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America’s Growing Literacy Divide and Neoliberal Education Leaders

Gino Pellegrini

In the age of Obama, functional illiteracy abounds in a society that seems to have forgotten that the right to become fully literate should apply to all individuals, not just the privileged few. Functional illiterates can read, speak, and write well enough in English to function on a job, on a smartphone, and on social media sites. Oftentimes they are high school graduates, but they are far from being fully literate as I think it should be understood.

In my view, a fully literate individual has the ability to read, write, and speak in English at a level of competency where she/he could participate (if motivated) in civic debates in an effective manner, articulate her/his own story in public, mobilize others to address pressing social justice issues, and openly critique leaders, power, and the status quo.

In response to America’s literacy problem, corporate and public education leaders like Melinda & Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Rahm Emanuel, and Exxon (to name a few) say that schools and teachers must be held accountable for producing students who are more literate, numerate, and high-tech so that American businesses can continue to be competitive globally and the US economy continue to grow. Their solutions include corporate-sponsored teacher academies, more electronic devices in classrooms, longer academic terms, more science and technology, more standardized tests, and a national, corporate-approved curriculum.

I am a big fan of tablets, smart phones, talented coders, and the latest computer technologies, and I can even bring myself to believe that Melinda, Bill, Arne, and Rahm mean well, and that Exxon executives believe that they are transforming American education for the better with their teacher academies and “Let’s Solve This” television commercials. I also share their disdain for educators who see tenure and/or union protection as a means to no longer have to care about students and about working on their craft.

However, I also believe that most public and corporate education leaders are peddling solutions for reforming American education that fail to adequately address the related, underlying issues of socioeconomic impoverishment and functional illiteracy. In other words, I believe that these leaders are basically engaged in propagating neoliberal ideology.

To be brief, neoliberal ideology assumes that corporations are rights-bearing individuals, and, at the same time, pins the blame for social problems such as poverty and illiteracy on the backs of the impoverished and the illiterate. From a neoliberal perspective, such individuals are a drain on public resources, and non-contributors to the collective goal of economic growth, which for neoliberals is a fundamental social good within a burgeoning global capitalist society.

Keeping in mind the point that ideology works by concealing opposing viewpoints and realities, it seems perfectly plausible that global neoliberal leaders including Bill, Melinda, Arne, Rahm, and Exxon are quite comfortable with a high degree of poverty and functional illiteracy in America and elsewhere, even though they say the opposite in public spaces like Davos, Switzerland at the annual World Economic Forum.

Neoliberal leaders, of course, will point to increases in life expectancy and decreases in famine as evidence that global capitalism is making the world a better place to live. I would say, however, that we are also witnessing the formation of a global capitalist, multicultural, post-racial federation where the values of cultural group tolerance and parity are enforced while economic inequality continues to grow and fester, and where most individuals feel fortunate to have a low-paying service type job that permits them to exist just above the poverty line.

More importantly, within this emergent global neoliberal federation, the ideal that each individual should have the right to become fully literate is becoming both unnecessary and undesirable for the masses, unnecessary for the reason that most service workers do not need to be fully literate to do their jobs and to buy products, undesirable for the reason that functional illiterates are easier to exploit, easier to market to, and easier to control.

Call me cynical, but could it also be the case (and here I am paying homage to Randolph Bourne and his famous line about the State) that functional illiteracy within the masses is the new health of the global economy?

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