Saturday, January 8, 2011

LITERACY: AMERICA’S DEFICIT – NOW WHAT?

Part 3 of what, thankfully, is only a three-part series.


THERE ARE STRAIGHT-A CITIZENS among us who read exceedingly well but may not be particularly literate. An individual can read Huckleberry Finn and report exactly what happened. But if the reading does not impact the individual’s perception of poverty or racism or faith or friendship, a strong argument could be made that the reader missed the large part of Sam Clemens’s message.

Can’t we test for this? The principal issue with objective tests to judge reading is the tests’ inability to measure more than yes/no or simple recall and prediction answers. The true test of literacy comes not from recounting what the document says, but revealing what the document does. How does the work inform one’s understanding? How does it move one to action? How does it fit within all of the sources of influence – written and otherwise – to guide one’s decisions, and ultimately one’s life choices? The full impact of the literature may occur decades after the reading of the book.

(c) Time Magazine, 2005
Why do stuff that can’t be easily tested? When we engage in deeper thought, when we access some Bloom-like hierarchy in response to what we’ve read, we more fully benefit from the literature contained therein. With an ever increasing set of information and entertainment options – television, movies on demand, the Internet, text messaging, twittering – and a collective decrease in our patience at “getting to the bottom line,” it is understandable that we don’t access those higher level cognitive skills some circumstances – like voting – demand.

But we do so at our own peril. The amazing experiment that is this country’s democracy was arrived at through passionate disagreement, long oratorical debate, reasoned discourse, and finally compromise for a greater good. The disagreement, debate and compromise involved some of the most well read people of the day: our Founding Fathers. When we allow ourselves to evolve away from the skills and thought processes that provided the foundation for our country, we can do no better than to send representatives to Washington who also lack those skills. Today, we may be seeing the result.


NOW WHAT? Support literacy by practicing it. Here are a few ideas:
  • Be well read.
  • Read often.
  • Read good stuff and “trash.”
  • Understand that a written work must pass editorial scrutiny for accuracy, story line and marketability. Many other information sources only need to be marketable. (Sometimes they only need to be salacious or juicy.)
  • Engage in a conversation with the author, even if it only looks like you’re talking to yourself.
  • Balance what the author is saying with the truths you have established throughout your life. See if those truths budge a little bit.
  • Upon completing the reading of a book or novel – especially a really good one – take a day or two and reflect on it. (I found myself doing this recently with Garth Stein’s novel The Art of Racing in the Rain, and then Kiyo Sato’s memoir Kiyo’s Story. I was amazed at how the stories continued to unfold after I’d finished the books; how my appreciation deepened and how the circumstances of each altered my point of view about love and patience, loyalty and patriotism.)
  • Chat with others – particularly your kids – about what you valued in the work you just read.

For the upcoming generation?
  • Let your kids catch you reading.
  • Provide children with lots of material across many genres and topics.
  • Know that one measure of a good juvenile reader is how much time they spend reading. The answer to the question “Does your child read for pleasure?” is more important than “Is your child learning reading skills?” The former will precede the latter.
  • Engage children in discussion about what they’ve read; engage them in questions that demand a bit deeper thought.
  • Limit to some extent (sorry, this one is negative) incessant exposure to entertainment that offers only immediate gratification.
  • Read together.

IN THE FIRST ENTRY OF THIS SERIES, a question was posed: “If you could pick just one major issue confronting America today, and you were to dedicate 100% of your efforts to its resolution, what would be the issue?”

All of the issues posed are critical. And all can be answered by anyone because, like belly buttons, everybody seems to have an opinion. But if our country is to have a secure and prosperous future, the literate among us will likely provide the best solutions.

The good news is that we can all be literate.


© 2011
Church of the Open Road Press

5 comments:

  1. KSK: I so agree!

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  2. PA: Now, more than ever, we need to focus on the direction of our country and insist that critical thinking skills be a major focus in our schools. We must teach children to question what they see/hear/read, to look for understanding, and to not just jump on any bandwagon. Our future depends on it.

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  3. PA ii: I wish all the energy being spent on hatred and blaming today could be focused on something that would actually help deal with the problems we face. We can perpetuate the hate, or educate. Educating will get us somewhere, hating won't. Fighting hate with hate is like throwing fuel on a fire that will destroy us all.

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  4. CB: I like the "read good stuff and trash" :) I"m alternating between light mysteries and "Power of Words" (nonfiction for teaching) this month. I am definitely noticing that my young students do have parents reading to them as much as when I first started teaching.

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  5. Being educated is not a bad thing. Being intellectual is not a bad thing, either. Being educated does give individuals a different and probably broader perspective on things than someone who is less educated. There seems to be an undercurrent in this country that suggests that being a simpleton is good. It has developed into sickening “party” peopled by a small number of ill-informed and boisterous whiners and malcontents who would rather not take the tough steps necessary to become well informed and, thus, real problem solvers. They do a fine job, however, of vilifying those who do have an education and who use that learning and experience to make difficult decisions about very complex issues: Folks like former Republican State Senator and former Lt. Governor Abel Maldonado, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, former Secretary of State, Republican, General Collin Powell, and Barrack Obama. (You’ll note that the Beatitudes say nothing about what the whiners and malcontents will inherit. I suspect it will be hell.)

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