Postcard from the Most Illiterate City in America


A FEW YEARS AGO Fresnans were jumping onboard the new online magazine Fresno Famous. It was building traction and a lot of people thought the site was going somewhere. It had culture, the arts and sass. Then, just like its symbolic Marilyn Monroe mural getting painted over by some disgruntled so-and-so, it was gone.

Within a few more years the beautiful blue water-god on the Neighborhood Thrift Store’s agricultural mural in Fresno had been censored. While the mural still has its allure, the painting-over and censoring of the mouth of the god, who must now shut up, who must now not spill its life water like a holy vomit, is truly symbolic of Californian’s oft-times intellectually anaesthetized Central Valley.

A hundred miles south of Fresno lies Bakersfield, a city without any notable murals, where many magazines and news sites have failed. The city—my city—has few magazines, one newspaper, one large-chain bookstore, and once again, ranks No. 1 as the least literate city in America.

According to an article in Time Magazine reporting on a Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) study, Bakersfield was ranked as “the worst city in the U.S. for its overall reading culture.” 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.”

Bakersfield could be the gateway to the new frontier. Just up the road is the Mojave Air & Spaceport. “Imagination flies here,” its website declares. Yet the same intellectual drive to send privatized industry into space doesn’t seem to fuel the largest city in the same county. The city misses out on a potential marketing transformation, publicity, a new leadership role, even the appeal of futuristic architecture in a city more frumpy looking than a reality TV star.

Bakersfield’s Tomorrowland may never come.

Downtown Bakersfield. So retro-70s.

Downtown Bakersfield. So retro-70s.

In the meantime, McDonald’s and Starbucks have built the most lasting of architectural futuristic designs, stand-alone strip-mall fabrications created by fast-food empires in need of appealing to the sensibilities of the masses pleased with shoddy aesthetics in a quick-buck culture.

Since I’m in the throes of being l’enfant terrible, I should say, Bakersfield, though having its strip-mall appeal, is the equivalent of fruit rotting on the ground with its non-intellectual celebrities, boarded-up businesses, and historical buildings transformed to rubble in a cityscape of boxy structures, all bereft of splendor and detail.

You will find no murals of William Saroyan in Bakersfield (He was from Fresno anyway). You will find no odes to famous composers (unless you think a honky tonk was once an orchestra theatre). And in the realm of social justice, though Bakersfield was, and sometimes still is ground zero for debates on farm workers and immigration reform, you will find no streets named after Cesar Chavez or Dolores Huerta. You will find no uncensored poetry or prose readings (unless I hold them in galleries or restaurants). You will find no college reading series (if there were they would be censored like the blue giant, mouth shut from any words that might be construed as vomitus).

Historian Richard Hofstadter, in his 1962 book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, suggests that “regard for intellectuals in the United States has not moved steadily downward . . . but is subject to cyclical fluctuations.” He claims intellectuals, past targets of political scorn are going to continue to be railed against in the U.S.

Let’s turn to the New York Times op-ed column “Professors, We Need You!” by Nicholas Kristof for evidence. While Bakersfield may be a slumming ground for non-intellectuals eager to breed an illiterate culture, the phenomenon may be much larger. While a casual reader might think Kristof is heralding academia, he’s being viewed as saying the opposite. Across the country, professors have defended intellectuals against Kristof’s words, who himself steals Hofstadter’s book title within his essay (an anti-intellectual move if there ever was one), using it in his article to suggest academia has marginalized itself by writing “meaningless gibberish” in journals for the sake of tenure.

Jessica Wolfe rebuts Kristof in an Ethos Review article, “Open Letter To Nicholas Kristof.” She makes the point, like so many others has, that if anyone is being anti-intellectual it’s Kristof.

In his bid to slander academia, Kristof claims many disciplines are becoming marginalized because of their obtuse verbiage, and that history, as a discipline, hasn’t been marginalized like the others. He’s wrong there too. History isn’t being driven into obscure archive rooms because of over-specialization. It’s being eradicated (at least on the university campus in Bakersfield). At CSUB, history is slowly being squeezed to death, and not at the hands of gibberish-producing professors like Kristof suggests. Budgets for ordering books, or to replace retiring professors, are non-existent. This week I asked a CSUB historian (who I won’t name) if the program had shrunk since I attended in the mid-nineties. The professor said it had, that two retired professors hadn’t been replaced. The historian also went on about its budget crisis, suggesting monies were next to none.

