Falling literacy and the sad state of political discourse

The ugly tone of current political discourse is more than a little depressing. Indeed, to characterize today’s political exchanges as “debate” would be a travesty. Rarely does either side attempt to argue contrary points of view in a civilized manner. Rather, listeners are simply treated to a torrent of abuse, increasingly much of it scatological.

Explanations for the toxic nature of the present political climate include: A stridently partisan media; an increasingly polarized electorate; a nation deeply divided on lines of race and sexual orientation. (I refuse to missuse “gender,” a grammatical term.)

But these, arguably, are mere symptoms rather than the disease itself. A rather more credible explanation for the rancor is the American population’s amazing shrinking vocabulary.

Americans today are generally far less articulate than their counterparts of even a generation ago. Evidence of this is available daily on our radios and television screens.

Forty years or so ago, TV and radio reporters could be generally assured of getting sensible, reasonably articulate responses when they took cameras or tape recorders on to the street for a “vox pop” [short for the Latin vox populi—“voice of the people”] to solicit opinions from the public about current events.

Contrast that with the embarrassing crop of “ums,” “aaaahs,” and “likes” that media luminaries elicit when they venture into the streets today. The folks they encounter are generally much less articulate and far less knowledgeable than the man on the street of a half century ago.

Blame for this lies in the sad decline in literacy that has taken place in this country over the past century or so.

In 1900, for example, some 90 percent of the American population was able to read and write. The U.S. government today is unduly coy about revealing the full extent of illiteracy in the U.S. but there is no disguising the fact that there has been a precipitate decline in literacy since the opening two decades of the last century.

Figures from the U.S. Department of Education indicate that today 32 million adults—out of a population of 252 million over the age of 18—can’t read, while some 14 percent of adults have a “below basic” literacy level and a further 29 percent read at only a “basic” level.

This means that more than half of the adult American population is at an acute disadvantage when it comes to communicating their thoughts to their fellows—a conclusion supported by surveys that indicate the average American’s active daily vocabulary today amounts to little more than 400 words.

Indeed, even if the passive vocabulary of the average person [the number of words he or she understands] is five or six times greater, their vocabularies are nonetheless far smaller than those of folks only two generations or so ago.

This development is deeply troubling. Words are important as the Great Sage of Dedham Vale (a/k/a my father) reminded a famous, but irritatingly self-important, news photographer. “If a picture really is worth a thousand words,” he remarked acidly, “We’d still be scrawling on the walls of caves.”

Light-hearted riposte it might be, but it was a remarkably acute observation—one that should be taken to heart by an education establishment that is largely responsible for the drastic shrinkage in the average American’s vocabulary.

The situation is deeply troubling. For the individual, a restricted vocabulary greatly limits a person’s prospects for professional and social success. Expressing complicated ideas usually requires nuance—subtle differences or shades of meaning—and the ability to convey nuance demands a wide vocabulary.

From a national perspective, the nation’s shrinking vocabulary is especially worrisome. The nation’s future prosperity depends, as always, largely on its innovators and their entrepreneurial ability. A limited vocabulary, however, increasingly limits the ability to innovate.

It is difficult to express abstract and highly technical concepts in pictures. Try, for example, to draw from scratch a picture of the concept of, say, a microchip. Perhaps it would be possible, but by far the most efficient way to do so would be in words—if necessary augmented by diagrams.

But the most striking evidence in the overall decline in literacy is encountered in the media. Our newspapers and magazines are becoming increasingly unreadable and drearily partisan.

The age old maxim of “who, what, why, where, and when” is notably absent from news stories and features. Instead articles are all too often a shambles—incoherent, rambling, undisciplined, self-indulgently opinionated and grossly overwritten.

There is only one truly effective way to acquire an extensive vocabulary. And that is by reading—and learning to comprehend—the works of world’s renowned authors, playwrights, poets, and philosophers. In this regard one could do worse than to start with William Shakespeare, the greatest playwright in the English language.

That’s not so easy to do. True, there’s no shortage of Shakespearean theater in the Baltimore/Washington area, while Staunton, VA, is home to The Blackfriars Theater, one of the best Shakespearean companies in the country. But, other than the coasts, the rest of the country is a Shakespearean desert.

Once upon a time America’s love affair with Shakespeare began at school. Not so today. He is in exile along with those other much reviled “dead white males” and rarely figures in the curriculum. On the rare occasion he is studied, his works are considered so difficult students get Cliff Notes to go with the Cliff Notes.

This is sad. Shakespeare coined many of our most memorable figures of speech. Through him we once learned the mysteries of metaphors, similes, hyperbole, litotes, et al. And he introduced us subliminally to Thomas Cranmer and Geoffrey Chaucer, giants of the English tongue and, for good measure, put flesh on the bones of long dead Roman literary greats like Julius Caesar.

I, like most of my contemporaries, developed a fondness for Shakespeare at school. Even the most brutish boys took part on school plays with enthusiasm, especially the sword fights and battle scenes. Girls relished playing his romantic heroines, notably Juliet.

And when it comes to expressing displeasure, nobody equals the Bard. Thanks to Shakespeare, my father was able to dress down folks who offended him for a good five minutes, never repeating himself and never uttering an obscenity. An act of folly was met with a withering: “Addle-pated clown!” or a scathing “Lily livered loon!” Shakespeare’s epithets role gleefully off the tongue in glorious alliterative technicolor—to the gratification of the utterer and frequently to the object of scorn’s reluctant admiration. Happily, it’s hard to be out of countenance for long when taken to task Shakespearean style. Half a century ago it made politics not merely tolerable but a fascinating spectator sport. Back then the elegant bon mot, the stinging riposte, the sly allusion, and soaring prose were the curremcy of politics. But as goes the country, so goes politics.

Contrast it with what now passes for political rhetoric. Forget about inspiring prose, vulgar hyperbole rules in politics today. Coherent, cogent arguments no long follow the statement: “I beg to disagree with my honorable colleague … ” Today it’s simply a crude “expletive deleted.” GPH✠

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