I like to see news from many different perspectives, trying to keep my opinions informed. I was saddened to my core by what I saw this past week on BBC America news. On camera was a middle-aged man from Kentucky, in tears, acknowledging that he couldn’t hold a job or take care of his family because he had never learned to read. I’d seen stories like that before, but when the host followed up with the statistics I was truly floored. As I was to find out, their statistics were very conservative. The true number of people in these United States of America who can’t read, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy in 2014, is 32 million. The BBC used the number 16 million. The reasons are awful, steeped in prejudice and laziness but ultimately, steeped in greed.

Greed reared its ugly head this morning as our Republican representatives proudly presented their new tax bill. What stood out to me was obvious. For example: eighty people benefited from one part of the bill—all millionaires or billionaires. The bill recommends eliminating tax deductions for the middle class, including health care and student loans. Charities would also suffer under this regime. This is a tax bill that shows us what is NOT important to these people: the health, education and welfare of the average American, the poor, and their families. None of these constituencies can line the pockets of greedy politicians. The middle class, children, the sick and the poor depend on good will and heart to survive a tough world.

As for illiteracy, seeing our fellow beings as part of the human family could not have resulted in this awful behavior, or these shocking statistics. Calling ourselves the greatest country in the world when we rank lowest among industrialized countries in the number who read? I don’t think so. Coretta Scott King said it, and I second it:

There is NO reason why a nation as rich as ours should be blighted
by poverty, disease and illiteracy.

When 19% of high school graduates can’t read, that is criminal. When approximately 30,000,000 U.S. adults can’t read, that is criminal. Jobs, the ability to handle income and outgo, access to health care, driving, participating in the world in a meaningful way—all depend on the ability to read. Though the people on the show broke my heart, the terrible neglect angered me tremendously. What kind of people hand out high school diplomas to students who will never succeed in life? Some estimates of the prison population stated that up to 70% of those incarcerated can’t read. Does ANYONE see a connection here? It is a wall that people cannot climb over. It’s a sentence to the lowest end of the human scale. I watched a former teacher tell the program that it was all an effort to raise their self-esteem, this giving out of diplomas. Really? As they searched for a job where even reading the words on boxes in a packing house eliminated them from contention? If reading is connected to incarceration, don’t you think classes would be mandatory in prisons? Time off for good grades?

When I was a young mother, I was a huge advocate of the public school system. I was asked to serve on the textbook selection committee in my county since I was an active participant in my kids’ schools from kindergarten to senior high. The educators and businessmen on the committee were in the process of what I called “dumbing down” our textbooks, eliminating altogether the reading of the classics. The point was to make it easier to graduate. What I saw was a removed bureaucracy deciding that my children’s’ generation was incapable of accomplishing what their parents and grandparents had done in school. Who were they to make that decision that would affect thousands of school kids and teachers? I lost that battle, and today’s news brought the memory back full force.

Sometimes I feel so isolated from the realities of life for those who have no advocates or families or teachers who care and catch them in a safe place. My children, and probably yours, had parents who saw to it that they did their homework, read books, discussed ideas and argued around the dinner table. I always had access to the principal and the teachers at our schools. That was a privilege I was given, but it should be a right. Schools are responsible for teaching and sending prepared citizens out into the world. What they do from there is their own responsibility, but it’s the same as feeding them properly or taking them to the doctor. Maya Angelou, an educator herself, said:

Elimination of illiteracy is as serious an issue to our history as the abolition of slavery. 

The problems here can be spread around. Finger pointing is always easy. Our current president has such a lack of understanding of history that I am amazed he graduated from college. Who made it possible to get an “education” while only learning how to make money? Our forefathers were Renaissance people. They valued reading, writing, rhetoric, and passionate discussion. They had their personal foibles, but they taught that, in a Republic, all have a right to succeed and enjoy “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” How far from that have we come?

Where we went wrong is up for discussion, but that we did go wrong is not. Individuality is prized in our society, but we also have to be aware of others besides ourselves. Finding our own path and creating our own life is a good thing. Not acknowledging the worth and ability of others to do the same is not a good thing. I agree with Desmond Tutu when he says:

“My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.”

That means FULLY human—having the ability to understand and communicate our needs and thoughts and fears to our communities. We should not have economic “royalty” serving in the White House and the Congress, padding bills to serve their own greed. To ignore the situation of millions who cannot read—therefore cannot pursue their dreams—is unforgiveable. To ignore the sad truth as long as we are prospering is not what our ancestors expected of us. Nor, if you believe the major religions of the world, is it what God expected of us.

Therèse Tappouni is the author of six published books—four of which have received major awards—and creator of two meditation/visualization CDs. Her latest book is The Gifts of Grief: Finding Light in the Darkness of Loss. Therèse is the founder of the company Whole Heart, dedicated to helping people live a balanced, loving and creative life. She teaches workshops for women in mid-life, grief workshops, women’s history classes, resilience workshops and one-on-one coaching created from her certification as a HeartMath® Trainer. She has also trained in many other modalities, including Somatic Intuitive Training™ and Time Dimension Therapy™