Wednesday, November 21, 2007


The latest NEA report arrives like a volley of cannon fire. Young people read very little! Almost half of them never read books for pleasure! A surprisingly high percentage of American adults couldn't read a book for pleasure, even if they wanted to!

Perhaps that last fact requires some clarification. Most American adults are ''literate'' in the sense they can read ''the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy brown dog,'' and they know what most English words mean. They are not illiterate. However, only about a third of US college graduates are ''proficiently literate''- this becomes even more shocking when you understand that prose proficiency is defined as the ability to read a newspaper article and understand what it says. About 70 percent of American adults could not read a ten-page article and summarize it for you. In other words, they simply cannot read at an adult level.

These findings don't really bring the shock of the new for those of us who teach in the United States- we've seen all this before. I would actually be surprised if as many as 30 percent of the college freshmen that I see can read an article and summarize it.

It took me some time to understand the depth of the problem. My first semesters were often spent becoming quietly annoyed with my students for their ''refusal to read''. We would assign them 3-5 page articles to read, and have them answer a fairly easy question on the readings, often simply asking what the article said, as homework. Inevitably, very few of their papers would demonstrate any understanding of the readings. If a horse was mentioned in the third paragraph, they thought it was a reading on horses. Sometimes they understood the subject, but thought the writer was making the opposite argument from the one they were actually making. I assumed that none of the students were actually reading the articles, until it finally occurred to me that, perhaps, many of them are just unable to comprehend what they read.

The factory process of American education leaves little room for the necessary interventions that we must make when we realize that young people cannot read in any serious way. Should we hold them back? Should we flunk every college student who lacks reading comprehension? I'm not exaggerating when I say that, were we to flunk out every student we see who is not really prepared to do college-level work, we'd lose at least half of our student body. I would be okay with that, but most university administrators would not. Universities are a cultural institution rooted in the close study of texts and unable to deal with the fact that reading has become vestigial in American culture.

At first, it's easy to brush off the non-readers as otherwise intelligent people who simply lack a taste for the written word. Hell, some people like broccoli and some don't. Eventually, however, you come to understand what a gulf separates readers from non-readers. Having observed them in their natural habitat, it seems to me that non-readers are often confused by spoken arguments as well- they often seem to miss the point. You tell them that you think dog-owners should have to keep their dogs on a leash when walking them, and they respond, ''So you think that dog owners should never be able to take off their dogs' leashes?!'' They tend to be rash and easily annoyed, and their own opinions have an unreflective quality to them. Often, they seem to be repeating other people's opinions with little concern as to the accuracy of their statements. They see every question of life in terms of ''pro'' or ''anti'', and constantly want other people's thoughts to be boiled down to ''yes'' or ''no'' positions. They are indifferent to truth and judge arguments solely by the vehemence with which they are delivered.

In truth, we might not be able to tell if these are the characteristics of non-readers or simply character traits that make active reading impossible. But, certainly, active exposure to literature works against these character traits, diminishing them over time. Certainly, it makes us more thoughtful.

Literature, at its best, is the guide to an inward empire- it cultivates inwardness in its readers and reveals something of the internal, otherwise invisible, states of human subjectivity and consciousness. It fortifies and enlarges an inner life, which is perhaps the reason that totalitarian governments are so often most terrified of poets. The freedom to follow a thought wherever it may lead is the basis of all other freedoms.

Inwardness is the precondition of meaningful action. It is also the precondition, as well as the product, of active reading. Have you ever noticed how few public places you can actually read in? Between the piped-in music, the security guards, the cell-phone conversations, and the barrage of advertising, very few public places, even few libraries, are actually reader-friendly. This sort of environment facilitates binge shopping, but not contemplation. One might suggest this is intentional.

Maybe those of us who worry about literacy should stage public ''read ins''. If it's possible to get a hundred strangers to congregate in a mall by posting a notice on the Internet, how hard could it be to get them to sit in a mall and read books? Reading is not a public activity in America, which is strange when you see how public it is in other countries, or notice how public television-watching has become in the US. Part of the problem is that reading is treated as a rather esoteric hobby in this country, instead of as an important dimension of one's life. Reading is vestigial in American culture because it is hidden. Perhaps we should have a national ''coming out day'' for readers.

Note: Holly here makes an interesting suggestion about another way we can encourage people to read, or at least not reward them for not reading. It's something I'd never thought of.


Hiromi said...

From the linked article:

Patricia S. Schroeder, president and chief executive of the Association of American Publishers, said...A common complaint she hears from children and young adults is that few books relate to their lives or interests.

What the shit?

I read stuff to find out stuff I don't know, to delve into lives I'll never live, to hear about things from a different point of view...

How can you be so incurious???

Holly said...

Rufus - This short article about horses is fascinating, because horses are fascinating animals. There are lots of activities on the wane, you know. People hardly ever make their own clothing, or grow their own food, or build their own homes. Why walk, when you could drive? That is the mentality applied to reading, I think. Why squint at marks on a field, when you could be watching something happen, with movement, and sound, and a simplified explanation for the parts that don't make sense? I think most people agree that washing your clothes in an automatic washing device is just ... better. Somehow people don't get that it's a false comparison. This might go back to the democratization of education, where teaching ceased to be a calling, and became one more thing that could be mass produced and homogenized, because that's.... inherently better?

