An illiterate is someone who was never taught to read. My mother, an immigrant from Poland, was such an illiterate. She was orphaned at an early age and was never taught to read. Even though she was intelligent, her illiteracy severely limited her intellectual and cultural life. But having been raised in a God-centered religious culture, she had acquired that common sense that permitted her to be a very capable mother and wife.
A functional illiterate, on the other hand, is someone who may have spent up to 12 years in public schools and learned to recognize some words as whole configurations, like Chinese characters, but is incapable of decoding the written language. They are frustrated, handicapped readers who find reading so onerous that they avoid it.
Wikipedia states: “A useful distinction can be made between pure illiteracy and functional illiteracy. Purely illiterate persons cannot read or write in any capacity, for all practical purposes. In contrast, functionally illiterate persons can read and possibly write simple sentences with a limited vocabulary, but cannot read or write well enough to deal with the everyday requirements of life in their own society.”
Curiously enough, four sons of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. — Nelson, David, Laurence, and Winthrop — became functionally illiterate because of the way they were taught to read in the progressive, experimental Lincoln School. But they were not called functional illiterates. They were called “dyslexics,” a fancy word for the same condition. One highly successful functional illiterate told me that he would rather be beaten than have to read, an indication of the psychic pain reading disability can cause.
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Sam Blumenfeld (photo)