Lack of Literacy is Threat to Liberty


Writing in a recent commentary, Stephen M. Lilienthal of the Free Congress Foundation expresses concern over the literacy skills of recent college graduates. The findings of some recent studies are quite troubling.

A recent study by the American Institutes for Research (“AIR”) contains what should be very unsettling news. The study, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, surveyed the literacy skills of graduates of four-year colleges and two-year community and junior colleges. The ability of the students to analyze newspaper stories, comprehend documents and balance a checkbook was assessed. Over half the graduates of four-year colleges and three-quarters of the graduates of junior and community colleges could not be categorized as possessing these “proficient” skills. A link to the press release announcing the study is at Here are a few of the findings:

More than 75 percent of students at 2-year colleges and more than 50 percent of students at 4-year colleges do not score at the proficient level of literacy. This means that they lack the skills to perform complex literacy tasks, such as comparing credit card offers with different interest rates or summarizing the arguments of newspaper editorials.

Students in 2- and 4-year colleges have the greatest difficulty with quantitative literacy: approximately 30 percent of students in 2-year institutions and nearly 20 percent of students in 4-year institutions have only Basic quantitative literacy. Basic skills are those necessary to compare ticket prices or calculate the cost of a sandwich and a salad from a menu.

Students about to graduate from college have higher prose and document literacy than previous graduates with similar levels of education; for quantitative literacy, differences between current and former college graduates are not significant.

There are no significant differences in the literacy of students graduating from public and private institutions. Additionally, in assessing literacy levels, there are no differences between part-time and full-time students. No overall relationship exists between literacy and the length of time it takes to earn a degree, or between literacy and an academic major.

The AIR study is not the only source of bad news regarding adult literacy. As Mr. Lilienthal reports:

The AIR Study follows the release last November of a study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (“AACU”) which reported a disparity between what students believed they were learning in college and national studies that measure their writing, mathematical and critical-thinking skills. An AACU press release issued in conjunction with the report states, “While 77 percent of students report significant improvements in their writing skills in college, standardized tests show that only 11 percent of seniors scored at a ‘proficient’ level in writing. Standardized tests results indicate that only 6 percent of seniors graduate at the ‘proficient’ level in critical thinking skills, while 87 percent of students believe that college contributed a great deal to improving their skills in this area.”

A significant point of the AIR study is that “rapid changes in technology make it necessary for adults of all ages to use written information in new and more complex ways.” Higher levels of literacy are needed to enable workers to adjust to increased demands.

Some conclusions that we may make:

First, what does this tell us about the state of our schools, especially public schools and universities? When the majority of college graduates — presumably having learned at least something more than what they knew when they graduated from high school — aren’t considered proficient at basic intellectual tasks, how can we have confidence in the quality of our schools? For those who believe our schools are performing well, I would ask what they make of these findings.

Second, it is not surprising that people who can’t balance a checkbook have trouble with other financial matters. Things like understanding a credit card offer and agreement, what it means to be in debt, understanding the implications of different types of mortgages, understanding the powerful effects of compounding over time, or how to save and invest for the future seem to be beyond the grasp of someone who has trouble with a checkbook.

Third, we should also not be surprised that people fail to understand, or even to be interested in, the policies of our various governmental bodies and how they impact our lives. That is, how these policies really impact us, rather than how politicians say they impact us. This is what I see as the greatest threat to liberty. A society with more liberty, which is to say one with less government, places greater responsibility on individuals to provide for themselves and their families. In order to defend our liberty, we must be on the alert for false arguments and faulty reasoning. This requires citizens who care about liberty and are equipped to defend it.

As an illustration, recently I wrote how an advocate for increased spending on schools in Kansas (I was going to say increased spending on education, but given the findings of the above studies, I am hesitant to call it that) made a misleading argument. (See Kansas Families United for Public Education (KFUPE) on State Aid to Schools.) To show how it is misleading, I had to perform some calculations to convert nominal dollars to real dollars, that is, spending adjusted by the rate of inflation. Now I wonder if many people understand the difference and its importance, much less whether many people could analyze this evidence in the way that I did. Converting nominal dollars to real dollars, I should mention, is not very difficult to do.

If converting nominal dollars to real dollars appears difficult, then what about more thoughtful analysis of our economy and government policies? Analyzing policy means looking at the obvious effects, but also seeking to discover what might not be obvious: the unseen effects. Frederic Bastiat, in his pamphlet titled “That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen” said this:

Between a good and a bad economist this constitutes the whole difference — the one takes account of the visible effect; the other takes account both of the effects which are seen, and also of those which it is necessary to foresee. Now this difference is enormous, for it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favourable, the ultimate consequences are fatal, and the converse. Hence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good, which will be followed by a great evil to come, while the true economist pursues a great good to come, — at the risk of a small present evil.

The economist Walter E. Williams summarizes the broken window fallacy that Bastiat recognized in his article:

Bastiat wrote a parable about this that has become known as the “Broken Window Fallacy.” A shopkeeper’s window is broken by a vandal. A crowd forms, sympathizing with the man, but pretty soon, the people start to suggest the boy wasn’t guilty of vandalism; instead, he was a public benefactor, creating economic benefits for everyone in town. After all, fixing the broken window creates employment for the glazier, who will then buy bread and benefit the baker, who will then buy shoes and benefit the cobbler, and so forth.

Those are the seen effects of the broken window. What’s unseen is what the shopkeeper would have done with the money had the vandal not broken his window. He might have employed the tailor by purchasing a suit. The broken window produced at least two unseen effects. First, it shifted unemployment from the glazier, who now has a job, to the tailor, who doesn’t. Second, it reduced the shopkeeper’s wealth. Explicitly, had it not been for the vandalism, the shopkeeper would have had a window and a suit; now, he has just a window.

As Professor Williams also brought to our attention, even educated people such as Princeton economist Paul Krugman failed to take into account all factors — the broken window fallacy that Bastiat illustrates — when he wrote in The New York Times that the destruction of the World Trade Center “could do some economic good.”

By failing to perform a little analysis on our own, we are liable to fall for whatever arguments politicians may make. But given the state of adult literacy, literacy that is a product of our public schools, how can we expect to be any different?


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