Tuesday, March 29, 2011

An end to literacy?

I know I've been away from this blog awhile, and I hope to rectify that soon with more updates about my Van Gogh novel and historical fiction generally. For today's post, I feel obliged to return to a subject I've written about before and that should strike the hearts of every reader and writer in America whether his or her taste runs to historical fiction or not. As many of you probably know, our Congress, in a fit of pique about the deficit--a pique that for some strange reason went unstated while former President Bush ran up monstrous deficits during his eight year tenure--has taken some rather drastic steps to reduce the federal debt. Apparently, raising additional revenue cannot even be considered, so the Congress is attempting to balance the federal budget by cutting spending alone--an effort that is not just misguided but impossible. And as a result, Congress is making devastatingly bad choices, one of which is to cut all funding for literacy programs, including Reading is Fundamental (RIF), Teach for America, and the National Writing Project (NWP). This despite the fact that these programs have been in existence for decades and are doing beautiful, demonstrably useful work. Apparently, maintaining tax cuts for already wealthy individuals is a sacred cow that cannot be touched, but literacy programs that help foster a passion for reading and writing up and down the economic scale can be cut with no problem at all. I don't know how else to define this state of affairs except as a pure, grotesque sickness. And such an example of horrifically skewed priorities that our country cannot help but to feel the longterm effects of it.

Of the many crazy aspects to this terrible decision is that these programs are not just a drop in the bucket of the federal budget but a microscopically small portion of one drop. For example, the entire budget for the National Writing Project, a nationwide organization with sites in every state, is only 25 million dollars. 25 million dollars amounts to part of a downpayment on one airplane flown by our military. And to save that pittance an entire organization that for decades has worked for better teaching of writing may be put out of business. I hope you agree that literacy is simply too important a matter to be disrespected and defunded like this. Let's put aside the hope of all authors everywhere that in the future an audience will still exist for our books; literacy cuts a lot closer to home than that. Literacy is all about providing people--all people--more opportunity. It's about making the American dream possible. It's about growing our nation in all ways, including economically. It's about creating incentives to try for more out of life and not falling into traps like a life of crime. If you scoff at that statement as inflated rhetoric you should know that one of the factors that experts look at to predict the need for future prisons is 3rd grade literacy. If you care about the basic fabric of our nation holding together, if you care about creating opportunity, if you care at all about education and specifically education in literacy, these cuts should disgust and frighten you. What kind of country are we, anyway?

That really sad thing is that in disparaging so many government programs as "earmarks," conservatives have attacked some truly wonderful, and successful, initiatives. My wife happens to be affiliated with the National Writing Project. She has been quite depressed lately about the cuts and has said repeatedly that the people involved in NWP are the best people she has ever met. The most committed, the most selfless people. People doing great work on behalf of teachers and students. And yet Congress decides to defund them. And our president, inexplicably, signs the bill into law. As I write this, my wife is headed to Washington, along with others associated with NWP, to lobby Congress on behalf of the organization. This is something the organization does every year, but never inside an atmosphere like it faces this year. The little piece of good news is that there's an outside chance that funding for NWP and other literacy programs could be restored for 2012. It's a very small chance, however, unless Congress and the president hear from all of us about how important funding literacy is. Please take a moment and hit this link. It will lead you to a page where you can very quickly and easily--honestly, it will only take a second--express to your congressman and senators your support for NWP. If you would rather send an independent email to your representatives expressing your concern about literacy funding generally or about funding for some other literacy organization, please do so with my blessings. Congress--and the President--needs to hear from as many of us as possible. I never in my life thought I would live to see a Democratic president and a congress that is half-Democratic cut all funding for literacy. It is deeply deeply disheartening. More than that, if finalized, it amounts to a national tragedy. Please do something. Let's shout while we still can.


  1. How can this post have no comments? It's among the brilliant defenses of the NWP and a very lucid explanation of the absolute incompetence of elected leaders gone wild.

    Thanks John, for writing this.


  2. Thanks for the comments, Mike. Good luck to all who work on behalf of the NWP.