Commencement yesterday was filled with encouraging speeches reminding my senior class that “commencement” is the beginning, not the end, and graduating is simply a marker that we have received and collected the tools we will need to move forward. The rhetoric of speakers, and of casual conversations on any graduation day is generally one of graciousness. However, it is rare that we fully comprehend how much of a privilege it is to know that a solid educational foundation lies behind the writing on a paper diploma.

At my high school, teachers would remind us of the growing importance of education as a factor in the job market, encouraging us to plan a future that includes continuing our education after the four-year college career, which is strictly expected. Rightly pointed out, education is hugely fundamental in the job market. Still, illiteracy among Americans remains extremely prevalent. Fifty-three percent of adults in the Great Lakes area have low or limited literacy skills. Literacy is essential in almost every work environment. The many Americans faced with limited literacy skills struggle in the labor market. Low wage jobs keep 43% of people with low literacy skills in poverty.

Just a couple months ago, pictures of a misspelled school sign reading “Laeping Into Literacy” were passed around social media.  A janitorial worker at the school made the mistake and it wasn’t corrected until after a weekend. Another ironic misspelling that created some internet buzz was when the word “school” was misspelled in a school crossing sign on the road in New York City. This incident was followed up with a spokesman from the Department of Transportation blaming a utility worker, claiming that the city was not responsible for the error. However, if we can hold New York City public schools partly accountable for the prevalence of illiteracy, then yes, mistakes like this one are certainly the fault of the city.

Paulo Freire said that education can function in two ways. The first is to “facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity.” In a public education system that cannot provide many Americans with adequate secondary education, nothing but conformity will arise. Without solid public education, younger generations will be provided no more opportunities than their parents were. The second function of education according to Freire can be as “practice of freedom, the means by which men and wome …discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” A strong and reasonably funded public education system is just as essential to democracy as the infrastructure that makes it possible for citizens to get themselves to voting centers and cast their ballots.