The other day, I read an article about a first-grader named Alfred Williams. He’s 70 years old. Williams had always dreamt about learning to read, but spending his life as a laborer in rural Missouri, had never been able to afford the time or the money to learn the alphabet – let alone words. The article was peppered with photos of the weathered old man sitting in the classroom surrounded by tiny children, making the same crafts and reading the same picture books. It also included photos of him standing in front of the ramshackle hut that he called home. I thought about how much courage it must have taken him to shallow his pride to register for elementary school at that age. I wondered how many other people out there are facing the same struggle but don’t – or can’t – address it.

I looked it up and was stunned. According to the National Institute for Literacy, 13 percent of English-speaking adults were “functionally” illiterate in 2003. This means that these individuals are unable to “comprehend and use written material.” To be sure, we’ve made great leaps in terms of teaching our country to read, but we remain miles off the mark of universal literacy. There’s still a huge percentage of our country that can’t read a newspaper, let alone a medical statement or a parking ticket. I had no idea. And I imagine you probably didn’t either.

This is one of the most prestigious and pricey universities in the nation and, as an inevitable result, the vast majority of us has come from society’s middle and upper crust. Most of us probably grew up in a bourgeois haven of comfy suburban prosperity or trendy urban leisure – but this isn’t how most people live. More than half of the population is either working class or poor. But because of social stratification, our lives have probably not led us to the other side of America’s tracks frequently enough to teach us that coupons, used cars and factory jobs are the status quo – not suburbia and suits. We should constantly remind ourselves that Salvation Armies are for more than just theme-party costumes and porch couches.

Illiteracy is an ever-present scourge in this country, and high school diplomas aren’t things to be taken for granted either. Presumably, many of us were funneled here from communities where more schooling was the inevitable next step after high school. But the reality is that about 15 percent of Americans over the age of 24 in America hasn’t received a high school diploma. And, while we’re breaking into cold sweats and getting the hives over finding a job after graduation, the roughly 73 percent of citizens over the age of 24 who aren’t lucky enough to boast a college degree is managing as best they can. How’s that for perspective?

Not only is education not as ubiquitous in our society as you might have thought, but, on top of this, a hefty portion of Americans is scraping by below the poverty line. The U.S. Census Bureau considers a person under 65 years of age living on less than $10,787 a year to be “impoverished.” This amount equals roughly one semester of in-state tuition for us. Currently, about 12 percent of the population is surviving below this threshold, and a U.S. Department of Agriculture survey revealed that at some point in 2005, food was not readily available for more than one in 10 households.

These are the truths about our country that most of us, with our college degrees and just-in-case-we-need-them parental cushions, will probably never have to confront. Many of us will maintain our economic status, cradle to grave. We will never come face to face with Americans who survive on a few dollars a day, can’t read a food label and have never had a job that doesn’t make their bones ache at the end of a day. But even if we don’t see them, we must know that they’re there because they compose the majority, not us. But despite this, we the college educated – the kids from the bubbles of wealth and well-being – are the ones who are most likely to hold the Senate seats, shape policies and be in positions that will give us the money and means to affect change. We have an obligation to, at the very least, know what this country truly looks like beyond our fertilized lawns and outside our cars’ power windows.

By all accounts, we lead charmed lives. But let’s do society and ourselves a favor and never forget that.

– Ashlea Surles can be reached at

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