The phone rings at Oregon Literacy Inc. on a rainy Monday morning.
'Oregon Literacy, this is Chris. How can I help you?'
I can hear someone crying on the other end of the line. It is an older man's voice. Through the tears, he says: 'I'm sorry. I just got off the phone with my son. É He told me he can't read. He's 25 years old. His son is 2. What's he going to do when the boy says, 'Daddy, read to me'?'
This kind of conversation is a common occurrence at OLI. People call us from all over the state, struggling with low literacy skills. Some describe being unable to get a job. Others want to be able to help their children with school. Still others struggle with more basic tasks, such as reading medical prescriptions, directions or basic labels and signs at their workplaces.
When I first started working at OLI, I thought adult literacy had to do with a person's ability to read and enjoy a good book. While that ability is something I have always valued, I did not think of it as an essential skill for survival. However, I have discovered since starting my work that literacy is indeed a survival skill in the 21st century. Adults who can't read well have little hope of finding decent jobs to support their families. In 1992, 43 percent of adults at the lowest level of literacy were living in poverty, compared to only 4 percent of those at the highest level of literacy. And the literacy problem has only worsened in the last 10 years.
Children's success in the school system depends as much upon parents as it does upon teachers and the school administration. But what about the children whose parents can't read well enough to help them study, or to introduce a book into their child's life that will inspire and motivate? Lack of funding for public schools is only one of the issues that we need to address if we want an educated, active and engaged citizenry in the years to come.
If funding for schools is not coupled with support for adult literacy, the efforts of educators are all for naught. This state's children are not learning because many of this state's parents have not learned. Oregon needs to take a hard look at itself and make a decision: What kind of a state do we want to live in 20 years from now?
If the answer is 'A democratic, intelligent and prosperous one,' we have to make a commitment to two united principles: education and economy. They are tied as closely together as a pair of Siamese twins with a single heart. One twin cannot survive without the other. The approach we take to education will in turn shape the result we see in the economy. If we employ a broad, intergenerational strategy to learning, the economy will become a versatile, adaptable animal, fit not only to survive but to thrive.
Instead of quick fixes for our children's schools and compartmentalized training for unskilled labor, we need to go back to basics: reading, writing and arithmetic for all adults and children. Education for all is the foundation of a democracy and a free society, and it is something this state still has not achieved.
I want every father to be able to read to his son. I want every mother to be able to go to a job interview with the confidence, the courage and the capability that comes with literacy.
Christopher Fromherz recently graduated from Lewis & Clark College; he plans to spend the next year writing, hiking and preparing to enter graduate school, either in literature or law. He lives in Southeast Portland.