Limits to Empowerment?

The other day I read an article in a well-known economic publication about how “talking websites” could empower the illiterate. I’m doubtless in a small minority, but I’ve been concerned for a long time about all this emphasis on “empowerment.”

I do tend to worry about universal suffrage when something like a third of the American electorate doesn’t even know who’s president — but then, again, that percentage has varied between 25% and 35% for at least 20 years, and we haven’t had any more political catastrophes during this period than any other, although those who disparage the previous president tend to forget that we had a few problems with a man named Nixon, and moral and upright as he was personally, a fellow by the name of Carter wasn’t exactly the most effective of chief executives… and even when suffrage wasn’t even close to universal, we managed to elect Warren Harding.

But… as a writer and as an individual who believes in both the written and the spoken word, I have to ask whether we want to grant more power to those who cannot master, even if through no fault of their own, half of whatever language their culture uses to bind that part of civilization together. Writing changes culture, and, based on history, it does so for the better. Exactly why, at a time when written skills are declining, when a smaller and smaller percentage of so-called educated individuals have actually mastered the written word [according to a study released by the Department of Education three years ago, almost 40% of individuals with advanced college degrees do not have the analytical skills to explain the arguments in a standard newspaper article], why do we want to grant more power to those who cannot write and write at all?

We’re already substituting test results for analytical skills in far too many school districts across the country. Newspapers are failing left and right because most people under thirty don’t have either the inclination or the ability to read more than a sentence at a time, let alone a paragraph, and before long those of us who can and would like some detail in our news will be relegated to perusing a relative handful of printed or subscription online sources, because, so far as I can determine, there’s less and less of a market for real news… just for sensationalism or for targeted “in-depth” rationalizations of what various groups of people already believe.

But then again, maybe we should expand the internet and website system so that no one has to master reading and writing — and add an amendment to the Constitution that no one can run for public office without being able to explain in detail and on the spot and in writing what the duties of that office are and why he or she would be qualified to hold that post. We could even return to handwritten paper ballots at the same time.

All you’d have to do to be politically empowered would be able to read, write, and think. Would that be so bad?