Reading, writing and foreign trade
A rambling by Tom Knapp,
March 1993

In Japan, an intelligent adult can read and speak fluently and still be called "illiterate."

That is a signal that American students need to start beefing up their performance, Dr. Benjamin Carson told a crowd of youngsters recently at the Boys Club and Girls Club, 620 Rockland Ave.

Carson, a pediatric neurosurgeon and author of the book, Think Big, painted a frightening picture of the future if the trend of American education isn't reversed.

Noting that U.S. students have placed 21st out of 22 nations tested in math and science, Carson said the United States is losing its grip on the role of world leader.

"We'll be the country (other nations) come to when they need cheap, ignorant labor," he predicted.

Japanese students placed second in the exams, Carson said. Leaders in Japan were asked the rate of adult illiteracy there.

By American standards, Carson said, the Japanese are claiming an illiteracy rate of zero. By Japanese standards, it's at 15 percent. The difference is in the way the two nations define "illiteracy."

Mary Hohensee, director of the Lancaster-Lebanon Literacy Council, cited the National Literacy Act of 1991, which defines literacy as the ability to read, write and speak English, and solve the problems necessary to function on the job and achieve personal goals. Even with that "fuzzy" definition, Hohensee said the U.S. is saddled with an illiteracy rate of 20 percent. That number doesn't include people for whom English is a second language.

Carson said the Japanese do not have any adults fitting that description. Whether that means their education is so much better, or if it means they simply do not not let students graduate without achieving those goals, is a question that bears further research.

So what about the 15 percent illiteracy rate in Japan?

According to Carson, the Japanese consider an adult to be illiterate if he or she is not adept with a computer. How many Americans would pass that test?

[ by Tom Knapp ]