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Is Bakersfield Really America's "Least Literate" City? Local Author Raises Questions

Mar 18, 2014

Downtown Bakersfield (file photo)
Credit Joe Moore / Valley Public Radio

Cities like Merced Fresno and Bakersfield all share one common thread, other than being major stops on Highway 99. They all routinely rank at the bottom of various lists published by national publications ranking the nations cities  on everything from access to public parks to air quality to drunkenness. While the validity of some of these lists may be dubious at best, they do raise many interesting questions about our region, and how to make the valley a better place to live.

Last month, TIME Magazine reported on a study from Central Connecticut State University that examined the nation’s most literate and least literate cities. They analyzed data on everything from public libraries to magazine subscriptions and newspaper circulation, and ranked Bakersfield dead last, with Fresno not far behind.

The study prompted Bakersfield-based author Nick Belardes to write a response, titled "Postcard From the Most Illiterate City In America" for the online magazine The Weeklings. The essay has generated a good deal of controversy in its own right, as Belardes takes the city to task for what he perceives as an embrace of anti-intellectualism. He chastises CSUB for alleged cuts to programs in the humanities, the lack of uncensored poetry readings, and public art murals:

The report nailed Bakersfield for its lack of bookstores, low subscription rates to magazines and scholarly journals, poor newspaper circulation, poorly-rated library system and low educational attainment rates. Bakersfield: here weathergirls, conservative shock jocks and TV anchormen are its biggest celebrities, where used-up newscasters get recycled, lending what’s left of their hard-earned celebritydom to cheesy television commercials promoting local businesses and lawyers. The city is part of an agricultural mecca, though what’s visible to most passing through are trash-strewn freeways, dumpy buildings, ghettos and a sign with a clip-art logo of a leaf just above the phrase, “Life as it should be.”

Does Bakersfield actually embrace a climate of anti-intellectualism as Belardes describes? Or are there other factors at work? And what can be done to improve literacy and educational attainment in cities up and down the San Joaquin Valley? Belardes joined us on Valley Edition to offer his thoughts about those questions and to talk about how his essay has been received by the community.