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Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Columns

Houston literacy rate too low


For every couple served at a diner, there’s a good chance at least one of the patrons can’t read the menu — Houston’s literacy rate is just under 61 percent.

It’s not a comforting notion — at least it shouldn’t be — and it isn’t helped by the fact that Houston ranks in the bottom half of the nation’s most literate. It fluctuates between the 16th and 62nd spots annually, according to Star Telegram. At the least, Houston is consistent with its inconsistency.

If people lived in a small enough town, a fraction of the city’s overall square yardage, this sort of thing might be acceptable, or even expected. But people don’t, and it’s not.

What’s strange is that, for all its speechlessness, Houston is one of the world’s most culturally fluent cities. The Menil Collection, an assortment of art and artifacts, is internationally acclaimed. The University’s Creative Writing Program has set the bar of education since its inception. The city’s theater companies make waves throughout the country, big and small. And of the handful that can find solace in text, the literary tradition expands in spades by the book.

It makes that 61 percent even more disturbing. On one hand, it’s an indication that those who have the opportunities to further themselves culturally — through literature, sculpture or the likes — are taking advantage of what they do have, while making efforts to breach their borders. But the price for this expansiveness is that Houston has honed a steadily hardening culture of inclusiveness.

Take “Gulf Coast Reads” for example. It’s a regional agenda to spark an initiative for citizens in the upper part of the state. The idea is that, by choosing one book for the state to read annually, communities can foster a sort of conversation between classrooms, neighbors and coworkers. At the end of the year, the program concludes with a corralling of the city, inviting its residents, politicians and students for an afternoon to celebrate.

This year’s program ended Saturday. Mayor Annise Parker offered a word or two to a crowd of around 50. After, a handful of programs by some of the city’s younger acting troupes, author Jonathan Safran Foer, took the podium, leaving participants on a high note.

But it also put a clear face on the city’s literary agenda. Whole demographics seem to have missed the memo. With another 400 libraries, 10 million adults, and near as many children in the area, the statistics take on a different light.

An easy solution would be for the city’s educators to make it a priority. The plan would include UH, along with the surrounding universities. Education would become everyone’s business.

The question also becomes one of responsibility: As indebted as institutions are to UH’s cultural relevancy, its citizens shoulder an even larger portion of the burden. It won’t matter how renowned they look from the outside, if there’s nothing happening within. And if Houston literacy rates are any indicator, it’s a image that can only be shouldered for so long.

Bryan Washington is a creative writing senior and may be reached at [email protected]


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