Is our foundation of literacy crumbling?

Image source: Foundation for Comprehensive Early Learning Literacy

Why do I spend so much time talking about books?

The National Curriculum in England is based on three principal areas — Literacy, Numeracy, and Science. In my opinion, the most important of these is literacy. However, “literacy” in the United States is prized chiefly as a means of allowing people to read traffic signs, and to exercise the bare minimum that will allow them to participate in society. Literacy, as it is understood by people in cultures other than our own, means much, much more.

Yes, literacy involves being able to read, at a bare minimum. But reading also allows human beings–even at a very young age–to think and to feel. Furthermore, the more you read the better you are able to express your own thoughts having been exposed to ways of saying things. In fact, at one time, a major component to education in England, and even in our own country, involved reading of the classics. Exposure to those things made a person more empathetic, and better spoken. We have no better example of that than our own Abraham Lincoln, whose reading chiefly comprised of Shakespeare, the King James Bible, and Black’s Commentaries. There have been few Presidents who could express themselves with such beautiful fluidity (and he didn’t use a speech writer).

I find it interesting that my book blog has more followers in Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand than in the United States. My reviews are frequently about historical figures or deal with literary titles rather than the popular and ‘pulpular’ titles that populate our top ten lists in the US. I can only guess that reading is something done at a different level in these countries, and I suspect that this is due to what occurs at the formative stages of their education. I still recall, when I was a student briefly in England, seeing the common, blue-collar workers sitting on the tube at rush hour reading not the latest tell-all or crime novel, but books about the history of their country or books by literary giants like Jane Austen, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, or George Eliot. I was truly amazed and impressed. Of course, that was forty years ago. A lot changes in that period of time.

Now, sadly, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) rankings of member countries in the three areas of reading, math, and science indicate that both the United States and Great Britain are slipping. Numbers for 2010 show that the United States is ranked 17th in reading — and the United Kingdom has slipped to 26th place (out of 65 countries)

Our educational goals, ever since the USSR launched Sputnik, have focused on science and mathematics. Yet, both the United States and the United Kingdom have slipped in both areas: in Math, the US is ranked 31st, the UK 28th; in Science, the US is ranked 23rd, the UK 16th.

Who are the highest ranking countries in all three areas? China (Shanghai) is ranked number 1 across the board. Hong Kong, Chinese taipei, Singapore, Korea, and Japan fill out the rest of the top 5 in the three categories–with only one European country, Finland, making an appearance. Canada is the only North American country to appear in the top 10 (6th in reading, 10th in math, and 8th in science).

I am not aware of how the OECD measures their results, but if we assume that they have a sound statistical basis for their observations, then the state of learning in our country, compared with other countries (particularly in Asia), signals serious problems ahead.

One other interesting observation can be gleaned from the OECD study. Rankings based on the percentage of persons who complete secondary education reveal that “The United States of America is the only OECD country where 25-34 year-olds are not better educated than 55-64 year-olds.

The focus on math and science seems to have overshadowed the reading among some educators, with the result that all three standards may have suffered. Literacy is required to read those scientific texts, but is also crucial in allowing us to think about those texts. Literacy has declined to such an extent that literature courses may soon be disappearing at the secondary level. Yet, the most important thing that literacy helps to develop is not simply the ability to read the signs that differentiate the mens room from the ladies, but to learn to express themselves in writing and in discussion, and to think about the things that are spoken of to them by the government that we all share in. Lose literacy and lose your ability to share in the government of your life. Lose literacy, and become a slave to those who possess it. Lose literacy, and lose the ability to share your thoughts, your feelings, and your heart.

And, as I have noted before on other blogs, the love of reading is something that must begin at home.

What do you think?

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris

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