Literacy the Key to the American Dream

Today, in what is often termed the “Information Age,” reading, and its counterpart writing, have become the essential cognitive facets of  human intelligence. A system of secular public education has been  the hallmark of American democracy for over 200 years, and has brought about a technical revolution unparalleled in human history. That technology gave the United States supremacy in the Cold War and ultimately brought down the Soviet Union. That technology sent the first American men to the Moon, it won World War Two and fostered the post Civil war industrial revolution. One can really understand why reading is so important when considering, that reflecting on the success of the American education system, it has been coveted by countries around the world, both industrialized nations as well as 3rd world countries.

Is reading important? You bet it is. In 529 C.E., the Roman Emperor Justinian destroyed Plato’s and the other Greek academies in Athens, ordering all of their precious scrolls to be burned. He issued the decree “one state, one religion,” and the necessity of only one book, the Trinitarian Vulgate Bible. Thereafter, the availability of books in western culture dwindled, and reading an writing became the acquired skills of but only a handful  of religious scribes. Today, historians consider this event as the embarkation from antiquity. In the 14th century C.E., Francesco Petrach termed it the beginning of a “dark age” of human intellect. Petrarch, today, is held by many contemporary philosophers and historians as the father of renaissance humanism, leading the way to an age of enlightenment. The European Renaissance was a time when even a peasant like Martin Luther could learn to read and write, and ultimately change the world forever through his cognitive product. Luther believed that everyone should read the bible themselves and established schools to teach all of his parishioners to read.  It was a time when Nicolas Copernicus  could consider the writings of the ancient Greeks and redefine our perspectives of the universe, blazing a new trail into the frontiers of  science for men Kepler, Galileo, Huygens, Newton, and many men and women since to follow.  

Given the historical importance of reading skills, one might conclude there to be an even greater contemporary emphasis on the continued proliferation of  it. And yet, since the 1980’s American K-12 students have continued to loose ground in reading proficiency when compared to historical precedence as well as with their foreign counterparts. A March 23, 2012  Huffington Post article reports, “scores on the SAT critical reading portion to a record low last year – its three-point drop among test-takers marks just the second time in the last 20 years that reading scores have fallen by that much over a single year.” While high school graduation rates seem to be improving, literacy rates continue to be in decline. Just a few years the average American high school graduates had a reading proficiency at that 8th grade level. Today, that average has slipped to a 5th grade level. Part of the problem is technical standards imposed by federal and state government. Unfortunately,  conformance to these standards, and thus education funding, are tied to test scores and graduation rates rather than actual assessment of student reading and writing proficiency.

Any educator worth their credential knows, that the best writers are the best readers. If high school kids are going to be reading books written for a fifth grade proficiency level, how can they be expected to perform any better. And indeed, sadly they are not. One need not rate too many Helium articles before they come across that article, so poverty stricken in terms of reading and writing mechanics, it becomes unbearable to read through to the end of the first sentence, let alone the first paragraph. This writer means no disrespect to such challenged writers as they are only victims of the establishment which has handicapped them, nor do I imply any advanced status as writer myself. To the contrary, I often take valued time to offer constructive feedback to help the writer improve, just as this writer has through the Helium experience. The problem is, that the issue has become so endemic, and not only here on Helium, but in college level English classes, that it is sadly becoming an acceptable status quo. You won’t see Helium soon offering a rating flag to be issued for grammatical violation, slang usage, or week sentence structure. Helium, which started out with the goal to become the next Wikipedia, has sadly digressed, ignoring content quality and instead chasing the more lucrative markets of advertising and data mining its user community.

It all comes back to reading, and that is something that people just don’t seem to do enough of any more. Indeed, in the age of the I-pad, twitter, and the other social networking venues, brevity and slang have become the standard to the extent that unique dialects of tweeting have emerged in areas of the country, a common day literal Tower of Babble scenario. Apple Computer, inc., which did so much to usher in this information age, through its I-pad and I-phone “apps” is no longer taking us forward but reintroducing a 25 century old archaic symbolic language form. Yes, apps are easy to learn and use, you don’t even need to know how to read at all to use them, and therein lies its demise for our society. Are we heading into the next chasm of ignorance, the next dark age for humanity?  As the American Philosopher, George Santayana so aptly put it, “Those who fail to remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” You can’t remember the past if you never bother to read about it. 

It’s a sad commentary in this age of the “easy button,” that parents occupy more time making sure their children are well positioned and practiced in Peewee football or  competition cheerleading, so that they my one day strike it rich with a professional NFL career, than in developing their reading and writing skills which will be so essential to their success in this world, irregardless of what career path they eventually choose. It’s equally sad, that so many Americans today are more willing to let some pundit on Fox News or talk radio personality like Rush Limbaugh define their ideological beliefs for them, rather than do a little objective reading, apply a little critical thought, and make up their own mind. Any way you sum it all up, intellectually, ideologically, financially, or otherwise, it is the best reader who is the best informed and has the best opportunity to realize the American dream.