'Sesame Street' for Grown-Ups Needed

There are about 4 1/2 billion people in the world who have never read any of my columns. That doesn't bother me. But there are about 27 million people in the United States alone who not only never have read one of my columns, but who couldn't read one if it was handed to them accompanied by threats of torture, like having television privileges revoked, simply because they don't know how to read; and that is more than a little bit depressing.

According to the Department of Education in Washington, that number--about 27 million--represents today's population of functionally illiterate Americans. "Functionally illiterate" means that they're unable to read and cipher well enough to perform the tasks necessary for the normal performance of day-to-day living in the modern world.

These data came to my attention through my friend Marva Shearer, who is a vice president of Reading Is Fundamental/Southern California, a definite force for good. Marva had been asked to help with a program called "American Ticket," subtitled "KCET's Literacy Project." I phoned Bonnie Oliver, the project director, and she sent me one of their flyers. Among other things, it explains the title "American Ticket": "Useful command of our language . . . is considered a primary requisite to . . . success in this country. For an increasing number of Americans across the nation this has become a goal--a 'ticket' to improved participation and quality of life. 'American Ticket' is the working title given to the overall literacy project now being conducted at KCET."

Awakening Interest in Problem

The flyer goes on to say, "While 27 million American adults are functionally illiterate, and another 45 million are minimally literate, just 3 million American adults lack access to a TV set." The purpose of "American Ticket" is to awaken interest in the problem, and in some solutions to it, among those many millions who watch the tube but can't read. Good idea.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that the television tube has become the main access to learning for an appalling number of Americans. I suppose the idea behind "American Ticket" is to harness the magnet that is TV and put it to a loftier purpose than it commonly serves. The notion apparently worked very well for small children, with "Sesame Street." On a more adult level, and with the support of what they say will be "a dynamic community outreach effort to achieve maximum participation and reinforce the messages the audience will receive directly from their television sets," it should work equally well with an older crowd.

Many months ago, Sonny Fox, the television and theatrical producer, and Dennis Shanahan, a well-known public relations man who for some time was the Word Man on KABC radio's "Ken and Bob Show," got the idea for a television show whose aim was more or less similar to that of "American Ticket"--at least heading in the same direction. They got in touch with me, and we set to work on the show--"Wordplay"--a sort of panel discussion affair featuring people knowledgeable, entertaining, and at times controversial in the field of language. Sonny Fox Productions, in collaboration with KCET, made a few tapes with personnel that included such outstanding personalities as critics John Simon, Carolyn See and Charles Champlin; actor William Windom, who is probably our leading authority on James Thurber, having played him in concert performance all over the nation for several years; Cyra McFadden, author of the hilarious book "The Serial"; Jessica Mitford, who is one of the funniest and most delightful women I have ever known; Larry Gelbart, the award-winning writer; Hal Kanter, the celebrated writer and raconteur; the above mentioned Dennis Shanahan; Dick Martin, formerly of "Laugh-In"; and the irrepressible Sammy Cahn, who has written more lyrics than you can shake a baton at.

Sense and Nonsense

The purpose of "Wordplay" is not necessarily to alert people to the problem of widespread illiteracy; it's more to awaken an interest in language, its sense and nonsense, its fun, its folly, its history and its inner workings. We're sure that this interest is very active in millions of Americans and that it is lying dormant in many millions more.

I haven't seen any tapes of "American Ticket," but I feel sure they'll be good. I have seen the "Wordplay" tapes, and they're great. Wouldn't it be wonderful if "American Ticket" got the needed funding and virtually wiped out illiteracy? Then, if "Wordplay" got the backing, it could give a thoroughly literate population a sparkling linguistic playground to have fun in.

I don't feel the least bit self-serving in wishing them both well.

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