What if Lincoln had been illiterate?

Being able to read has always been a skill that transforms lives, communities and the world. Abraham Lincoln didn’t have more than a year’s worth of formal education, but it was enough to set him on the path to literacy, the first step in his miraculous journey. His father almost certainly couldn’t read, so imagine if Abe followed in his father’s well-worn footsteps?

Today, literacy in our text-is-everywhere world is more important than ever; the lack of reading skills is a clear predictor of poverty and disempowerment. Hard to believe, but in the U.S., 32 million adults cannot read, a bit more than the entire population at the start of the Civil War. Nineteen percent of the 32 million even graduated from high school!


Imagine how much more productive, healthy and financially successful our country would be if these marginalized people could read. Imagine how many Lincolns or Edisons or Bill Gates’s might emerge to improve our world. Now consider the fact that, globally, 757 million adults above the age of 15 cannot read. Imagine the Gandhis or Mandelas languishing in this purgatory.

On a more fundamental level, low literacy’s impact costs the U.S. $225 billion or more each year in workforce non-productivity, crime, and unemployment-related tax revenue losses. The more adults with low literacy proficiency, the slower the overall GDP growth rate.

Without the basic literacy tools needed to get through modern life, people cannot be involved fully and equally in social, community and political discourse.

Check out the infographic below—which provides a lot more of information that may surprise you.

While International Literacy Day, celebrated every September 8th, has raised awareness, much more needs to be done. For the millions who are struggling to simply exist, and for the sake of our country and planet, let’s do what we can to eliminate illiteracy. We’ll all benefit.

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Literacy Day

Don Heymann

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