(Staff Editorial)American Illiterate Idiots

While proficiency in English has often been a darling of the media and politicians both incumbent and reform, English literacy is about much more than seeing Spot run or knowing when to use possessive pronouns.

To be truly literate, a person must not only know how to read and write, but must also practice those arts daily.

People often claim that the main barrier to greater literacy, to a greater understanding of the world through words, is time.

Yet the majority of American households own a television, and spend time viewing it. The recent political campaigns for the Los Angeles mayoral race had many television ads, but, even the week of the election, few newspaper ads.

Some television advocates feel including statistics about how many hours of television children watch daily, such as those included on http://www.literacynet.org, make unfounded connections between literacy and television viewing.

In a way, these advocates are right. There may be no direct correlation between television viewing and a person's ability to read.

But even if no such correlation exists, it is depressing to think that television, and not reading, shapes the debate over literacy.

It is depressing to think that it is unnecessary for programmers to ask, "Why aren't more Americans watching television?"

Instead, the question parents and educators continue to ask is, "Why can't more children read?"

With increasing demands on our time, many people may feel that it is much more efficient to get the news or entertainment from radio and television.

They say the mental effort needed to read a newspaper or book is too great a burden on already "overloaded" brain cells.

"Television keeps the children quiet, and I have too much to do to spend time reading about the upcoming elections," many mothers and fathers say.

Many college students, who spend perhaps more money on books than any other segment of society, share those sentiments.

"I don't have time to read all this," is a common complaint to professors and friends.

But general literacy directly connects to voter literacy, and the quality of our society as a whole. Fewer than 50 percent of eligible citizens vote in most American elections.

If more Americans were sufficiently well read to understand even a few of the laws politicians intend to pass, they would not rely on television ads and posters to "spin" legislation for them.

And if Americans had even a little general knowledge of the import and history of the laws written down in law books, and if they knew their own ability to affect the words written on those pages, we would see voter participation rise.

If the people we elected were more knowledgeable of the laws, the quality of our legislation could improve.

Some congress members do not even read all of the laws they are expected to vote on.

If the politicians who make illiteracy a cornerstone of their campaigns were actually confronted by a literate constituency, they'd have more reason to be concerned about it.