Jonathan Kozol opens his essay, “The Human cost of an Illiterate Society” with an all too familiar phrase, “Precautions, read before using: Poison.” Now to you and me, and all other fully literate people, this phrase is easily interpreted as a need to read the directions before using a product. But, as Kozol points out, an illiterate would have no idea what this means.

There is only one point to this essay, and that is that illiterates cannot and never will be able to function efficiently within a western society. The illustrations that Kozol gives provide an accurate portrait of the life illiterates live on a day-to-day basis.

In the United States alone, research states that there are nearly 16 million people suffering from the lack of the ability to read. These people have trouble voting, understanding instructions, helping their children with homework, traveling, eating at restaurants and even taking care of their own finances.

They are left at the will of society, in the hands of social workers and welfare employees. And for that, they are often abused—asked to sign papers and checks giving up their rights and money—because they wouldn’t know any different. They are guided by caseworkers that they do not trust and often, for a good reason.

One woman states, “I couldn’t understand the bills…we signed things we didn’t know what they were.” Another says, “They are cheating me…I have been tricked…but I do not know.”

It is hard for them to travel, unable to read maps and street signs. They become trapped in the places they grew up in, able only to take the roads they know by heart. Eating out becomes a chore, as they cannot read menus. Even cooking in their own homes comes at a price. They have small salaries but become nearly forced to buy products only on basis of brand recognition. Once they’ve paid for the more expensive groceries, they then come home to find instructions on the box that once again, they can’t read.

There are many legal hassles that affect the daily lives of the illiterates as well. From their inability to understand legal documents and jargon to the uneducated and popularity vote that they will cast each November during political elections, illiterates will face a harsh life in a democracy. The votes they cast on ballots are often based on the smile or charm of a candidate. At best you can assume they got their information from the television, but newspapers and magazines can never be a source for political information. Kozol even goes as far to address the theory that if more illiterates had been at the polls with accurate information, Ronald Reagan would never have been president.

All of this leads to a life of dull experiences, tastes, and overall existence. Trapped in a world they grew up in, destined to be behind the rest of society, working dead end jobs and living in the same neighborhood they were raised in. Kozol’s essay points out how easily illiterates lose their identity, self-location, and definition as it becomes all too clear that illiterate citizens are dysfunctional in our society.

Okay, let's start over now.

This essay was written in 1985. Kozol’s essay is a description of the way he saw it. Fast forward two decades and this is how I see it:

Twenty years ago, being illiterate was less of a crime than it seems today.

With the dependency upon technology and education, it is even harder to live as an illiterate.

While the issue of travel has been solved by a numbered interstate system, as well as visual landmarks, and the problem with cooking can easily be solved by training, illiteracy is a still a dangerous disability. You may be able to function, but you will never be able to get ahead.

In today's day and age, there is no excuse for being illiterate. One can find programs at almost any junior college or high school to help with adult illiteracy.

Work Cited:
Kozol, Jonathan. “The Human Cost of an Illiterate Society.” The Seagull Reader Essays. Ed. Joseph Kelly. New York: Norton, 2002. 113-23.

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