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Published:October 29th, 2006 04:56 EST
Functional Illiteracy

Functional Illiteracy

By Erich Brandenberger (Mentor)

It happens sometimes that I send somebody an e-mail with three questions and then get one of them answered. Or maybe two. That's a good success rate. To improve it, I started a few years ago to number the questions and got better results, but far from 100%.

In Switzerland, 10% of the population cannot read and write at all. An additional 30% have significant problems coping with the written language. For them, applying for a passport, for instance, is a stressful ordeal, despite nine years of mandatory schooling. They cannot handle forms, do not understand the questions, and panic at the thought of making spelling mistakes. The number of people who cannot understand most of the topics aired on prime-time news is even greater.

Tabloids and the commuter press can get through to some of these minds with headlines like "Mom kills 2 kids, self." But when the prestigious NZZ titles: "Elastic due diligence criteria in the Kelly affair", it reaches perhaps 10% of the population.

A recent national vote comprised 9 issues that required a yea or nay, among others a bill on a nuclear power plant construction moratorium. The consensus in the press was that voters were sorely overtaxed by the supporting documentation (mailed to each household with the ballots). In such situations, Swiss voters have the tendency to turn down bills to their own disadvantage. The turnout was a meager 32% even though some very important issues were at stake.

The Swiss government, faced with declining tax revenues, has elected to cut funding to the country's educational system. That says a lot about the literacy of the people in parliament.

Interesting reading: Look for "Pisa Study" in Google. Switzerland ranks below the OECD average in reading (best: Finland, Canada, New Zealand) and scientific (best: Korea, Japan, Finland) literacy, slightly higher in mathematical (best: Japan, Korea, New Zealand) literacy. The USA ranks around the OECD average in all three categories. Brazil ranks worst in all three.

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