09/25/2012 04:49 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2012

Reading in Dim and Dimmer Legislative Light

In America there seems to be an increasingly widespread aversion to the act of reading. In support of that aversion voters have elected public officials whose profound ignorance and boundless stupidity threaten our society--men and women, for example, who are suspicious of people who read. Consider a recent case of political devolution from North Carolina. During a GOP Congressional primary debate in April the anti-science candidate, State Senator David Rouzer, who went on to win his party's nomination, seemed shocked that federal civil servants, as he put it, read books and magazines As reported by Scott Keyes in ThinkProgress, here's what Senator Rouzer said:

When I served in the executive branch for about year and a half, and learned how the bureaucrats operate. It gives me a lot of insight to defund them and get rid of them. When I went over to the Department of Energy one day, you walk down the hall and most of them are drawing 6-figure salaries are sitting there reading books and reading magazines. Ladies and gentleman we can devolve, get rid of the Department of Energy and move some of those responsibilities back the states. Department of Commerce, same thing. HUD, Housing and Urban Development same thing. If you look at the decline of education, it started when the federal government got involved in it. That's another agency.

If you consider the indelicacies of Senator Rouzer's grammar, his disdain for Department of Energy civil servants who actually read books (perhaps scientific reports) and actually read magazines (perhaps scientific journals), or his ignorance of the significance of the word "devolve," you might conclude that instead of being the GOP standard bearer for North Carolina's 7th congressional district, he'd be better suited as a nominee for an Ignoble, or better yet, a Darwin Award. Sadly, Senator Rouzer is the epitome of a trend toward American educational devolution that encourages a know-nothing, anti-intellectual suspicion of scholarship in the sciences, social sciences and humanities. In fact, Senator Rouzer, according to Scott Keyes... "has made a career of stymieing scientific knowledge. He grabbed headlines earlier this year when he pushed a bill through the North Carolina Senate that banned the state from using scientific models of sea-level rise that would affect the state."

Ignorance of scientific, social scientific and humanistic knowledge is solidly entrenched in contemporary American society. Millions of Americans, for example, following the dictates of creationist dogma, believe that the world is 6,000 to 10,000 years old. As reported by Dylan Lovan of the AP, a June Gallup Poll "found that 46 percent of Americans believe that God created human beings in their present form about 10,000 years ago." Indeed, laws have been enacted in Tennessee and Louisiana that allow the teaching of creationism in public schools. Reacting to these Bill Nye, also known as "the science" guy made the following statement in Lovan's article:

If we raise a generation of students who don't believe in the process of science, who think that everything we've come to know about nature and the universe can be dismissed by a few sentences translated into English from some ancient text, you're not going to continue to innovate.

Innovation, of course, requires creative outside-of-the-box-thinking, a kind of thinking that is completely absent in the unscientific absolutisms of creationism. Innovation and invention also require broad and deep reading. When it comes to reading, however, there is troubling news from The College Board which this week reported a decline in SAT reading and writing scores. In fact, the 2012 SAT reading scores are the lowest since 1972. In a press release College Board President Gaston Caperton said: "Our nation's future depends on the strength of our education system. When less than half of the kids who want to go to college are prepared to do so, that system is failing."

As one who has been a university educator for more than 30 years I would add
that our nation's future depends on the capacity to nurture our students, to demonstrate to them the benefits of reading widely and thinking deeply. Such reading and thinking triggers our imagination and broadens our perspective in a digitally interconnected world. And yet, we cannot nurture our students unless our society decides to fully support educational programs and institutions that not only enhance reading and writing but demonstrate the profundity of scientific and social scientific knowledge. In the classic sense, such knowledge should lead us toward wisdom--the knowledge that makes life sweeter.

When students enter my classroom I am often struck by how many of them seemed dazed and distracted. Their eyes appear dull, unfocused and uninterested. I am equally struck by their lack of curiosity. They don't seem to read very much, are unfamiliar with names let alone the works of Plato and Aristotle, and haven't even seen important films--both past and present. Each semester, my challenge is to reach these students. Sometimes I fail, but when I succeed it is thrilling to observe how the light of awareness enters into their minds, generating a gentle sparkle in their eyes. At that moment I know that these students will make their way in the world and contribute significantly to their families, their chosen profession and to their communities

And yet the odds are prohibitively against such educational connection. In public education, we teach in increasingly crowded classrooms. We also teach in an intellectually hostile climate in which administrators and legislators, who control public educational budgets, give priority to the promotion of skill acquisition over the development of critical thinking. If you add to this portrait the impact of public servants like Senator David Rouzer who want to "devolve" scientific institutions, you get the full picture: the legislative light grows dimmer and dimmer directing us toward the darkness.

Even in the dim and dimmer glow of legislative light, however, the potential of my students remains remarkably impressive. Having been in the educational trenches for a very long time, I know that if we give these students our support, if we invest our resources in them, we ensure our future.