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.


  1. I’m reading biographies of our American Founding Fathers, I wanted to get a clearer picture of what they were really like rather than what people with various agendas say. Last year I read a biography of Ben Franklin and this year I’m going to read up on Thomas Paine and hmmm… maybe Jefferson. I suppose I will read up on John Adams, though I expect I’ll find him a twit based on what I have read so far.
    Other than that, I plan to read my usual assortment of fiction and geeky computer books!
    I have heard that recent immigrants to the US, especially ones here without the proper documents, have truly miserable literacy rates. Could that be affecting these numbers?

  2. I have a number of books that have been sitting on my shelves unread for too long, so I’ll make a commitment:
    1. Meister Eckhart. One of those people whose name is familiar, but I’ve never read his work directly. I’ll read at least volume I of the three volume set of his writings that I’ve had for years.
    2. Samuel Pepys’s diary. I’m not a great follower of political history, ancient or modern, but I find it fascinating to read about how people actually lived their day to day lives. There are 11 volumes in the set, 9 of which contain the actual diary. I’ll read those 9 (gulp!).
    3. Bede’s Ecclesiastical history of the English people. I’m afraid that, indirectly, this one came out of Protein Power. I started looking at the history of food in Britain, and got interested in that Anglo-Saxon period when there were such a lot of changes. Bede’s history was written in AD 731 and covers the time from the invasion of Julius Caesar in the first century AD up to the time of writing.
    4. For some light relief, I’ll re-read Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles (6 books). He wrote about the same time as Dickens, but I’ve always found his style much more appealing.
    There’s lots more on my list, but that’s probably enough to commit to!

  3. I can well imagine the frustration of yourself & anyone serious about the lack of literacy in the population. As we are having the same problem here in Australia. I would imagine the problem is world wide. Do you also think there is a serious effort to cut down on our think time as well. With all the visual / aural stimulation going on these days most children let alone adults have no serious think time to contemplate the issues of the day let alone read a book !

  4. So you could think of this in another way. When writing was the only way to store information, it made sense that everyone should read. It still does for now, but perhaps we are becoming a more oral and visual society again. After all, before the invention of writing, and really before the invention of the printing press, most human societies were largely oral and visual societies.
    For most of our history we’ve been oral and visual creatures. With today’s information storage, it might be that we now get the good of the oral tradition (history passed down from generation to generation) without the bad (the retelling of the information causing a shift away from the original information). If our natural abilities for discovering and discerning information about the world around us are visual and oral, then it might be that we are seeing a societal move that is taking us back to a way of communicating and preserving information that plays to our strengths. It turn out that we can process, access, and use information faster when it is presented to us this way.
    To play devil’s advocate a bit more, why is reading important? A basic level of literacy is necessary to function in society because of the way our society is structured. So reading is important because that is how you access information and knowledge in our world. Educated people value reading because they know that is how you gain knowledge and all the things that come as a result of having knowledge.
    However, if we were to live in a world where knowledge is stored visually and orally, then wouldn’t the ability to comprehend information presented to you in that fashion be important?
    It is likely that some degree of reading or logical symbol recognition will always be necessary. Writing allowed us to overcome the limitations of our oral traditions, perhaps the information age will allow us to store the hard facts in a way that plays to our strongest ability to process that information.
    For all we know we’ve been slowing down the educational process for centuries by having students have to learn to read and comprehend information presented to them, whereas a recorded image or oral presentation of the same information that could be accessed as often as book can be opened, might get the information across faster.
    I can see arguments about loss of vocabulary, imagination, creativity and all, but without the written word, humans managed to create language to start with, invent the wheel, and create art.
    I think the main problem that people have with the idea of visual and orally presented information is that they are used for video games and entertainment aimed at 12 year olds. People don’t use the medium to the extent that it can be used.
    Sorry for the long post, but hey, it got me to thinking…
    Ogden Sawyer
    Boston, MA

