Illiteracy and the Literary Tradition

By: James Williams  

Public education in the United States is funded at nearly $1 trillion dollars per year, yet 40 to 80% of matriculating students nationwide test remedial in reading, writing, and math. Although reading ability is generally recognized as the best indicator of a nation’s educational success, the National Assessment of Educational Performance data show that only 6% of 12th-graders nationwide can read at the advanced level, even though they graduated from high school with grade-point averages ranging from 3.0 to 4.0 on a 4-point scale. The question is why. William Faulkner described literature as the repository of “the universal truths” of the human experience. This paper proposes that how literature is commonly taught at the secondary and post-secondary levels ignores the intersubjectivity of Faulkner’s “universal truths,” helping us understand why a staggering 50% of American adults are functionally illiterate. A majority of the literature commonly assigned to high school students, for example, is written at the 4th-grade level. Instruction focuses on plot summaries––rarely, if ever, addressing the social and historical contexts of a work––and the most commonly assigned writing assignments are solipsistic. The study concludes with a reflection on illiteracy's effect on democracy.

2020 Special Focus - Against the Grain: Arts and the Crisis of Democracy
Paper Presentation in a Themed Session

James Williams

Professor, Linguistics, Soka University

My training is in rhetoric and linguistics, and I have published widely in these fields as they relate to education. I began my uinversity career at UCLA and after a few years returned to my alma mater, the University of Southern California, as a program administrator. Some years later, I joined the faculty at UNC Chapel Hill. Since 2000, I have been a founding faculty member at Soka University. My most recent publication, released in 2019 through Roman & Littlefield, is THE DECLINE IN EDUCATIONAL STANDARDS: FROM A PUBLIC GOOD TO A QUASI-MONOPOLY.