even now, this path has been taken away by the greedy and avaricious owner/capitalists, who for the sake of dollars, move jobs overseas to places where there are no regulations regarding the protection of the worker and the environment.
These are the types of people you would have us believe you associate with?  Mr. Hedges, your are without doubt erudite and educated but you have no heart when it comes to seeing the picture as a whole.

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By Stephen Smoliar, November 10, 2008 at 8:05 am Link to this comment

There is so much fallacious reasoning in Hedges’ essay that I greatly appreciate the way in which TAO Walker cut straight to the core of all those flaws.  However, Walker missed out on one key point, which is the extent to which the act of reflecting on one’s own humanity has always been a relatively elite pursuit.  Thus, we think of Greece as the “cradle of civilization” (an epithet that I suspect Walker would challenge, which is why I invoked the scare quotes) on the basis of a handful of data points, such as Sophocles and Plato;  but just how many of the inhabitants of that land actually went to the amphitheater to ponder the fate of Oedipus or had the time to spend the day wandering around the agora with Socrates?  In any community, regardless of the extent of its scale, most folks just want to get on with their lives in a way that will put food on the table, provide clothes to protect against the cold and the rain, and keep the roof secure.  These priorities have little to do with whether ancestors could follow Abraham Lincoln’s richer command of the English language or whether THEIR ancestors chose to ratify out Constitution on the basis of the convoluted language of the FEDERALIST PAPERS.

Those of us who reflect on “the human condition” almost always lose sight of how few our numbers are.  The result is that there is always some “end,” which we claim is clearly in sight.  Yet “humanity” endures, probably because it is so diverse (particularly when viewed on a global scale, as it should be) that, like Wittgenstein’s example of the noun “game,” it is a concept that eludes any clear definition.  Through diversity “humanity” survives by simple Darwinian logic;  and even the most reflective of us really have no hand at all in that survival mechanism.

Lacking any Native American literacy, TAO, I can only wish you zei gesundt!

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By Anarcissie, November 10, 2008 at 8:02 am Link to this comment

Images are not simple, as the famous Chinese (?) proverb observes.  But beyond that, if it is true that there is this image-based multitude out there who can’t think verbally, then slogans (words) would be ineffective with them.  ‘Yes we can’ and ‘maverick’ and ‘pro-life’ wouldn’t mean anything.

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By nrobi, November 10, 2008 at 7:58 am Link to this comment

Mr. Hedges seems to think that this idea of illiterate and semi-literate classes is a new thing and that he has discovered the reason for the malaise in this country.
Mr. Hedges, I beg to differ with your conclusions on the reasons for this mass illiteracy and for the entertainment industry as a whole. This malaise is a long time coming and did not start exactly when you think it did, much to your chagrin.
Mass illiteracy and semi-literacy has a background as varied as the U.S. itself, it actually started after the Revolution against the British, and continued throughout the 19the Century, when the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. Needing laborers, that could follow simple directions, without too much trouble, the educational system was born in America. Also at this time, the entertainment industry was born, Hollywood! This to distract the idle worker. As leaders of the industries got together, they decided that a minimum of education was needed for the protection of their profits and so that the worker could work at a steady pace and believe that “someday” their ships would come in.
Without the laborers, the Industrial Revolution could not have occurred, this to the dismay of the skilled and competent individual, who handcrafted the necessary items with which to survive.
Education was not a necessity for the laborer in the factory, for they only had to have a modicum of education to follow the directions of their employers. All the while the “owners/capitalists” lived off the backbreaking labour of the worker, in such a lavish lifestyle that the envy of the labourer was to cause an eventual and certain backlash against the source of their misery.
The thing that started to change this inequity, was the rise of the united Union movement.
It was at this point in history, that things started to change for the worker in the factory. Instead of backbreaking, excessively hard labor, for the children of the workers themselves, they demanded that their children be educated in the same manner as the wealthy owner/capitalists. Yet the inequity still exists, in the educational system, for example, the inner city youth do not receive the same education as those of the upper middle and wealthy classes. For the “funding” and resources do not “exist” for these children, thereby creating a permanent underclass, which is illiterate and semi-literate. All this to get away with the idea that we are educating our children in top-flight schools, that will someday reward them with “good” jobs, even though the very companies that are supposedly supporting our system of education are now out-sourcing the very jobs that these people need the education for are shipped overseas to countries with no labour laws and little if any regard for the worker.