  5. Hmmm. Nearly a week has passed and zero comments looks like zero commitments. My guess is that your list intimidated everyone. Well I’m going to bite and I’ll lead off with the 282 page historical novel that I just started yesterday — Flashman at the Charge by George MacDonald Fraser. As to it’s subject matter, I’ll only repeat the cover blurb by The Chicago Tribune: “The all-time ace of sex and adventure is back in the battle again”. After that little jewel I’ll go to Robert Pirsig’s “Lila”. I read his “Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” 30 years ago and it continues to influence my thinking today. Maybe he has more to say about quality and problem solving; maybe he has a new idea on non-equilibrium thermodynamics. I’ll find out. Then it’s time to work on “The Art of Styling Sentences” by Wadell, Esch, and Walker. I know what your thinking — move that one to the top of the list. From there a little more light philosophy: “The Essential Colin Wilson” by none other than Colin Wilson himself. That will be my second by the English thinker-slash-horndog, which means I’ve will have read about 3.875% of his books. My last commitment is to finish at least one of the books that I’ve put on hold after reading right along for days and pages and chapters before sputtering to an unintentional stop. I’ll be able to choose from Ron Chernow’s bio of John D., “Titan”, Antony Beevor’s “The Fall of Berlin 1945”, and the gargantuan “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” by William L. Shirer. I’m about 500 pages along from two years ago so it easily qualifies as the longest interruption in my library. So there, that’s it except for one postscript — Can I borrow volume one of the Graham Greene biography when your finished? And, if it turns out to be “my cup of tea”, I’ll be in need of the other two volumes sometime next year.

  6. Unfortunately, according to the editorial the largest drop in literacy was in the group who were college and beyond educated. I don’t think we can blame that on the immigrants.

  7. I don’t know that a lot of people want think time nowadays because it means they might have to be alone with themselves.

  8. I didn’t mind the long post; I enjoyed reading it. It was thought provoking. But what with all the nonstop babble there is today about nonsense subjects, can you imagine the din if all information were transmitted via the oral route? I don’t think it would be a world I would like to live in. Cheers.

  9. Zero comments posted doesn’t mean zero comments in to me. I’ve been inundated with them. In fact I’ve gotten so many that I’ve once again let them slide. You’re post has inspired me to work through a bunch and start approving them for posting on the site before I get so far behind that I’ll never catch up.
    I’m impressed with your reading list, especially since Flashy is at the top of it. You can certainly borrow my Graham Greene when I’ve finished with it as long as I get all my Colin Wilsons back first. Did you ever return Quest for Corvo?

  10. I have made a commitment to reading more this year. In fact, in our house, reading is better than TV–my husband and I love to pick up a good novel and read a chapter or two aloud in the evening.
    Now that I have a son in a full-day kindergarten and I have to fight constantly to keep the teachers and staff from feeding him garbage, I realize there are other factors to be concerned about when we consider “why” kids don’t read anymore.
    When teachers consider sugary sweets and trans fats are not just food but part of a daily lesson plan (e.g. graphing with skittles, counting m&m’s, learning that “o is for oreo” and so on), you can see the direct and immediate impact it has on a kid’s attention span. These kids can’t sit still for an entire story, let alone listen and follow what is happening. these same people who praise me for having a son who is so far “above the curve” in terms of his reading and math skills and his ability to reason treat me like a pushy, overbearing, uptight maniac woman for denying a daily dose of sugar and trans fat. They have told me (point-blank, no further discussion) that I DID NOT have a right to know the ingredients of the hot lunch offered to my son at school. For this reason I supply his own snack (typically trail mix with dried fruit–the rest of the kids eat some communal snack of crackers and oreos) and his lunch (he won’t touch bread, so this one is a challenge–usually homemade, grainless “protein muffins”, string cheese, fruit and so on).
    Then there is the TV which is part of the classroom experience…don’t get me started on the subject of the “glass teat.”
    Then there is the instantaneousness of communication and availability of information–this has been called the “now generation.” Delayed gratification is almost a foreign concept. (Dealing with complex matters is not something one can do on a web search. We have a generation that is used to “bottom line” information, whether or not it is correct.)
    You have to wonder what we are doing to kids as a country these days. We expect them to do well…we insist that they do well, but we refuse to demand anything of them, we spoon-feed them and at the same time kill their attention spans and poison them so that they are not equipped to succeed in life. What is really going on?
    Eh…sorry about the rant/ramble. I guess it is one of “those topics” with me.

  11. Rant away. I agree with you 100% and commend you for doing battle with your kid’s school. I’m happy to give you a forum.

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