At a meeting in Amman, Jordan, high-powered social policy analysts from many nations were deploring the limited intelligence of illiterates and the effects on their offspring; I rushed to defend illiterates. Then, I suddenly realized that my mother had been an illiterate.
Indeed, I quickly recognized that Mom was illiterate in three languages. But she was exceptionally insightful and analytical. Indeed, she was one of the very smartest people I ever met. I say that as one who has known extraordinarily intelligent people in academic, policy, political and therapeutic worlds.
Her sharp intelligence was sometimes annoying as when she sized up my friends and lovers better than I did or gave advice that was unusual and very useful.
My mother grew up in a shektl, a small village in The Pale, the Jewish region of what is now called Ukraine, then a part of pre-World War I Russia. She spoke Yiddish and, to a much lesser extent, Russian. A few years before WW I, her mother, recently widowed again, brought her seven children to the United States. Mom was about 14 (dates of birth were quite vague), went to work in a factory, learned to speak English with an accent, married at about 19.
Thus, she spoke three languages. (As my Yiddish improved— my father’s mother took care of me in my early years; she did not speak any English—my parents would speak Russian when they did not want me to understand. My two older sisters did not know much Yiddish.) Mom had no or little schooling in any of them. Perhaps she had had some schooling in Yiddish when she lived in The Pale but not enough to read The Forward, a Yiddish language newspaper of New York City. Certainly, she could not read Russian. She could jot down figures and a few words in English. Mom was illiterate—using the standard of 3rd or 4th grade English classes—in all three languages that she could speak. This situation was not completely uncommon among Jewish immigrant women of that period. What set my mother apart was her uncommon intelligence.
Perhaps she was somewhat embarrassed by her illiteracies: Her younger sister Anna spoke English without an accent, but also suffered from very limited reading ability. When she was asked to read something, she would say that she was sorry but she did not have her glasses with her. She did not have glasses. My older sister Bea insists that Mom much later went to school and learned to write English in order to write to her in Memphis. In those days, long-distance calls were only made in emergencies. I don’t know how reliable her memory is. If it is, then, instead of a trifecta of three illiteracies, I would have to mark them down to two. In any case, Mom was illiterate in three languages for a very long and significant part of my life.
Somehow, despite living in a restrictive ghetto environment as a child and as an adult in Philadelphia and Brooklyn, she gained a deep, penetrating, critical understanding of how the world worked. She certainly did not read about it nor experience much of it, but she could tell me in my professional adult years, “That’s foolish. It will never work.” Somehow, she had learned (perhaps from being a salesperson for many years; most married women in those days did not work) how people and organizations operate. She asked penetrating questions, was exceptional in sizing up people, a most effective arguer, outstanding in convincing people. She had “sachel,” a Yiddish word conveying uncommon common sense.
I like to think that my listening, questioning, synthesizing interests were attributes that I learned from my illiterate mother. (My father was a pleasant man who did not probe nor move beyond the surface presentation of issues.) My openness to the intellectual talents of lesser-educated people spring, I now think, from my awareness of my mother’s three illiteracies.
People can think beyond the written word.
S. M. Miller (Mike), the co-author of Rights and Respect: Class, Race and Gender Today and more than a dozen other books, is an academic-activist involved in poverty, race, and class inequalities in the U.S. and other countries. He chaired the sociology department at Boston University. Currently, he sits on the board of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council and other advocacy organizations.