“When the press is free and every man able to read, all is well.”

– Thomas Jefferson

The quotation from Thomas Jefferson is dated by its lack of gender inclusion, but the concept remains as true as ever — for every man, every woman and certainly every child.

President Jefferson understood, even as the United States was in its infancy, that an essential and intricate relationship exists between freedom and literacy. Government by the people cannot exist, and it certainly cannot be sustained, without a literate population.

This year’s observance of International Literacy Day on Sept. 8 slipped right past me. I don’t know what I was doing; perhaps I was busy watching television. But while the importance of literacy is appropriate to consider on that day, it is worth pondering at any other time of the year.

An individual’s ability to pursue life, liberty and happiness is severely limited if he or she cannot read. It was true in Jefferson’s era, and it is just as true today when the pace of change is more rapid than ever.

Sure, there are any number of chattering heads on an ever-growing selection of cable television channels and radio stations who are more than willing to tell you what they think you need to know. You don’t have to be able to read to get the news, or their views, and to be “informed.”

But is that really enough?

The joys of living in a free land, and the enrichment that life itself can bring, are never fully known to those who can’t read. Children who lack reading skills perform poorly in school, and that results in fewer opportunities for good jobs as an adult. The rewarding career opportunities that might have been available in previous generations to adults who cannot read are quickly evaporating.

It goes beyond landing and keeping a good job, though. It also involves being a good citizen.

The authors of the U.S. Constitution understood the importance of a free press in balancing any abuses of power by the government the people selects. But a free press cannot function in the manner this country’s founders envisioned without a literate public to understand what the media conveys.

Even those chattering heads – whose opinions on matters ranging from health care reform to proper etiquette at a music awards show – readily chastised public officials who made decisions on pending legislation without completely reading the proposal. The fact that some of those chatterers did exactly the same thing was of no consequence. Their point was made: you need to read it to know it.

Experience as well as research show that literacy can be a major tool for eradicating poverty, enlarging employment opportunities, advancing gender equality, improving family health, protecting the environment and promoting democratic participation. A literate home environment is a boon to child development, which has a positive effect on how long girls and boys stay enrolled in school and how effectively they retain information.

As the foundation of learning throughout life, reading is at the heart of sustainable personal development. Yet today, the International Reading Association estimates that 780 million adults, nearly two-thirds of whom are women, do not know how to read and write. It also estimates that 94 to 115 million children worldwide do not have access to education.

I found it curious, albeit coincidental, that advice columnist “Dear Abby” published several letters this week from people defending the intelligence of loved ones who are unable to read. I say, good for them for developing a coping mechanism that allowed them to accumulate a body of knowledge despite the disadvantage of illiteracy. Being able to read doesn’t make a person smart, and not being able to read doesn’t necessarily make a person ignorant. But if they’re truly wise, people know they’re not functioning at their highest potential – whatever the reason was they didn’t learn to read.

It is clear that support for ending literacy continues to fall well short of need, even though reading is a skill upon which so much of our world’s hopes for economic and social progress rely.

And I close with this parting admonition from Mark Twain:

“A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.”

Gene Deason is editor of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Friday. He may be reached by e-mail at gene.