07/04/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Educating for Democracy: Why Johnny (or Janie) Won't Read

One of the biggest problems American public education is facing today is a decline in literacy. Admittedly, it is not fair to compare student achievement between the United States and other industrialized countries. The students tested in these countries have already been selected and separated before middle school into "academic" and "vocational" tracts while we include all our students. Moreover, the U.S. population has experienced a significant increase in non-native speakers; in a U.S. Census 2003 survey as many as 47 million American residents spoke a language other than English in their homes.

Given these factors, it is still disconcerting to me that even in my college short story course, I find a reluctance on the part of some of my adult students to keep up with the reading. And recently, the granddaughter of a cousin of mine, a high school student, who goes to a very high-performing school in Baltimore, revealed that even though she is supposed to read 20 books in a semester, many of her fellow students simply read the "Cliff Notes" version of such classics as Great Expectations and Romeo and Juliet. I know that this practice goes back to when I was in high school in the 1950's; but I suspect that today it is much more commonplace.

According to statistics provided by the ALA (American Library Association), the percentage of girls--who are more avid readers than boys--who read only one or no books per month is 41%; only 10% read the "classics" on their own including specific literary genres: fiction, poetry and drama, the type of readings they would be assigned in school. About 50% visit a library twice or less a year, and only 15% report that they read books available "around the house." And according to a 2007, National Endowment to the Arts survey, only 33% of 13-year-old girls read daily. Other recent surveys indicate that the average American spends about 7 minutes a day reading compared to two hours of daily TV watching. These numbers, regardless of how they compare to those of other countries, should be alarming. But why is this happening?

According to a study from an international conference "Wiring the Brain," as many as 20% of all young children suffer from dyslexia, twice as likely in boys as girls. If detected early, treated aggressively by qualified specialists, and if the child is given consistent instruction, many of these young learners can become competent if not superior students. But to do this would require the vigilance of parents and others involved in raising the child, and the resources to give them the proper therapy and instruction. I don't believe that the so-called "school reforms" that center on high-stakes testing and "accountability" address this issue adequately and often ignore it when relying on "test data" to prove a school's effectiveness.

Moreover, reading does not yield the "instant gratification" that seems to be more prevalent in the behavior of both young learners and older Americans today. When I was in my formative years, the radio was the primary source of home entertainment; I did not get my first TV until well after I had learned to read. Today, children are being educated by teachers who not only were raised on TV, but were taught by teachers who themselves were also raised on TV. Since it takes a great deal more concentration and determination to translate the symbols of the letters into words and then into meaning than it does watching an image on a screen, I believe that the decline in reading can be connected to an increase in the amount of time Americans engage in "entertainment" not only from TV, but the many forms of distraction offered by computer-generated devices.

Yet, isn't it true that young learners in other countries also have access to these new inventions? And isn't it evident that people can be more easily "informed" of facts and ideas with instant access to hundreds of thousands of books through a device that can be held in the palm of the hand? But having "instant access" to information doesn't necessarily produce wisdom as we can see from the very foolish directions in which our political and intellectual leaders seem to be going: arguing about how to arrange the deck chairs on the "Titanic."

As to one of the reasons I think that students in other countries seem to be doing better than ours are--even allowing for their greater selectivity of academic students--is as much due to a serious flaw in our culture as other relevant factors such as poverty, the numbers of non-native-speaking immigrants, and undiagnosed or poorly treated learning disabilities.

From my many years as a college teacher and teacher of grade school teachers, I believe that young learners are far more profoundly influenced by their peers' cultural values than their teachers'. Admittedly, as we learn from biographies of prominent Americans who were profoundly influenced by their teachers, there are some inspiring exceptions. But the cultural values in the United States, as I can see over the past fifty years, are steadily eroding through ignorance, irrationality and hedonism.

If I sound like a cultural Puritan, I accept the charge. But what young people are more often exposed to than reading as a source of social capital they exchange with their peers are video games, Face book, the latest Reality Shows, and music which often diminishes the English language into a rant. In fact, as our political landscape has shown increasingly over these last fifty years, we do not value knowledge, wisdom and thorough schooling: we despise it. The political figure who presents him or herself as an intellectual--and Obama is one of the few Presidents in this period who has done so--can be attacked on the grounds of erudition, intellectual curiosity, and reason. Some of the recent public exhibitions of rampant ignorance such as the Tea Partiers, at least in their public pronouncements, as well as those of TV pundits, both on the Right and Left, who seem to be more interested in attacking each other than presenting informed opinion, provide the negative role model which teaches the opposite of what young learners should find as examples of good conduct, sound knowledge and thoughtfulness. We live in the Era of the Yahoo and the cultural value of schooling cannot combat it until it is revealed for what it is: Destructive to a democratic society.

On the other hand, those educators who argue "back to basics" and "accountability" must also deal with the fact that this society has becoming mercenarily toxic. When students are offered money for grades, when the emphasis on "test scores" turns learning into a commodity, when children are early on socialized into believing that the only purpose of an education is "to make money," then those who live in poverty and see a hopeful future closed to them have little if any incentive to learn. The trend to turning public schools into "businesses" where the "product" is producing high test scores rather than educating children gives little incentive for children to look beyond test scores as their reason for being in school.

While the "Harry Potter" craze of a few years ago encouraged educators into thinking that these series of books--with the accompanying film adaptations, of course--could make readers of our children, they have been disabused as the fad faded. Young readers read the book because it was something other young readers were enthused about, not because they were being paid to read it or got a "good grade" for finishing it. School children talked about the characters with the fervor of sports and celebrity fans. The cultural capital of the young adolescent had been raised a notch. But fads don't last. If E.D. Hirsch's dream of a literate, intellectually engaged citizenry might ever be achieved, it will only happen when young learners feel the social and cultural value that comes from "school learning," not, as Neil Postman observed, "amusing themselves to death," or, more likely, selling themselves into oblivion.