Literacy as Freedom
Hi, my name is Ben Bundy and I’m a first-year AmeriCorps VISTA. Nearly two years ago I graduated from a small college in Michigan called Spring Arbor University. Spring Arbor lies outside the city of Jackson and just down the road from the elementary school where I mentor twice a week. One of the major subjects I studied there was the topic of poverty. My major was International Studies, which placed a large focus on sociology and third-world economics. I was also privileged with opportunities to venture abroad and saw extreme poverty in Mexico and Guatemala that prior to these experiences I had only read about.
When I decided to come back to Jackson and do a year-long term with AmeriCorps VISTA, I didn’t expect to see the same lack of opportunity just up the road from Spring Arbor as I had seen in Central America. Granted, I didn’t see houses made of plywood or families living in the midst of garbage, but I did see a very similar lack of opportunity. Over 13,000 households in Jackson are living below the poverty level. This accounts for 33% of families in Jackson, with the majority of these families being single-parent households. Working conditions are far from ideal as well, with an unemployment rate of 21%, nearly double the state average of 9%.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned during my year as a VISTA, it’s that no one portrait or statistic effectively portrays poverty. The reality is that poverty extends beyond financial problems or unemployment. It has been described as anything from a mindset to a generational cycle. For many across the nation though, the path to poverty begins with illiteracy. Jackson is one of many Michigan cities with a reading problem. About 10% of Jackson County elementary students are reading behind grade level, according to the Intermediate School District. The percentage of third-graders in Jackson Public Schools that met MEAP reading standards was only 52.5%, compared to the statewide average of 61.3%. Illiteracy is a serious issue for these students, but the outcomes that result from it are only more severe.
At Energizing Education we often state that children first learn to read and then spend the rest of their lives reading to learn. The flip side of this coin is that those students who never learn to read face a mountain of obstacles. No ability is as fundamental to an individual’s learning and success as the basic ability to read, and when children miss out on this skill, they pay for it later in life. Students who don’t learn to read by the third grade often fall behind in other subjects, struggle to keep up, and are four times more likely to not graduate high school. School failure often results in outcomes such as unemployment, substance abuse, and incarceration, perpetuating the vicious circle of poverty from one generation to another.
Jackson’s reading predicament hasn’t gone unnoticed, and organizations such as United Way and Energizing Education are working hard to make a difference. I believe a different problem exists though, and this problem is that many adults take literacy for granted. For many of us, this seems to be no error. I was lucky enough to be raised in a household that valued reading. My grandmother was a retired teacher, and my parents ensured I was surrounded with books growing up. Like millions of middle-class Americans, I was the beneficiary of a fortunate upbringing. This, I believe, is often forgotten. Because of our own circumstances we may imagine that an illiterate first-grade student is a rare occurrence – a deviation from an otherwise honest pattern – but the reality is that illiteracy is one of the most prevalent and overlooked social problems we face.
One of my favorite books in college was Development as Freedom¸by Amartya Sen. In it, Sen makes the case that we need to view development in a different light than it has been viewed traditionally. Rather than measuring development solely in terms of economic growth such as GDP or emergence from poor societal conditions, his central message is that development may also be seen as a process of expanding freedom. Sen notes that we often view the skills and resources needed to get out of poverty strictly as escape routes. He argues rather that we can view them not just as ladders out of poverty but as pathways to a realm of prosperity and opportunity. Individuals “need not be seen primarily as passive recipients”, Sen writes. With the right opportunities available, these people can “shape their own destiny and help each other”.
I think Sen’s framework for viewing development could be applied in the same way to literacy. As President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously described in his “Four Freedom’s” message, it is not just freedom from that we must value but the freedom to. These types of freedom have since been described in terms of negative freedom and positive freedom. It’s important for us to recognize the duel nature of this freedom in order to see the full spectrum of possibilities that are created. We can observe the struggling student’s learning to read not just as salvaging the child’s future – precluding unemployment or financial struggles – but as opening doors and opportunities with which the student can create his or her own future.
Literacy is thus not just freedom from but freedom to. It is the freedom not simply to learn, but to achieve. When we view literacy as freedom, we view it not just as relief from the obstacles the student may face. We see it as a tool that students can harness to actively play a role in their own education. Students become agents and architects of their own futures, rather than merely “passive recipients” as described by Sen. Literacy is the freedom not just to close the gap between the student and his peers, but the power to motivate and inspire them. It is the freedom of opportunity to grow up and become a lawyer or an accountant or perhaps even a science fiction writer. The possibilities are endless, but one thing is certain. Literacy means freedom.
Energizing Education is a program that values literacy as the foundation for a lifetime of success. It’s a program that sees reading as a first step into a world of endless possibilities. To quote a book I read recently, “A beginning is a time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct”. Energizing Education understands this truth, and our results speak for themselves. We’re now in six elementary schools throughout Jackson County and looking to expand further. I’m very proud to have been a part of Energizing Education these past twelve months. It’s been exciting and inspiring watching the improvement our students have made thanks to the program. We know there is still much work to be done, but one thing is for sure. Help is on the way.