A distressing editorial appeared in the Sacramento Bee (free registration) a few days ago. I feel that the point made in this piece is so important that I’m going to risk the ire of that paper’s publishers and reprint it in its entirety here.
Editorial: Read it and weep
What’s the cure for nation of weakly readers?
After years of handwringing about literacy in the United States, Congress passed the National Literacy Act of 1991. The aim was to make improved literacy a priority for the nation.
So the federal government did a baseline assessment of national literacy in 1992. Now, the government has released the first follow-up. The results are a big disappointment.
Overall, literacy has remained flat. In 1992, 83 percent of the population 16 and older were at basic literacy or above. That remained virtually the same in 2003 (84 percent).
The bigger disappointment is that literacy is slipping at every level of education. Educated Americans remain literate, but their capabilities in processing complex information, rather than simply basic information, is declining.
That presents a quandary. Should we put our efforts into bringing the 17 percent of illiterate or barely literate adults up to basic literacy? Or should we focus on improving the literacy of those who will graduate from high school, college or postgraduate institutions? In an ideal world, we would do both. But the more alarming dip is in the educated population. We can more easily reach those individuals in our system of education – with higher expectations and improved curriculum.
Part of the problem is that our culture is becoming more oral and visual. With television, cell phones, video games, iPods and other new media sources, people increasingly are dealing with flashes of information. Educational institutions must swim upstream in their effort to get students to interpret and analyze lengthy, difficult passages of words – and have them enjoy it and make it part of the habit of life.
To see the problem in stark form, look at what’s happened to college graduates in the last decade.
They remain literate: 98 percent are at basic literacy or above (it was 99 percent in 1992). That looks like there’s no problem. Basic means a person can perform simple and everyday tasks such as interpret instructions from an appliance warranty, write a letter explaining an error made on a credit card bill, determine the discount from an oil bill if paid within 10 days.
But then look at intermediate literacy or above: 84 percent are at that level, compared to 89 percent in 1992). That’s a five-point slip in intermediate skills such as explaining the difference between two types of employee benefits, using a bus schedule to determine an appropriate route or using a pamphlet to calculate the yearly amount a couple would receive for basic supplemental security income.
But the biggest slip is at the proficient level: Only 31 percent are at this highest level compared to 40 percent in 1992. That’s a nine-point slip in mastery of complex activities such as critically evaluating information in legal documents, comparing viewpoints in two editorials or interpreting a table about blood pressure and physical activity.
You see a similar slippage for high school graduates and, worse, for those who have done postgraduate work.
It’s bad enough that we can’t seem to improve basic literacy rates generally. But we cannot afford to have our most educated population drop in complex literacy levels. Ingraining the habits of literacy won’t be easy, but it can be done. The task falls mostly to our schools, but they cannot do it alone. Others, from parents to libraries to communities, have to limit the video games and make reading fun again.
Those of us who aren’t in school can’t rely on others to ingrain our habits of literacy; we must do it ourselves.
I myself have fallen victim to a little mental laziness, and that’s all it is: mental laziness. The brain is like any other muscle–it can be conditioned. But like muscle training, it’s hard work, and so therefore avoided by most people (including Moi). I have a number of books I have been wanting to read, but I have put off simply because of the effort involved.
I am hereby making an addendum to my list of New Year’s resolutions to include, in addition to my regular reading schedule, attacking and reading the following books over the next year.
1. The three volume biography of Graham Greene written by Norman Sherry. I love 20th Century history and I love Graham Greene’s writing. And as Paul Theroux wrote in his review in the New York Times
this three-volume biography is incomparable; as an intellectual and political history of the 20th century it is invaluable; as a literary journey, as well as a journey across the world, it is masterly; as a source book and rogues’ gallery it is fascinating.
Looks like I can have it all if only I will buckle down and work my way through these many formidable pages.
2. A biography of Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce (pronounced ‘purse’) was a true homegrown genius of towering proportions that few people have heard of today. I find him and his philosophical school of pragmatism fascinating, but somehow not fascinating enough to work my way through this dense biography.
3.The Rainbow and the Worm. This slim little volume is a primer on non-equilibrium thermodynamics that really delves into the core of bioenergetics and what really makes life. A tough read, however. Which, of course, is why I haven’t read it yet.
4.Order Out of Chaos. Written by Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers this book on non-equilibrium thermodynamics and the origins of life. A difficult book at best, but filled with brilliant stuff. I’ve been avoiding it for a couple of years now.
I challenge you to do the same thing. You can make public your commitment by sending in a comment with the books you plan to read in 2006. I’ll post them all, then we can look back at the start of 2007 to see how we all did.
Remember, just like your biceps, your brain won’t get any stronger unless you exercise it.