The Dumbing of America

Yesterday’s Washington Post had a slew of great articles that I wanted to bring to your attention.
First, two related opinion pieces on American literacy. The first by Susan Jacoby nearly brought me to tears.

In 1982, 82 percent of college graduates read novels or poems for pleasure; two decades later, only 67 percent did. And more than 40 percent of Americans under 44 did not read a single book — fiction or nonfiction — over the course of a year.

That leads us to the third and final factor behind the new American dumbness: not lack of knowledge per se but arrogance about that lack of knowledge. The problem is not just the things we do not know (consider the one in five American adults who, according to the National Science Foundation, thinks the sun revolves around the Earth); it’s the alarming number of Americans who have smugly concluded that they do not need to know such things in the first place.

The next by Howard Gardner is slightly more optimistic: “[W]hatever our digital future brings, we need to overcome the perils of dualistic thinking, the notion that what lies ahead is either a utopia or a dystopia.”
The final article on literacy by Randy Sulzman talks about the lengths to which people in oppressed countries like Iran go to read, which should inspire you to read as well.
Then there is this series on helping military families get out of debt. Of course, the stories are predictable, as they are not unique to military families. The Bathiches make $65k/year and have $27600 in credit card debt. But the military pays for their housing, and gives them a food allowance as well. Yet they somehow rack up the debt, despite the two biggest spending categories being essentially taken care of for them. Worse, they borrowed money from the man’s father to pay off credit cards, only to get right back to the same amount of credit card debt a short time later.
The Colons make $191k/year. The article doesn’t say whether they have their housing and food paid for by the military, but it does say they have three houses. They also have three very expensive cars. His BMW Z3 costs $700/month, and he foolishly traded in a Ford Mustang (on which he still owed $10k) for a Ford Explorer, making his new loan balance on that one almost $50k, making payments of $853/month! Yes folks, over $1500/month on two cars. No wonder they’re in trouble. Then tack on an expensive wedding, and it’s a recipe for disaster.
Finally, the Holmeses make $135k/year. They have two houses themselves, one of which they are renting out for $1000/month LESS than the mortgage costs. They put a lot of money into their Thrift Savings Plan (government equivalent of a 401(k)), but they also took $20k in loans on the retirement account. Ugh. So many mistakes, so little time.
At least these people recognize that they have made mistakes and they are willing to put a giant spotlight on their problems to try to dig their way out. Americans across the country make similar mistakes every day, getting in trouble with credit card debt, fancy cars, and things they can’t afford. I just wish it was so easy to predict their stories before even reading them. The solutions for most of them are simple: cut down on unnecessary spending, cut up your credit cards, sell the fancy things you bought that you can’t afford (those cars!), and stop trying to live beyond your means.