Who should we blame? University administration? Politics on and off campus? What about on a national level? If Hofstadter’s right, then the attack could come from politicians. After all, he does cite McCarthyism.

A journalist I greatly admire commented on a former newsman’s Facebook post about the illiteracy rate in Bakersfield. I’ve been suggesting we could be in a new age of McCarthyism under House Whip Kevin McCarthy, of Bakersfield. His position in the tea party has done little, if anything, for education in Kern County.

The journalist wrote:

Some political positions simply receive more support when its constituency is undereducated and functionally illiterate. These politicians have little motivation to see significant increases in the number of Americans with strong critical thinking skills.

Corrupt politicians busily after big agri-business and oil dollars, woeful academic administrations and a culture of non-readers is a toxic stew. Not to mention, perhaps Hofstadter wasn’t so wrong when he discussed the impracticality of being intellectual as far back as the nineteenth century. Why? Because it’s still happening today . . .

During the nineteenth century, when business criteria dominated American culture almost without challenge, and when most of business and professional men attained eminence without much formal education, academic schooling was often said to be useless.

Hofstadter predicted the Kristofs of the world popping up in American society as mouthpieces against the intellect. Either way, what we can infer from the CCSU study is that Bakersfield is at the apex of a terrible state in American society. This is what occurs when anti-intellectualism gains traction.

What happens if we do nothing? Will there be more parents raising children to become industrial-sector workers? More fast-food employees? More truck drivers? More electricians to help wire the mansions of the business owners and politicians?

Padre Hotel, Bakersfield.

Padre Hotel, Bakersfield.

At the university in Bakersfield, if you aren’t playing baseball, then you might be getting a business degree, which fuels many students these days to enroll there. Maybe it’s just a reflection of culture, this notion of Bakersfield having a prominent business school, where many have become Harry (Rabbit) Angstroms, running down the rabbit hole of success (or failure). Every young, greedy-eyed business major has his or her tank full, for the moment, not yet ready to run out of gas, but soon enough may just be helping propel Bakersfield further downward . . .

There always comes in September a parched brightness to the air that hits Rabbit two ways, smelling of apples and blackboard dust and marking the return to school and work in earnest, but then again reminding him he’s suffered another promotion, taken another step up the stairs that has darkness at the head.

I complain on Facebook now and then about my struggle to bring uncensored literary events to an anti-intellectual city. I still have dreams of opening an event venue, a coffeehouse bookstore where intellectualism can thrive.

While I’ve blamed my father for sparking the creativity within me, it all came full circle in the 1980s. Here was Dad, a Latino truck driver, a man who got in fights all the time and bragged about them. He was an ex-cop, a one-time puppeteer, who suddenly sat me down and said, “I really think when you get out of school you should look into driving trucks instead of going college.”

Should have given up on my dreams and listened to my father?

We intellectuals face oppression not just here in the Central Valley, but in America. It comes from all kinds of classes. Hofstadter warned us. It’s up to us to keep fighting back.

About Nicholas Belardes

The latest work from NICHOLAS BELARDES includes freaky oddities in A People’s History Of The Peculiar (2014), and a poetry book chronicling his working-class days: Songs Of The Glue Machines (2013). Get links to his novel (Lords), Twitter novel (Small Places), memoir stories and more at
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14 Responses to Postcard from the Most Illiterate City in America

  1. Don Mitchell says:

    I don’t know, Nick. I read that Kristof article when it was published, and more than a little of what he said rang true. I speak only for my field (maybe I should say “ex-field”) anthropology, a discipline which no longer interests me very much because in the main it’s taken itself right out of any position of relevance except to itself.

    Even in my regional speciality, the Pacific, I’ve seen a retreat into verbiage that only another (similarly-focused) anthropologist can understand, and research orientations that treat people as little more than actors or repositories of “interesting” cultural material. I dropped out of a listserve in 2007 because increasingly I saw two things:

    — the indigenous people and their problems in a world that has no particular use for them except as fodder for academic papers and as holders of resources to be stolen (minerals, timber, fish . . . )

    — a theme of “reach the people,” but vicious attacks on anybody in or out of anthropology who tried (there’s much to question and dislike about Jared Dimond’s work, but goddamn it, it got people talking). Or just as bad, a lack of interest in the work of anybody who tries to bring indigenous people to the public’s attention.

    It seems to me that hardly a month goes by without the emergence of something on the world or national or local stage that (to me) cries out for an anthropological interpretation or explanation. It’s never forthcoming, at least not in any place I’m aware of, and it’s my opinion that this is because overwhelmingly anthropologists are wrapped up in their discipline’s masturbatory feedback loop — talking to themselves — and this brings me back to Kristof.

