The Human Cost of an Illiterate Society


The Human Cost of an Illiterate Society by Jonathan Kozol points out the hardships that people go through on a daily basis because they are functionally illiterate. He describes the fact that many of these people vote blindly or do not vote at all, and if they could have voted based on what they read that we may not have had some of our past presidents in this country. He gives mind blowing statistics, including the 60 million people that are functionally illiterate in 1980, and first-hand quotes from some of those 60 million; but leaves too much up to the audience making his argument weak.

Kozol defines illiteracy through quotes from the people who are illiterate. He leaves it up to the reader to define it for themselves through these different people’s experiences in everyday life as an illiterate person. Since he is leaving it up to the reader it endangers his ultimate point if the reader defines it in a way that completely turns Kozol’s argument inside out. In the excerpt we are given he does not describe how, or in this case why these people are fully grown adults who are unable to write or read at an eighth grade level. Since he does not provide this information it makes it harder for the reader to completely understand or identify with these people and really know how it could be fixed.
Kozol’s stance on the subject is very obvious in the voice of his writing, along with the quotes or examples he gives. He believes that the illiteracy rate in the United States is a serious issue that affects not only the people who are illiterate but also those who are not. “If even one-third of all illiterates could vote, and read enough and do sufficient math to vote in their self-interest, Ronald Reagan would not likely have been chosen president”, is a good example that Kozol gives to show how these illiterate people affect the whole nation (Norgaard 39-40). An example that was very shocking that he gives about how illiteracy affects them on a personal level is as follows, “A woman in Detroit brought home a gallon of Crisco for her children’s dinner. She thought she had bought the chicken that was pictured one the label. She had enough Crisco now to last a year- but no more money to go back and buy the food for dinner”(Norgaard 42)
Although Kozol gives his strong stance that illiteracy is bad, he does not provide any sort of proposition for a resolution. This is a very key point that he misses in the piece of the writing. Without answering this question and also not answering the question of how the issue came about in the first place puts a hole in his argument and makes it harder to get the audience to understand completely.
Kozol’s claim seems to be that the illiteracy rate in the United States is simply unacceptable. His main reason is because of the suffering people go through on a daily basis because they are illiterate and cannot function in society at the same level as fully literate adults. Kozol’s other reason is also because these people not only affect themselves and those close to them, but also the country as a whole. He does not explicitly state a warrant. Instead he gives quotes from people who are illiterate.
I stood at the bottom of the ramp. My car had broke down on the freeway. There was a phone. I asked for the police. They was nice. They said to tell them where I was. I looked up at the signs. There was one that I had seen before. I read it to them: ONE WAY STREET. They thought it was a joke. I told them I couldn’t read. There was other signs above the ramp. They told me to try. I looked around for somebody to help. All the cars was going by real fast. I wouldn’t make them understand that I was lost. The cop was nice. He knew that I was trapped. ‘I can’t send out a car to you if you can’t tell me where you are’. I felt afraid. I nearly cried. I’m forty-eight years old. I only said: ‘I’m on a one-way street……’ (Nordaard 45).
The quote above is an example of how he gives a story and leaves it up to the reader to interpret them. Kozol uses these quotes as his support.
The audience that he seems to be writing to is literate Americans during the 1980’s. In the very beginning he writes about the president at that time and other things that were going on around then. Since I was not born until 1990 I do not fully understand the political references that he makes throughout his writing, which makes me feel as if I am a little outside of the group he is trying to talk to. The audience is also people that did not know about the illiteracy issue in the United States because it seems as though he is trying to “open eyes” to what is truly going on with many of “our” fellow Americans.
Kozol’s only evidence provided to the reader are the quotes and stories from illiterates. The quotes are the use of Pathos. Kozol is trying to touch the reader’s humanity by giving examples of human suffering. He tries to put the reader in the shoes of the illiterates and have the audience see how illiterate struggle in day to day life. It is not enough for the reader to believe what he is writing.
Kozol does not provide any actual proof that those are true stories or even actual quotes that are not simply made-up. Since he does not provide any sort of hard evidence it makes things very easy for anyone who would like to discredit him and his work. Therefore, his argument is weaker because of the lack of evidence to make the reader believe what he is trying to convey. To make his argument stronger he should have used more logos, or facts, and simple logical evidence to support his claim.
Throughout the excerpt Kozol blames the government for the fact that nothing is being done to fix the detrimental issue of the high illiteracy rate in the world power of the United States. Toward the end of the argument he writes, “This is the nation that we live in. This is a society that most of us did not create but which our President and the other leaders have been willing to sustain by virtue of malign neglect” (Norgaard 45). Kozol is saying that it is because of the current president, at that time it was Reagan, and past leaders that the illiteracy rate has escalated to the level it is. He writes that the people in the government have purposefully neglected this pressing issue. In the very beginning, as quoted earlier, he makes a slam against Ronald Reagan. He basically states that if illiterates knew what they were voting for, Reagan would have never been voted into office if they had known what he stood for. Therefore, his writing could be interpreted by the reader as a political statement rather than a fight for the illiterates in the United States.
Kozol’s argument in this piece of writing is a very weak one. He does not answer all of the four basic questions. He does not directly define what illiteracy is or why the rate is so high. He does not give a solution to the problem either. Kozol leaves it up to the audience to decide all of those things based on what he provides in the text. The problem with this is that different people with different views or backgrounds will interpret the text in their own way. He provides a claim and reasons but because he does not explicitly give warrants for those, the claim can be misinterpreted especially because of the politically statements that he also seems to be making. The evidence he provides is almost purely pathos, he appeals to the audiences’ humanity, which may not be enough to completely convince the audience that he is right. He does not completely provide the basis of logos which puts a hole in his argument. Overall, his argument was very weak and could be misinterpreted or discredited because of what is left to the audience to decide.

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