Archive Article: Its Never Too Late To Learn
February 28, 2009


The British magazine “The Economist” is one of the world’s most influential publications. It normally deals with high finance and high politics. However, it has recently carried an obituary for a person who could not read or write for the first 98 years of his life.

George Dawson died last month at the age of 103. He was born in Texas, the grandson of a slave. He experienced the evils of American racism at first hand, including at the age of 10 seeing the lynching of a friend. He grew up distrustful of whites. He missed the opportunity to go to school and so worked, from the age of four onwards, in a variety of menial jobs. He signed his name with an “X” and left his wife with the task of reading documents and writing out cheques.

His life changed at the age of 98 when he suddenly decided to go to learn to read and write at an adult education college. As he said later “Writing my real name was one of the greatest things in my life”.

“The Economist” magazine, which is read by heads of governments and corporations around the world, each week carries an obituary of the rich and famous. George Dawson was not the usual sort of subject for the magazine’s privileged pages.

However, Mr Dawson deserved this coverage. He may not have been rich but he certainly ended up famous. In the last five years of his life, he was on the celebrity television circuit, he was awarded two honorary degrees and a school has been named after him.

First, Mr Dawson showed that you are never too late to learn. He had been invited to attend adult education classes. “I just figured if everybody else can learn to read, I could too”. The key factor was Mr Dawson’s self-esteem – he had the confidence to enrol and he turned out to be a good learner.

Second, Mr Dawson went on to be a role model for other Americans to encourage them not to leave it until they turned 98 to learn to read and write. His crusade resonated with the concern that the world’s richest country has a poor record on literacy, with 60 per cent of Americans aged 16 to 25 being “functionally illiterate”, that is, unable to fill in a form or read a timetable. Mr Dawson set a good example to others

Third, Mr Dawson’s longevity also resonated with mainstream American concerns. Long life is becoming a new American human right, with 70,000 Americans now aged over 100. They are one of the US’s fastest growing age cohorts. He was the “centenarian of the month” in October 2000.

But he could not explain why he lived so long. He had outlived his four wives, his four siblings and two of his seven children. Hard manual work obviously did him no harm. His lifestyle (until his brush with fame) was very ordinary.

However, he did illustrate the importance of a positive attitude to life. The fears that many older Americans have of old age is that their lives will be long on quantity but short on quality. They could live a long time but have a miserable existence.

Mr Dawson showed that a person could have a high quality life right to the end. At the age of 102, Mr Dawson began a career as an author with his memoirs called “Life Is So Good”.

To conclude, Mr Dawson fully deserved his coverage in “The Economist”. We need more such role models.