Claremont Insider: Our Post-Literate World

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Our Post-Literate World

A while ago, around the same time the Claremont Unified School District Board of Education election was going on, we noticed some lawn signs going up for the Claremont Friends of the Library encouraging reading.

The signs seem to have come down around the same time the election ended and also seemed to coincide with signs for the two Claremont 400 candidates, Elizabeth Bingham and Hilary LaConte. Presumably, the sign posters were trying to send a subliminal message that their school board candidates were the real champions of literacy.

Unfortunately, all indications are that none of the candidates who ran for the CUSD board could possibly make a difference in the long-term reading levels of our kids. Quite the contrary, there seems to be a good deal of evidence that greater cultural forces are at work, forces that have been in play for decades.

Writer Caleb Crain had an article in the December 24th issue of The New Yorker titled "Twilight of the Books." The piece examined decline in reading and its potential effects on modern life.

Crain noted that the National Endowment for the Arts conducted a study that found that since 1982 the percentage of people polled who had read a work of creative literature in the previous 12 months had fallen steadily, from 56.9 percent in 1982, to 54 percent in 1992, to 46.7 percent in 2004.

And anyone in the newspaper industry will attest to the problems that papers are having attracting readers.

Educators have spent huge amounts of dollars and resources trying to raise reading scores, but scores don't tell the whole tale. Reading for pleasure is becoming less and less a part of our daily lives, as Crain writes:

More alarming are indications that Americans are losing not just the will to read but even the ability. According to the Department of Education, between 1992 and 2003 the average adult’s skill in reading prose slipped one point on a five-hundred-point scale, and the proportion who were proficient—capable of such tasks as “comparing viewpoints in two editorials”—declined from fifteen per cent to thirteen. The Department of Education found that reading skills have improved moderately among fourth and eighth graders in the past decade and a half, with the largest jump occurring just before the No Child Left Behind Act took effect, but twelfth graders seem to be taking after their elders. Their reading scores fell an average of six points between 1992 and 2005, and the share of proficient twelfth-grade readers dropped from forty per cent to thirty-five per cent. The steepest declines were in “reading for literary experience”—the kind that involves “exploring themes, events, characters, settings, and the language of literary works,” in the words of the department’s test-makers. In 1992, fifty-four per cent of twelfth graders told the Department of Education that they talked about their reading with friends at least once a week. By 2005, only thirty-seven per cent said they did.

Much of the decline in reading may be the result of the rise of television. Crain cites Dutch research that found that between 1955 and 1975, reading declined from five hours per week to 3.6, while television viewing rose from 10 minutes a week to over 10 hours.

Crain also believes that contrary to what we might expect, education matters less to active reading than age:

By 1995, a Dutch college graduate born after 1969 was likely to spend fewer hours reading each week than a little-educated person born before 1950. As far as reading habits were concerned, academic credentials mattered less than whether a person had been raised in the era of television. The N.E.A., in its twenty years of data, has found a similar pattern. Between 1982 and 2002, the percentage of Americans who read literature declined not only in every age group but in every generation—even in those moving from youth into middle age, which is often considered the most fertile time of life for reading. We are reading less as we age, and we are reading less than people who were our age ten or twenty years ago.

Interestingly, according to Crain, the Internet doesn't seem to affect reading ability in the same way as television, and reading scores appear to rise with time spent online. (Whew! A big relief to those of us in the digital world.)

The consequences of these trends seem self-evident. Illiteracy or more accurately post-literacy (the ability to read coupled with the inability to comprehend), may take an inevitable toll on our civic lives. After all, if a person cannot step outside of themselves and reason through an argument, they are more susceptible to demagoguery. Or they may just not participate.

Ironically, the Claremont 400, those self-anointed protectors of our schools and our kids, seem to thrive in the post-literate world. For instance, many of their arguments on the Baseline Rd. affordable housing this past year or on the failed Parks and Pastures Assessment District in 2006 depended on voters not examining the premises of those arguments. The 400 say, "Listen to us," rather trying to make a fair assessment of all the pros and cons of a position.

Our democracy is based on reason and in our trust that voters will make the best decisions if they are given enough information. Post-literacy threatens us because it removes critical thinking from the equation. Non-readers are less likely to delve into an argument or to try to independently verify assertions. Good readers, by contrast, tend to question and to seek to educate themselves on issues.

Crain ends his article on this note:

Proficient readers are also more likely to vote. Perhaps readers venture so readily outside because what they experience in solitude gives them confidence. Perhaps reading is a prototype of independence. No matter how much one worships an author, Proust wrote, “all he can do is give us desires.” Reading somehow gives us the boldness to act on them. Such a habit might be quite dangerous for a democracy to lose.

Come, let us reason together in the New Year.