Posted by: Bob C. Cleckler | September 20, 2012

Can the U.S. Maintain Its Dominant Position in the World?

The 1983 “Nation At Risk” report was not just idle rhetoric. A recent survey of Fortune 500 firms found that 58 percent of the companies had trouble finding employees with even the most basic skills and that about 20 percent of the present U.S. workforce is functionally illiterate.

Four examples of the many horror stories that could be given about functional illiterates in the workplace are:

  1. In the Proceedings and Debates of the Second Session of the 95th Congress, September 1978, Senator George McGovern told of a young naval recruit who could not read the repair manuals for naval equipment. This recruit had caused $600,000 in damage to delicate naval equipment. The recruit had been trying to do repairs by using common sense and by following the pictures in the manual. These Proceedings and Debates revealed that 30 percent of navy recruits are “a danger to themselves and to costly naval equipment.” The Boston Globe on May 1, 1983, stated that 25 percent “of naval recruits read below ‘the minimum level [required] to understand safety instructions.'” Serious safety concerns arise, for example, if personnel who cannot read repair manuals do the maintenance on the nuclear reactors on atomic submarines.
  2. A herd of prime beef cattle was killed in 1975 when an illiterate feed lot worker fed poison to the cattle. He thought he was adding a nutritional supplement to their feed.18 What illiterate food-processing employee will, in the future, confuse a pesticide with a nutritional supplement in some mass-produced human food?
  3. Reservation clerks, ticket agents, and other persons who deal directly with the public are usually highly literate and efficient. Airline employees directly concerned with airline safety are often much less literate. As an example, on May 5, 1983, three of the engines on an Eastern Airlines jumbo jet en route from Nassau to Miami went dead. The plane dropped three miles before the pilots averted disaster by getting one engine restarted! This occurred because two maintenance workers “hadn’t read” the instruction manual. It was not reported whether they neglected to read them or whether they had been unable to read and understand them.19
  4. A major reason for the near-catastrophe in March 1979 at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant was open valves that were left unsecured. A worker did not follow maintenance instructions.20 Those who say, “A full-scale nuclear plant disaster is very unlikely,” need only look a few years later at the Chernobyl incident. The Three Mile Island event could have affected millions of people in Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. Admittedly the events in the third and fourth examples cannot be identified with any evidence of inability to read. The fact, however, that there are millions of people in the work force — many of whom we do not know are illiterate — makes hundreds of mistakes each day inevitable. The source and result of many of these mistakes may never be known.

David Broder stated in a very enlightened January 17, 1990 article written for Washington Post Service, “It’s been seven years since the ‘Nation at Risk’ report raised a national alarm about our schools. Reform efforts have lifted minimum standards in many communities. But those standards are not nearly high enough to meet the needs for economic survival….If this situation goes unremedied for another decade, this nation is doomed to decline. We simply cannot survive as a first-class economic power in the information age with “minimal” capacity to acquire and communicate facts, information, concepts or ideas.” We desperately need to end English functional illiteracy. We desperately need to join in the humanitarian project of Literacy Research Associates, Inc. and NuEnglish, Inc. (two non-profit educational corporations — click on “About Us” in the heading of this blog)for ending our very real literacy crisis.

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