Bombs, books and Alice Walker: U.S. has priorities wrong

I met three cool people Wednesday night: Susan Warfield, Megan Tappe and Alice Walker.

Ask Tappe about Jane Austen and she’ll tell you why Mr. Darcy is better than some creep on the route 16 bus. Ask Warfield about John Steinbeck and she’ll tell you how he held her as a child and proclaimed her the most beautiful little girl in the world. Ask Walker about Alice Walker and she’ll knock you to the floor with her spirit and radiance. Walker doesn’t talk; she pulses like a living and feeling incarnation of a radio tower. And the thread that connects these three people is made of paper, ink, thoughts and words. They all can read.

Walker, a prominent author and poet, spoke Wednesday at Borders Books in Minneapolis. Forty-five minutes before Walker appeared, people were standing in the aisles. Readers filled the place. Walker filled the place – filled it with a concentrated energy and calm pressure that left one wondering if they’d get a case of the bends if they left the bookstore too fast. Walker read from her new book, signed some books and talked about dreams and Egyptians. But most importantly, she talked about literacy.

She explained how she’d been to Cuba recently and that Cuba has a 100 percent literacy rate. When she said this, a gasp went through the store. But the figure didn’t surprise me. It’s 2004, a new millennium. Everyone should be able to read. Was the crowd surprised because they perceived Cuba to be backward and too poor? Did a 100 percent literacy rate seem impossible to them because the United States, the most powerful country on Earth, has not achieved the same thing?

No. I wasn’t surprised, but my pride as an American was a little hurt, because according to most current almanacs the literacy rate in the United States stands at 97 percent. The rate isn’t horrible, but 3 percent is a lot of people when the population of the United States is considered. That equals about 8.4 million people. Moreover, according to Wal-Mart’s “Words are Your Wheels” literacy program, 50 million Americans cannot comprehend above an eighth-grade level. Most striking, however, is that 60 percent of prison inmates are illiterate and 50 percent of adults who receive welfare are illiterate. Education is an investment after all. I bet it’s cheaper than running prisons and welfare programs.

Why is it that the United States – the richest and most powerful country in the world – still has millions of people who cannot read? What does it say about the United States that as inner city schools are falling apart, we continue to pump billions of dollars into a pipe dream called the missile defense shield? What does it say about the United States that governors take money from education to pay for superfluous roads, stadiums and corporate subsidies? We can afford bombs, destruction and anti-humanity, but we can’t afford educating a few felons or funding a few early education programs.

It disgusts me that books are so cheap and plentiful that I can sleep at night with a stack of paperbacks next to my head knowing that I can read them and understand them, but at the same time there is another American out there – millions to be more accurate – that looks at the same stack of books and only senses frustration and hopelessness. There is dignity in being able to read your own name.

There is dignity in being able to place your thoughts into words, into something tangible and shareable. This is the land of opportunity, is it not? It is sad that today when humans can play God in the laboratory that unfortunate millions cannot even say the alphabet. Saddest of all is not that we are incapable of educating all, but we choose not to because our priorities are wrong.

Karl Noyes is a member of The Minnesota Daily editorial board. He welcomes comments at [email protected]