Hiromi - Some people have frighteningly narrow comfort zones about their own scope of knowledge. These people usually become very angry when forced to acknowledge that they actually do not know about things, but it can be hard to spot, because they've usually run away to something more comfortable before you get to that part of the conversation. Shopping is a popular retreat for this type.

Rufus said...

Hiromi- sad to say, it's also becoming a common complaint in universities. Students will say that they want material that relates to their lives and I think 'Seriously, then why did you come to college?'

It's especially tough for us history geeks because one group of students wants you to explain why every event in history either relates to contemporary America or parallels events from contemporary America, while another group thinks that drawing parallels unnecessarily politicizes the material and complains about that.

So I end up saying things like, 'Napoleon believed that his troops would have no problem marching through Spain and replacing the King, but they ended up getting mired fighting guerrilla insurgents for years. Which has no modern-day parallel.'

Rufus said...

Holly- I try to compare reading to working out. That seems to help some people get that it requires a personal investment that pays off in the future. As for education, a number of teachers treat it like a series of things to check off on a sheet. They rush through it and it becomes perfunctory. If the teachers see it as a hassle, it reinforces the students seeing it that way.

When people talk about wanting to read more books that speak to their lives, I think 'So books about shopping?' What's weird is how many people I meet at parties who are my age and whose conversation is limited to, 'Well, here's this thing I just bought and it's awesome, and here's this other thing I want to buy. What about that? Do you want to buy that? I totally want to buy that.'

I have this vision of the Priest giving the talk at their funeral. 'Well, she never really did very much in her life. But, she had a really beautiful handbag, and gorgeous matching shoes. And you should have seen the flat-screen television that she bought...'

TerraHertz said...

Rufus, it is indeed tragic that reading and intellectual accuity in general is becoming rarer in America (and some other western nations.) However its also rather sad that you complain about this state of affairs, without seeming to make any real effort to determine why it is so. Which is ironic, since you easily could if you actively read to the topic. Sorry if that sounds sarcastic, but when I see people going "Oh, why are people so incurious?! Its as if they don't know how to inquire!" while themselves doing exactly that (failing to inquire), its just... frustrating.

Perhaps this failure derives from an unconscious belief that if there was an answer to this particular question then the authorities would be addressing the matter, and you'd have heard about it. Which would be true... unless things are not at all as you assume them to be. Don't you think it would be better to make your own enquiries?

Illiterate incurious stupidity isn't merely an unfortunate byproduct of the 'me' generation, it's a deliberate policy of the ruling elites, intended to produce a docile, unthinking and obedient population of predictably malleable subjects. This 'dumbing down' is achieved by various interdependent means, including the education system, compulsory medication, and skilled social programming via the controlled mass media.

Here are a few articles addressing each topic. Note this is a tiny sampling of what's available, and what you'll find if you just go looking:

----The (dis)education system----------------
The Educational System Was Designed to Keep Us Uneducated and Docile
An Angry Look at Modern Schooling
Little Manchurian Candidates
More drug company insanity

----Fluoride intake----------------------
The Fluoride Conspiracy
Fluoride Accumulates in Pineal Gland (gone)
The following letter was received by the Lee Foundation for Nutritional Research, Milwaukee Wisconsin, on 2 October 1954, from Mr. Charles Perkins, a chemist:
Fluoride Issues
LA, Orange, San Diego Counties TRIPLING Fluoride In Water

----Mercury in childhood innoculations----
(More links, since this one *really* annoys me due to personal unhappy experience)
Links and files at:!_medical/Mercury_Innoc/!_links.txt

----The Mass Media----
Sigh. This one is really too big to touch here.

Hiromi said:
"What the shit?
I read stuff to find out stuff I don't know, to delve into lives I'll never live, to hear about things from a different point of view...
How can you be so incurious???"

Ah Hiromi. Irony so thick it would require a chain saw to cut. Speaking as an admirer you banned for discussing 'stuff you don't know, a life you'll never live, and points of view somewhat different to yours'... Oh well.

H: "I read to learn things I don't know."
There are readers and non-readers. There are also subcategories within 'readers' - those who read only for entertainment, and those who read to learn. Within the 'learners' there is a further categorization: those who will learn new things _only_ if those fit into their existing world-view, as opposed to those who are brave enough to absorb any new knowledge, even if it tears down and rebuilds their preexisting understandings.

gregvw said...

Wow. Thanks for shining the light of truth. Is your tinfoil hat on too tight?

Rufus said...

You know, it's fine that you want to bring up these websites and talk about the drug companies and flouride and the educational system and all of that. But do you have to be so judgmental and self-righteous about it? Seriously, the thing that I think most of us find irritating about these sorts of theories is that those of you who espouse them all want to pretend that you're liberating us 'sheeple' from our mind-forged manacles. You're Kevin McCarthy in Invasion of the Body Snatchers and we're all brainwashed boobs since we don't believe exactly what you believe.

Like, wow, I've personally never read anything that was critical of the use of psychoactive drugs, or public education, or the use of flouride in water, or the mass media. And before you linked to their page, I had no idea that the Church of Scientology had a problem with psychiatry. I've never read any of this stuff since I was so busy going to Sunday School and taking Ritalin and I'm just so incurious. Are there really books about such topics? in libraries? that I could read? Since, after all, if I had read them, I would have come to the exact same conclusions that you have. So, I must be afraid to discover the truth about the matrix. Blah, blah, blah.

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