A page from the New England Primer, an old text book used to teach reading
“There are 200 million Americans who have inhabited schoolrooms at some time in their lives and who will admit that they know how to read (provided you promise not to use their names and shame them before their neighbors), but most decent periodicals believe they are doing amazingly well if they have circulations of half a million. It may be that only 1 per cent–-or less―of Americans make a stab at exercising their right to know. And if they try to do anything on that basis they are quite likely to be accused of being elitists.
“I contend that the slogan “America’s right to know” is a meaningless one when we have an ignorant population, and that the function of a free press is virtually zero when hardly anyone can read.”
Newsweek: “A Cult of Ignorance,” by Isaac Asimov, January 21, 1980, p. 19. PDF.
Asimov’s assertion is not that Americans are illiterate–can’t read or write–but that Americans are just barely functionally literate. Functional literacy is that state in which you can read enough to survive but don’t read for pleasure or understanding or enlightenment. You read only the material necessary to perform a societal function, only that material necessary to do your job. True literacy is the ability to read for pleasure rather than necessity, the ability to exercise some curiosity and find out what others have said about the world and human experience.