Chris Hedges and Literacy

Tom Shipka

Thomas Jefferson affirmed that a democratic republic can survive and prosper only if the citizens are literate and well-informed. This is why he proposed tax-supported schools in every community and founded the University of Virginia. So, how is the America of 2010 faring by Jefferson's standard? We don't have Jefferson to ask but we do have Chris Hedges. In his seventh book, entitled Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, Hedges, a recipient of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on global terrorism, takes a sober look at literacy in America (1). His book is fundamentally a literacy report card and he gives America an F. Consider these facts which Hedges cites:

  • 7 million Americans are illiterate and the number grows by 2 million a year
  • 30 million Americans cannot read a sentence
  • Among those who read, 50 million read at the 4th to 5th grade level
  • In 2007, 80% of U.S. families did not buy or read a book
  • One-third of those Americans who graduate from high school never read a single book after high school for the rest of their lives, and 42% of those who graduate from college never read a single book after college for the rest of their lives.

These jarring facts lead Hedges to indict our schools and colleges for training students to be compliant, money-driven careerists instead of critical thinkers who value autonomy and curiosity and who see the need to challenge the idols of the tribe.If Americans care little today about the pursuit of knowledge through books, magazines, and newspapers, what do we care about? Hedges claims that most of us care about entertainment in order to escape from reality.

Certainly TV serves this purpose. The average American watches TV four hours a day and in the average household the TV is on for six hours forty-seven minutes a day. But TV is not alone. Professional wrestling, celebrity worship, pornography, and many other diversions supplement it. Let's focus on pornography. Hedges points out the following:

  • Over 13,000 porno films are produced in America a year
  • There are 4.2 million porno websites. This amounts to 12% of the total number of websites
  • One out of four daily search engine requests, or 68 million a day, is for porno material
  • In 2006, the pornography industry raked in a staggering $97 billion worldwide. This is more than the combined revenues of Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Apple, NetFlix, Earth Link, and Yahoo!
  • Approximately 80% of all porn dollars spent by Americans go to Broadband, Comcast, and Direct TV, which is owned by General Motors
  • The principal users of Internet porn are between the ages of twelve and seventeen.

Hedges says much more than I can report here on topics such as corporate influence in politics and journalism, NAFTA, Ivy League colleges, and others. Empire of Illusion is worth your time, as are his other books, especially the ones on American evangelicals and the new breed of in-your-face atheists. Few can match his analytical powers.

  1. All the data cited in this commentary are taken from this book.

© 2010 Tom Shipka