    Others, as they say, may disagree.

    • Great points, Don. I do think there’s truth in what he says. But at the same time, take for instance the very site I linked up to from UNC where academics make their voices a part of the national conversation. Makes me wonder where Kristof is looking (or isn’t looking). Not to mention, there are many rebuttals online from a wide range of disciplines. (And I loved how The Washington Post” called his article well-meaning but dramatic and desperate. Being part of a national debate on any topic calls for those starting the debate to ask for voices to speak out. Kristof partly did that in his dramatic way (and utilized a famous historian to make his point). And boy was he heard. Makes me wonder if any anthropologists rebutted him to say, “Yes, I do often make my voice heard” in regards to debates…

  2. Sean says:

    Your own delusions of grandeur about your level of intellectualism is comedy within itself.

    This isn’t intellectualism. This is a child’s need to vent about the political leanings of your region.

  3. Cool. A hater. BTW, I’m a Republican.

  4. MLB says:

    It sounds like you should push harder for your preferred intellectual pursuits. There is culture in Bakersfield and there are people trying to take the stain of being thought of as illiterate out of people’s thoughts.

  5. Caroline Coward says:

    The Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra – – continues the celebration of its 82nd season on March 15 when it presents Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem, complete with full orchestra and chorus.
    The BSO has kept good music and culture in the Central Valley for decades. Please come out and support them.

  6. Joshua T Manion says:

    Really? No murals in Bakersfield? There’s one a the GET bus station, one in wall street alley, one in the alley cat bar depicting the padre hotel in the 60’s or 70’s when the owner Milt was fighting what he thought was unfairness from city hall and pointed an army surplus rocket at city hall from the roof of the padre hotel. There are several open mic nights for music and poetry at several locations in town and every first friday of the month downtown fills with local artists and musicians for the evening. There is also a phenominal mural by a local artist on the veterans hall downtown and one honoring emergency personnel on 21rst street. Bakersfield may have a ways to go compared to other cities, but to paint it as so culturally devoid makes oneself feel so intellectually superior is just sad.

  7. Origami Nestor says:

    Let’s not forget our local theater community. We have one non-profit theater–you can make a reservation, on any weekend, and see a fantastic show for practically free. Most actors don’t get paid a thing to do it, do it purely for the love of it, and yet The Empty Space has been running quality shows since 2003. Also, Bakersfield has the longest running community theater this side of the Mississippi (BCT). I think anti-intellectualism is anywhere you examine too stringently. Its most difficult to say you’re getting an English or History degree anywhere, because most people tell their kids “Trust me, just be content working eight hours at any job with a good wage, then go home and do what you want there”–the path to ‘fame and fortune’ (or maybe just fame?) in a humanities arena is tough. You addressed that at the end, but what’s your response besides wondering if you took the right path? Why do you keep fighting? It sounds like you are complaining that maybe you should have taken the ‘easy’ path, all the while insinuating that the alternative is not worth it if you can’t get public recognition. Let’s pull ourselves up via our works, not on how many mom-claps we can get for a WIP at a poetry reading that allows us to say the ‘f-word’ and ‘s-word’ (meanwhile, brand it as anti-intellectualism if they are appalled or ask us not to come back). Writers’ works will speak for themselves.

    We’re ashamed of the “illiterate Bakersfieldian” tag, so let’s do something about it. By writing meaningful works and have them stand up by themselves not by how much recognition you get. You can’t hold a venue for literature or poetry if no one cares (the fame aspect). Do people not go to poetry readings because they can’t hear bombs dropped? I think most of the public goes to public readings by famous authors anyway so they can see that famous writer. Let’s get JK Rowling here and see how eager the public gets for literature. I’m not saying it’s all like this, but I think writers spring up from discontent, and if this city has a problem, it’s because everyone’s content a majority of the time to go about their lives and have no one bother them.

    Another note, a majority of CSUB students are baseball players, or they’re business majors? Zuh? Way to throw business majors under the bus. ‘Greedy-eyed’? I think it’s this type of characterization that further polarizes “them” against “us” and further distances anyone from having the chance to read poetry at a business that may be struggling in a poor economy anyway (though you probably could say if they really believed in making the community better, they’d grow a pair and stand up for free speech and art). In this instance, to blame it on businesses, seems archaic and backwards: what struggling author wouldn’t “sell out” to gain that fame and fortune? It’s all related.