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By Leefeller, November 10, 2008 at 7:50 am Link to this comment

Tao Walker’s “Song ‘n’ Dance of life brings fresh reason opposed to Heges old stale Religious mentality. 

Hedges quote:

“The ability to magnify these simple and childish lies, to repeat them and have surrogates repeat them in endless loops of news cycles, gives these lies the aura of an uncontested truth”.

Sounds like one great Sunday Day School to me. Hedges exposes himself very well.  Love the road to “burgerdom”.

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By thebeerdoctor, November 10, 2008 at 7:39 am Link to this comment

Here is the point. First comes the realization that you are going to die. Second the knowledge: so does everyone else. The station has arrivals and departures.

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By smcnamara, November 10, 2008 at 7:35 am Link to this comment
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A compelling and well written article, but one that is desperately in need of source references.  The figures presented regarding lack of readership among graduates, and percentage of high-school graduates who are illiterate is staggering, and therefore deserve some modicum of scrutiny.

One can intuitively grasp that there has been a shift in media away from prose towards graphic depiction of information.  This, in itself, is not necessarily evil, as graphics can capture and distill information into a very compact form.  The problem, I believe, is that the pliable nature of statistics allow them to portray half-truths or outright fallacies as truth.

With the explosive rate of information growth, it is reasonable to make use of mechanisms which allow larger amounts of data to be communicated rapidly.  The failure here falls on the lack of critical thinking skills among the general populous, and this is a direct result of the modern education system.

The US education system is a legacy construct meant to provide workers for the US industrial economy of 19th and early 20th century, and has not evolved to match the demands of the new information economy.  Instruction by memorization and repetition in order to meet test requirements does not build the critical thinking skills that lead to lifelong learning and self-critical thinking.

Critical thinkers are more likely to question facts and figures displayed in a information rich graphic, and with those questions comes the incentive to dig further into the source material (most likely available in prose form.)

The misleading chart or graphic is no worse that the skillfully worded (but unsupported) article, and until we encourage students to question that which they are taught and that which they read, we will not begin to make progress towards a more rational nation.

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By Da Bronx, November 10, 2008 at 7:13 am Link to this comment
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In 1852, Massachusetts became the first state to pass compulsory school attendance laws. before this law 99% of the Commonwealth’s citizens were literate. following the (vastly unpopular) imposition of mandatory schooling (Enforced by the militia in Brewster) the Commonwealth’s citizens never again reached a 90% literacy rate.

Maybe we can learn something from this?

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By TAO Walker, November 10, 2008 at 6:50 am Link to this comment

It’s certainly not as though no one was ever misled or confused by words-in-print….or that effective use of imagery just came along here in these latter days.  Chris Hedges here reveals his ownself to be a thoroughly “civilized” “individual.”  As such he is unable to recognize that everything he posits here about our Human nature is founded solely in his experience of our nature as expressed within the confining limits of civilization.  Hedges is like any “expert” on Hereford and black angus cattle doomed to ‘burgerdom, but who knows nothing, really, about buffalo roaming free and wild….yet has nevertheless persuaded himself that she knows everything worth knowing about Bovinity.

The outlook for the domesticated peoples is sure enough unrelentingly grim.  Their owners and overseers have pretty well perfected the techinques and technology for “managing” their Human livestock by keeping suppressed that Native spark of free wildness innate in every Living form here on Earth.  Yet even they dare not extinguish it entirely, since it remains the only source of the actual Vitality these cut-off entities themselves cannot go-on less-than-half-living without.  By blocking and abusing Living forms, these miserable isolates squeeze-out and ingest the various degenerate kinds of “energy” upon which they’re utterly dependent for the prolongation of their agony….and they just “love” the company of us Sentients in their self-imposed degradation.

It is a definite dead-end, though, and that “END” is near.  Our tormentors are even more desperate these days than Chris Hedges here….and with one whole helluva lot more “reason.”  So try to cheer-up, tame Sisters and Brothers.  For you, too, the Song ‘n’ Dance of Life Herownself is only a step and a chorus away.

All together now….....


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