Literacy is one of the least objectionable of virtues, and maybe that’s the problem. A vow to honor literacy would fit nicely on any list of New Year’s resolutions, along with regular exercise, a balanced diet and, for that matter, a balanced budget. We are all agreed: Literacy is good, along with kale and a grand bargain to avoid the sequester. But … not just yet, thanks very much; maybe later. First, let’s watch the Super Bowl commercials again on YouTube.

“Adult” literacy sounds a bit more promising than plain old “literacy,” if only because “adult” when used as an adjective now exhales the exciting fumes of prurience. “Adult” means “rated X” — except if appended to “literacy,” when it begins faintly to reek of desperation. “Adult literacy” sounds remedial. It sounds like an attempt to take care of something that somebody else should have taken care of some time ago. It sounds like deferred maintenance. It sounds like somebody fell asleep at the switch at some point.

Yet literacy in America carries a meaning above and beyond what it carries elsewhere in the world. Literacy here is not a cultural virtue standing in isolation, nor is it a luxury item. It is, instead, a basic necessity. It is inextricably bound up with the notion of citizenship; it is basic to the idea that we – we the people of the United States – govern ourselves. American exceptionalism is a dangerous idea easily abused, as we have seen all too often over the last unhappy decade, but the American idea of popular sovereignty was, and remains, truly revolutionary and even radical.


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