A rumor has been circulating about our new president’s level of literacy. First suggested (I think) in a blog post for The Times of Israel, the notion that the president not only doesn’t like to read but cannot read above the fifth-grade level of his campaign rhetoric has made the rounds of Samantha Bee, the Daily Kos and other left-wing opinion makers. I am not here to spread that rumor, but to ask what it might mean for our understanding of both this unusual president’s character and the future of any such administration for the chief executive to be functionally illiterate.
According to the Literacy Council of Union County, in North Carolina, 14 percent of Americans — 1 in 7 — are functionally illiterate, defined as people who “get by” with reading skills in the second- to fifth-grade range. This is not a question of being stupid; as Emily Kirkpatrick of the National Center for Family Literacy has observed of low-literate adults, “They’re very intelligent people because they’ve figured out how to work around disclosing the fact they they can’t read or can’t read well.” While most functionally illiterate adults are also poorly educated, some have completed college and even graduate school, as attested by John Corcoran, the “teacher who couldn’t read” and who taught in public schools for 17 years without, in his words, “getting caught.” In the film Primary Colors, John Travolta’s impression of Bill Clinton captivates his audience with the story of fictional Uncle Charlie who let his life slide away even as he “passed.”
How do you pass? Well, consider some of the characteristics of a functionally illiterate adult who masks his or her disability:
- Has extremely poor spelling skills.
- Uses excuses like “I forgot my glasses” when asked to read.
- Tends to go to the same few restaurants and order the same thing.
- Carries a book, newspaper, or magazine, but doesn’t read it.
- Resists writing lists or notes; instead relies on memory
As the literacy site Learn to Read puts it, “Today there are many who pass as literate, although they aren’t. … Many illiterates are knowledgeable and eloquent speakers. They just didn’t gain their knowledge or eloquence through reading. … [Of the millions of functionally illiterate Americans], only about six million admitted to needing help with any tasks requiring literacy. In short, they felt good about what is actually very poor performance.”
Although the only photos I could unearth of the president holding a book or magazine were either photoshopped or taken of him holding one of his ghostwritten books, the other characteristics, like the lists that have been circulating of narcissistic-personality-disorder traits, seem eerily familiar. And reports like Monday’s in The New York Times -- "[National Security] Council staff members are now being told to keep papers to a single page, with lots of graphics and maps. ‘The president likes maps,’ one official said” -- might inspire us to substitute maps for newspaper or magazine.
But let’s just say that this president — or some hypothetical president in the future — is functionally illiterate. What difference would it make, really? We live in a world where the chief executive can dictate his tweets; where he can get news and analysis from television rather than from books or magazines; where audiobooks and podcasts can replace text; where we respect the extemporaneous speaker far above the one reading off the teleprompter. And plenty of highly literate people promulgate views that most of us find abhorrent. (Steve Bannon, for what it’s worth, is supposedly a voracious reader.)
Yes, lack of literacy still carries a stigma, one that experts on dyslexia, for instance, work hard to combat. And as social psychologists have shown, the presence of stigma not only discourages the afflicted person from seeking help; it also correlates with personality traits that might get in the way of honest, effective leadership. As Jennifer Crocker and Brenda Major argue in “Social Stigma and Self-Esteem: the Self-Protective Properties of Stigma,” members of stigmatized groups, contrary to received opinion, often have surprisingly high self-esteem. Why? Because they attribute negative feedback to prejudice against people like them and devalue those dimensions in which their group fares poorly (while overvaluing dimensions where they excel). It is not hard to imagine cases where criticism of the sitting president is perceived as prejudice against “people like him” and where the criteria where the president fares poorly — for instance, a basic knowledge of history or of the balance of powers in our government — are devalued in favor of criteria like toughness or the ability to draw large crowds. And such protective measures would, in and of themselves, inure the president to important course corrections or knowledge acquisition.
(We are, I remind myself as well as my readers, not spreading a baseless rumor, but only speaking in hypotheticals.)
But the more salient danger of having a functionally illiterate President, surely, would be the chief executive’s inability to deploy the critical thinking skills that are essential to tackling the multidimensional issues central to his mandate. As Michael Scriven of the University of Western Australia puts it, “Many of the skills we think of as part of the critical-thinking repertoire are refinements or extensions of literacy skills. Argument analysis, for example, builds on the ability to understand the meaning of paragraphs.” Certainly, plenty of pre-literate societies had wise, competent, effective leaders. Socrates famously argued against literacy because readers could fool themselves into believing they had accessed the heart of knowledge simply by absorbing text. But we no longer stand in the square of Athens to argue philosophy, and literacy advocates argue effectively that no level of competence in listening, speaking, remembering, and absorbing images can compensate for a deep gap in literacy. A functionally illiterate president would not only skip the briefing papers he was handed every day in order to hide his inability to read them; his not reading them -- and thereby never thinking critically about them -- could itself lead to inadvertent war or a huge tear in the fabric of our national security.
It’s an alarming proposition. Let’s hope any president about whom such rumors of illiteracy swirl can put them quickly to rest — perhaps, as Samantha Bee suggests, by reading aloud a certain long-form birth certificate.