    Oh, and we do have a Cesar Chavez elementary (which, I hear, is a damn good school)–how many culture points does that give us?

  8. says:

    Cliff Notes Version:
    Stupid, stupid bourgeois.
    Greedy, materialistic lumpen proletariat
    do not appreciate how smart we intellectuals (me and my man , Hofstadter) are because they are stupid.

    I’m smarter than you are , Dad. I have GOOD ideas; stop throwing the ball so hard!

    Let’s fix it by having smart people tell them stuff about Harry Potter, or something.

    The End

  9. Kris Tiner says:

    Nick, I don’t know you very well but I do know you’ve been active in hosting poetry readings and literary events in Bakersfield for some time. You’re right on that local intellectuals need to keep fighting back. I also wish we could spend less time debating politics and lamenting cultural and economic realities that are problematic all across the country, and really look at what is actually being done (and what can be done better) at the local level.

    I don’t give much credence to the Time Magazine article or others like it. It seems disingenuous to point to the loss of independent book stores, declining magazine and newspaper subscriptions, and sprawling strip-mall gentrification as indicators of intellectualism on the decline, when the national trend is clearly toward digital content, e-commerce, and fast food drive-by culture. Bakersfield’s outskirts are looking more like Orange County every day, but anyone can look at the transformation of the Downtown Arts District over the last decade and the great success of the First Friday events and be proud of the progress that’s being made there.

    Props to the commenters (Caroline, Joshua, Nestor) who pointed out some of the overlooked positives in our local arts scene. I’m deeply involved in the music community here so I’ll speak up a little bit. Re: “no odes to famous composers” — I was fortunate to be part of the BSO production of Verdi’s Requiem this past Saturday and spent most of the time reflecting on how wonderful it was to have a performance of this magnitude (over 200 musicians!) in town. The next day I filled in for an ill trumpet student at the CSUB Chamber Orchestra and Chamber Choir performance of Vivaldi’s Gloria and was blown away by the quality of the (nearly) all-student ensemble — that would have been inconceivable when I was a student there 15 years ago. Good people in the music departments at both CSUB and BC have facilitated outstanding growth despite facing decreased budgets and declining institutional support for the arts and humanities. The 28th annual Bakersfield Jazz Festival is coming up on May 9-10 with another stellar lineup of international and local performers. I’ve been presenting concerts of new jazz, improvised and experimental music downtown for over 10 years, and founded Epigraph Records to document the series and get the word out. Touring jazz groups who perform here regularly draw a larger audience than they do in either SF or LA. Last year we got mention in NYC’s exclusive jazz publication, the New York City Jazz Record, which noted that “there’s something different happening in Bakersfield since the glory days of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens…”

    I absolutely agree that “Bakersfield is at the apex of a terrible state in American society,” part of that “toxic stew” where illiteracy ferments and Tea Party anti-intellectualism gains traction. Places like this are the front lines in an all-out national culture war. Artists and intellectuals who can see that need to engage not only as actors and activists, but do everything they can to support the positive efforts of others and celebrate what’s already going on.

  10. Grayson Parker says:

    I have to say, jargon is definitely a part of academic language today. The effects of postmodernism on the humanities had been extremely detrimental, creating a scholarly culture where the language used to “democratize” academia is instead so nonsensical, dense and ultimately pointless that the average reader can’t (and I would argue shouldn’t) touch it. Thankfully, the history department at CSUB is bucking that particular trend, and introduces students to Arthur Marwick before touching on the major post modernist scholars.

  11. John G Smith says:

    Yet another assault on the Central Valley! When will it stop? Yes we know we have some difficulties among our population but to base a study on Bookstores? Does the author of the study know what has happen to New bookstores and record stores in the Internet age? He obviously hasn’t been to the area. Does he know that Fresno has the 3rd largest Zoo in the state? Does he know that Fresno City/County supports the arts/zoo and the Library System with additional taxes in the same way Palo Alto/Menlo Park after the passage of Prop 13? This additional support helps all the library systems in the Central Valley. A place is what you make it. I had many cousins that lived in the SF Bay area who were always bored and never used all that was available to them including BART!

    • Sarah says:

      I very much wish we would properly fund the libraries here. A tiny tax would revolutionize what is available to people in Kern County and allow the libraries to bring in really cool new stuff. Many of the branches need to be remodeled and they need more hours and staff.

  12. Johnf310 says:

    Wow that was odd. I just wrote an extremely long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyway, just wanted to say superb blog! ddfkebkdeegg

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