Why you should care

Because 32 million Americans can’t read this article.

Do you remember the first book you read? Maybe it was Dr. SeussIf I Ran the Circus, read aloud to you until you could sort out the sounds from the endless repetition. Perhaps you stared at pages documenting the adventures of Biff, Chip and Kipper until the letters spun themselves into sense. In Egypt, 26.2 percent of the population can’t read at an adult level — but, if Minister of Education Moheb Al-Rafeay has anything to say about it, not for long.

His new rule: To graduate university, every student must teach four illiterate people to read. By his metric, that’ll eliminate the country’s literacy problem within a year. That’s not all the potential upside, either. Young, privileged students spending time with people who haven’t had the same advantages, engaged in a common endeavor, seems good for promoting an egalitarian ethos and, well, responsibility for our neighbors. Some 32 million adults in the U.S., about 14 percent of the population, can’t read. So why don’t we implement the same requirement?

With more than 12 million university students matriculating in 2012 — people who should be college seniors now — each university student could teach just two or three people to read and theoretically eradicate U.S. illiteracy. Millions, including 70 percent of the prison population, could turn a new page. And, as in Egypt, we imagine some sweet side benefits. Many students at elite colleges may never interact with an adult who doesn’t read well — but spending hundreds of hours with someone who is functionally illiterate would let them do good for society at large while expanding their understanding of the world. That’s what happened to some students at Tulane University, which instituted a public-service requirement after Hurricane Katrina in a bid to rebuild New Orleans. Some students walk away still thinking of it as a chore. But others “walk away having changed their minds,” says Dr. Agnieszka Nance, the university’s executive director of the Center for Public Service.

There are reasons not to implement this program, of course. Not all university students are entitled brats, for one thing. Many are supporting themselves, caring for relatives or children, or dealing with their own disabilities and/or issues, and they would have difficulty making time for yet another thing on their plates. Others might argue that with tuition at record highs, students should get what they pay for: an education rather than a community service internship. Besides, studies on volunteering have found that the mental health benefits it bestows disappear when it is — or even just feels — mandatory.

And then there’s this: Imagine a jerky frat boy or out-of-touch princess summoning the fortitude and compassion required to teach someone to read. Could go either way, right? “Just because you can read doesn’t mean you can teach someone to read,” cautions Christine Kenny, executive director of Chicago-based adult-literacy organization Literacy Works.

On the other hand, 32 million people still can’t read If I Ran the Circus — and we’ve got a young, well-educated population who could help them fix that. Rather than implementing a year of national service or mandatory time in a national military, what if the collective experience every American university student could look back on was changing one specific person’s life over many long hours of sounding out words, one by one?

Is our solution to illiteracy as easy as A-B-C?

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