Friday, January 06, 2006

Literacy, George Bush & Beer

Alistair Highet has an interesting column in this weeks’ “Valley Advocate” about the new Fed. Study that shows that only 31% of college graduates are literate enough to read the label on a pill bottle, down from 41% in 1992. He goes beyond the Blame Game that so many indulge in regarding this question (though he does throw in an obligatory whack at increased internet use as one possible cause) to ask the deeper question about exactly why this is important, beyond our innate moralistic sense that tells those of us who do read that everyone else SHOULD READ, DAMMIT!, whether they want to or not.

As he points out- “it is through books that we come to appreciate that others have trod the same path that we have, had the same doubts, the same pain. We come to understand that we are part of a human community and that we are not the center of the frigging universe. You have to ask, too: whose interest does it serve to have an increasingly large population of self-obsessed illiterates?”

Good question, that. I have a guess.

And speaking of George Bush- no, I’m not going to talk about The Beloved Leader today. Back to something that has no relationship to our President at all –namely, literacy. It’s easy enough to blame rising internet use, and point out that people, especially of college age, are spending more time there than they are spending in the library. But what exactly is it that most of them do on the internet? They read. They may not be reading Silas Marner (as if anyone ever did read Silas Marner. Back in 1975 when my class had to read it, only about 4 of us UberDweebs actually did; it's a good book, by the way, you should read it sometime), but they are probably reading, and writing, a good deal more than kids were back in 1992.

The problem with blaming the internet for declining literacy is that there is no control group. It could just as well be argued (as I just did) that internet use actually heightens literacy, and that if the internet had not been invented, we’d be sitting here in 2005 with only 21% of college grads able to read that pesky pill bottle label.

Which brings up another thing that bugs me about the reporting of this study. The thing that I found most appalling was that back in 1992 (well before the ‘net) only 41% of college grads could read that frigging pill bottle label! The drop from 41% to 31% does not trouble me nearly as much as the fact that both numbers are well under half of all college grads -college grads, for fuck’s sake, who apparently were too illiterate to read their own diplomas.

My cat is more literate than that.

I’m not sure, once you get that far down, that 41% vs 31% means all that much.

Maybe it’s a matter of context. I’ll bet more than 31% of ‘em could read and interpret a beer bottle label.


Mike said...

My daughter wrote a paper for her history class in high school one time that was the worst thing I had ever read in my life. It looked like it had been written by George Bush himself(okay, I got one in too). The teacher gave my daughter an "A". At a parent teacher conference, I asked the teacher how in the name of God this could be an "A" paper.

She informed me: "Sir, I teach history, not English".

I think that might be a good place to start looking for answers to the illiteracy problem.

Colonel Colonel said...

Teachers are part of the problem; parents are too. I'll bet you were the only parent that entire year who had the common sense to question a grade because you thought it was too high for the work.

At heart the problem is not reading, or the lack of reading- that is only a symptom. The problem is a society that has less and less respect for education and knowledge in general, and much as I didn't want to slag on Georgie, such things come from the top down. When the President gives lip service to education and then turns around and disregards scientists and experts and decries intellectuals in "ivory towers", what the Hell is Society supposed to think? To be fair this did not start with Dubya. Nixon and Reagan were also pretty contemptuous of knowledge and learning, and they were simply the latest in a long roll of kindred spirits. But George W. has taken flogging the virtue inherent in being uninformed to a whole new level.

jgodsey said...

If I could I would exchange all those hours sitting in a class room trying to catch some zzzss while some liberal arts major tried to wend their way through a single chapter in a book that I had finished reading by the 2nd week of school, FOR an equal number of hours spent sititng in the stacks at the library...I'd be all the smarter for it. ..and perhaps not have had so many detentions.....

Mike said...

On the other hand, illiteracy is good for George because if Americans could read, he would not be in office. With illiteracy rates as high as those you quoted, no wonder idiots win the race.