Scott Postma

A blog about the Great Books, the Craft of Writing, and Human Flourishing.

The Easiest Way to Keep Your Kids Out of Jail!

There is a 67% chance your child will end up in jail or on welfare if he or she is not reading proficiently by the 4th grade. That’s according to literacy statistics provided at

Studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, support this statistic, citing 70% of adult inmates and 85% of all juvenile offenders are functionally illiterate.

This means most inmates, both adult and juvenile, cannot use “printed and written information to function in society, to achieve [their] goals, and to develop [their] knowledge and potential.”

Now, before passing judgment on these poor souls, consider that in 1985, 50% of all American adults were unable to read an eighth grade level book.

50% of all American adults were unable to read an eighth grade level book

Yeah, but that was so 1985, you say.

Well, the most recent studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy show that in 2003 improvement was virtual immeasurable. Literacy among adults only improved by 8 points from the 1992 study.

Get this: thirty-two million adults in the U.S. can’t read at all.

In 2003, that was 14% of the population. Further, only 13% are at or above Proficient. That means about the same number of people who can’t read at all “possess the skills necessary to perform complex and challenging literacy activities.”

The studies cited scored respondants in three areas: prose, documentation, and quantitative. Here’s what that means in the words of the NCES:

Prose literacy is the knowledge and skills needed to perform prose tasks (i.e., to search, comprehend, and use information from continuous texts, such as paragraphs from stories); document literacy is the knowledge and skills needed to perform document tasks (i.e., to search, comprehend, and use information from noncontinuous texts in various formats, such as bills or prescription labels); and quantitative literacy is the knowledge and skills required to perform quantitative tasks (i.e., to identify and perform computations, either alone or sequentially, using numbers embedded in printed materials).

In other words, of the approximately 320 million Americans living in the United States today, a little more than 245 million of them are adults. Of those 245 million adults, nearly 34 million of them can’t read my blog post.

Additionally, the statistics show 123 million adults can read my blog post without too much trouble, but only 32 million of them can conceptualize the information and make meaningful use of the content.

To put this another way, if there were 100 people in a room reading an eighth-grade-level book, 14 of them could not read it, 50 of them could read it without too much trouble, but of those 50 only 13 would understand what they read in a comprehensive way.

Ability Is Not Enough

So far, I’ve only been throwing around statistics that speak to our nation’s ability to read. It’s one thing to recognize and discuss the implications of ability, but it’s another thing altogether to consider the implications of the content read by those who have the ability.

For example, think of the ability to read in the context of the ability to drive a car, whereas the content of reading is akin to where you drive it. Having the ability to drive is essential, but where you drive is why you got your license in the first place.

Understanding this important distinction takes the conversation to an entirely new level.

Growing up in the boonies, I learned to drive well before it was legal for a twelve-year-old to take to the streets behind the wheel of a two-thousand-pound automobile. So I had years to anticipate all the unfamiliar and fascinating places I would go and see whenever I got my license.

I had vain imaginations of a slick set of wheels cruising the drag in curious towns with windows down, elbow on the window seal, wrist cradled at 12 o’clock on the steering wheel, Lynard Skynard turned way up, and the wind flitting through my mullet (Yeah, it was the 80s).

I would know freedom like the birds, flying high in the sky, as far as my wings could carry me, anywhere at anytime, man.

Turns out my wings couldn’t fly me too far. No slick wheels; no curious towns.

I discovered quickly a teen-aged kid with a car and a driver’s license was equivalent to a courier service on the end of a yo-yo string. Constrained by the length of my wallet and my parents’ good sense, I fluttered hither and yon for bread and milk and other household items we sometimes needed.

Reading can be much the same—what we imagine it should be like, and what it’s really like.

If your reading consists of the instruction manual to the device you purchased at Apple or Amazon, or the 300-page business contract your boss flopped on your desk the night before, or even a Stephen King or Stephenie Meyer novel on vacation at the beach this summer, you’re going to find reading the same way I found having my license, an anticlimactic bore.

What Dead People Can Teach Us About Reading

A dead guy named Lyman Abbot believed books can render three services: they can be ornaments; they can be tools; and they can be friends.

I would posit most Americans view books as ornaments. Like the millionaire who built a new home and stocked the library shelves with books beautifully bound, but cut in half so they’d go further, they try to foster an image of literary prowess by decorating their homes with beautiful unread books.

It’s all smoke and mirrors for these folks.

Others collect books and read them the same way a mechanic accumulates Snap-on tools. Since tools are necessary, one can never have too many, it’s reasoned; and if you can afford it, you might as well buy the best.

It’s strictly functional for these folks. Sure it’s certainly more beneficial to have tools than ornaments, but tools tend to go in drawers or boxes until they’re needed.

Finally, there are those of us who view books as friends (or in some cases, knowledgeable acquaintances with whom we dialogue, cautiously).

For us, books are read and re-read frequently, slowly, and carefully. We listen with an ear to hear and dialogue with the author hoping to glean some forgotten or overlooked insight into this complex world we live in.

Abbot asserted: “Books contain the thoughts and dreams of men, their hopes and strivings, and all their immortal parts. It’s in books that most of us learn how splendidly worth while life is. Books are the immortality of the race, the father and mother of most that is worth while cherishing in our hearts.”

The Unitarian clergyman, William E. Channing, wrote, “God be thanked for books! They are the voice of the distant and the dead, and make us heirs of the spiritual life of past ages. They give to all who will faithfully use them.”

Books are the immortality of the race. – Abbot

What these men are referring to is what Mortimer Adler called “the great conversation.”

Learning to read well, and more importantly, learning to read well the great books that shaped the world offer the reader a door out of the cave of images. It opens windows from past worlds and allows the light of their discovery to shine on present and future circumstances, a sort of literary necromancy, but redeemed and holy.

Conversing with dead (and the living) in this manner provides insights about the perennial ideas, beliefs, and themes of various cultures who have shared in the human experience.

It frees the reader from his chains of ignorance, liberates his mind from the bondage of shadows, and provides his imagination with categories of thought for understanding more perfectly the mythos of Jesus Christ–the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Word of God.

It’s not surprising that reading well, and in particular, reading the great books well have been a significant part of a liberal (from Latin libere meaning to liberate) arts education.

So if you want to keep your children out of jail, teach them to read; and if you want to keep them from being enslaved, teach them to read the great books!


Abbot, Lyman. The Guide to Reading. The Gutenberg Project.

Begin to Read.

Kozol, Jonathan. Illiterate America.

National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES).

National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL).

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About Scott Postma

Scott is a writer and teacher living in North Idaho. He loves teaching the Great Books, writing and blogging, and collecting more books than he’ll ever read in a lifetime. You can subscribe to the tribe and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.

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