Handwriting on the Wall By, Frank Deaver:

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Seated comfortably at a weekly Rotary Club meeting, we hear from the podium that literacy programs are among the projects encouraged by Rotary International, and that March is designated as Literacy Awareness Month. But we immediately turn our attention back to our salad and social conversation. “Illiteracy? Not a problem around here,” we apparently assume. So it comes as a shock to realize that yes, we are challenged by the scope of functional illiteracy among us, and it’s not limited to distant and less- developed societies. 

Cities and counties in the United States, with few exceptions, have illiteracy rates above 20 percent. Although the “functionally illiterate” may attempt to disguise their limitations, they are handicapped in performance of many daily activities. They may not be able to read a help-wanted ad in the newspaper, or understand the label instructions on a bottle of medicine. Projecting their own shortcomings to the next generation, they do not read to their children, and by example they convey the impression that literacy is not a high priority.

Years ago, and for some people even now, “literacy” was indicative of “the ability to read and write,” simply that and nothing more. In predominantly agrarian societies of the past, the most important knowledge might have been how to feed and milk a cow, or how to manipulate a horse-drawn plow. No more, for now the successful farmer must be able to operate and maintain increasingly complex machinery, determine the pH value of soil, and follow market prices for crops.

As younger generations abandon rural life for city employment, they find it is no longer enough to be “willing to work.” Meaningful employment requires at least high school education, but more likely a college or trade school preparation for skilled job opportunities. No more can they find access to the basic job of “digging ditches,” for now that task requires the ability to operate heavy equipment and to read plats identifying underground utility lines.

A recent study concluded that people with literacy limitations are twice as likely to be unemployed, and many times more likely to receive some form of social assistance. The social impact of illiteracy has been directly correlated with poverty, crime, broken homes, teen pregnancy, health, and welfare costs.

No wonder, then, that RI Presidents – past, present, and future – have emphasized literacy projects as a challenge for Rotarians. RI President Glenn Estess (2004-05) told a Rotary audience that “in your own communities there are individuals who need some help to live a better life.”

Rotarians, the “handwriting is on the wall.” It is up to us to read it! 



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