The Crisis of Low Literacy

In 2013, Statistics Canada released data showing that nearly half of Canadians struggle with basic literacy. Correspondingly, only 51.5% of Canadians have a level of literacy which enables them to accurately understand text written with some level of complexity, making them functionally literate at least. A functionally literate person can manage to read Canadian public broadcaster (the CBC), but will be unable to handle anything that has more complex concepts, language, or materials with “big words”. Advanced literacy skills belong to a minority in Canada.

CACP, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, took up some of this data to analyze it in the context of crime and policing. CACP found that, too often, police charge people who clearly didn’t understand the nature of the charges against them, nor understand court proceedings. In other words, the accused cannot be considered fully informed of their alleged crimes nor their rights. 

While Canada ranks low when it comes to literacy compared to other OECD countries, low literacy levels are common in developed nations worldwide. Low literacy is endemic in advanced capitalist countries, where you would least expect to find it well into the 21st century.

While there is no updated nationwide data since 2013, the problem did get worse from 2003 to 2012, as noted by the Conference Board of Canada. It serves to reason that literacy skills have continued along this downwards trend since 2013 as provincial governments across the country have implemented more and more cuts to education and social welfare programs, while increasing postsecondary education costs. Low literacy is a real social crisis, and yet is not an area of active debate or legislation in most parliaments across this country. But why not?

For one, the reality of low literacy is a black mark on Canada’s education system, which is an area difficult to criticize for a wide variety of reasons. For politicians at the federal level, criticizing an area of provincial jurisdiction is politically difficult and would inevitably result in provinces blaming the federal government for inadequate funding. For politicians at the provincial level, broaching issues of education quality would equally invite questions of increasing funding, and create conflict with the powerful, provincially-rooted teachers’ unions. Perhaps the main barrier to active discussion around low literacy is that talking about these failures destroys the mirage of Canada as populated by a highly educated and knowledgeable population, thereby reducing its appearance of competitiveness on the global stage. 

And so the crisis worsens with little more than an occasional news item highlighting the issue.

How can we understand low literacy in light of modern capitalism? Investigation of the links between low literacy and propaganda reveals how low literacy is no ‘accidental’ element of the capitalist system. Indeed, it serves it extremely well.

Let’s look more specifically at Covid propaganda since the consequences were much more intrusive than most propaganda campaigns.

The evidence supporting the government’s COVID-19 protocols were so weak that they would never stand up to brief scrutiny nor basic scientific rigor, which involves repeatedly challenging hypotheses to prove or disprove claims. During the pandemic there was a significant amount of ‘ignorance embracing’, wherein people were discouraged from ‘doing their own research’. The vaccine rollout in Canada, particularly coercive as it was, turned out to be not only a massive experiment on a largely scientifically ignorant populace, but also a cultural experiment on what could be sold to people through assertion without evidence, and later, how intense the coercive measures be made before people started rising up in protest.

The vaccine and lockdown mandates were ‘sold’ to us using the very same logical fallacies that most consumer products marketing rests on: by appeal to emotion, appeal to authority by discouraging independent critical thought, and the fallacy of opposition via ostracizing those who don’t buy into “the new thing that everybody’s doing/buying!” For this approach to work en masse, Canadians’ literacy skills must be low. Thus, despite pretensions at being a highly-educated country, Canadians’ comprehension is tailored to fulfill their most important role in this society: that of consumers.

The same crowd that was admonishing people for doing their own research were taking the most anti-intellectual position available. Evidence wasn’t on their side, otherwise they could have just presented it. Instead, they made the most facile argument by claiming that the “fully literate” populace of a nation should not formulate their own assessment on an irreversible medical procedure they’re ordered to endure. 

For the ruling class, compliance is always better than questioning. Doing as your told and not thinking too much (because someone smarter has already done all the thinking) is still the most efficient way to get simple tasks done, but it’s not how people should be made to approach significant and irreversible decisions about their own lives, family and community. Just doing as you’re told comes from a master-slave mindset, which is why the more authoritarian institutions in Canadian society, like school and the workplace, have rules set by the bosses. Those that fail to follow these rules are kicked out, bullied, ostracized, demoted or fired.

If you look at the history of education in the industrialized capitalist nations, its institutionalized form was designed primarily to ensure that children and young adults could enter the work force with just enough literacy to begin working with no further significant training required. As the jobs became more complex, higher levels of education and literacy were needed. Most importantly, the governments of the day were willing to provide this education at the public’s expense rather than the employers’; it was a very profitable move to absolve employers of their training responsibilities and costs. Today, high levels of education are needed just to get an entry-level job. Workers aspiring to anything beyond ‘unskilled’ labor (meaning they need some kind of postsecondary training) often have to take on a debt burden, which thereafter encourages them to take any available work and stick with it regardless of poor working conditions and compensation.

Contrast the Canadian status quo with the stated goals of full literacy and free post secondary education in countries that have undergone a socialist revolution like Cuba. Cuban literacy rates were among the lowest in the Western hemisphere leading up to the Cuban revolution in 1959. In the immediate months following the revolution, Fidel Castro and the revolutionary leadership were consistent in explaining why they wanted to improve literacy: people are not so easily deceived when they have the power to read and understand. Castro reasoned that with literacy, the Cuban people would not so easily fall for the incessant capitalist and imperialist propaganda coming over the airwaves and print media. There’s an old saying about Cold War era propaganda: in the USSR people saw the news and figured it was propaganda, whereas in the US people watch propaganda and think it’s news.

In Canada, and other OECD countries, it is clear that poor literacy has made it easier to guilt and coerce the population into believing the news/propaganda. Poor literacy has also made it harder for a lot of people to arm themselves with the type of information to combat the incessant messaging to “just do as you’re told and stop thinking for yourself.” 

The ruling class doesn’t really want a truly literate populace. They don’t want the masses questioning their practices, motivations, nor their contributions to acts of inhumanity around the world. They do not want people question the status quo, regardless of how quickly and irrationally it changes. Creating a fully literate working class was a result of massive class struggle, and ‘full literacy’ has now become an integral part of modern capitalism. But in the end the ruling class has triumphed in dulling the threat of mass literacy, while extracting the most benefit.

Peter Kerek, BA, BJ, is a trade unionist based in British Columbia, Canada. This article was modified and republished from Peter Kerek’s Substack.