HUMANISM & THE ARTS | It is Literally about Literacy

Gutenberg Bible of the New York Public Library. Purchased by James Lenox in 1847, it was the first copy to be acquired by a United States citizen. / NYC Wanderer (Kevin Eng)

One could make a case that there is no other element of democracy and modernity that is more critical than the ability of the populace to read. Actually, I think I would love to make the case myself. Of course, the not-so-subtle irony here is that you will need to be able read it.

In Mainz, Germany back in 1450, a man named Johannes Guttenberg printed a single poem on a sheet of paper using his new invention, a printing press that utilized moveable type. He likely could not have imagined the impact it would have in the centuries to come. Now that books could be mass-produced (crudely at first), there was the exigent need for people to be able to read, something that had long been the sole purview of scholars. In a practical sense, this allowed for the acquired knowledge of humanity to be shared across town, across continents, and across generations. Guttenberg’s greatest accomplishment is a printed copy of The Bible, sixteen complete copies of which still exists for people to marvel at some six hundred years later.

What might shock Guttenberg after the passing of all these many centuries is that about one in seven people in the world still cannot read his creation (or anything else for that matter), that number being even more of an issue among females who are often deprived of formal education in developing countries. But these numbers, which seem to be respectable in a way, bely a deeper and more startling reality. While in developed countries the literacy rate is above ninety-five percent, in parts of Asia and in Sub-Saharan Africa, it is more typically thirty-five percent, two-thirds of those populations unable to read being females. Even in the United States, with comparative wealth, access and ability, there are parts of the country where the literacy rate is far less than ninety-five percent and runs (at times) closer to seventy-five percent. You might think that those states are only in certain areas of the country where poverty and educational levels are lower than average. The truth is that the five states in America with the lowest literacy rates are California, New York, Florida, Texas and New Jersey. All five stand at seventy-five to eighty percent literacy. Maybe those numbers are not all that suprising, as these are the states with some of the largest immigrant populations, people who are new to the country and the difficult-to-learn English language.

What I find most informative is a consideration of what constitutes literacy and illiteracy. The numbers I have pointed to speak only to the numbers of people who lack even the most basic reading skills. I should say that, despite what we might believe about ourselves and our educational system, the United States ranks about in the middle of all countries where literacy is concerned. Among the countries with reportedly comparable or higher literacy rates are North Korea, Cuba, Poland, and Russia.

The following information is drawn from the 2012 edition of the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). These assessments are compiled  every twelve years, so we can hope that the upcoming study has more encouraging things to report. Measures of literacy are delineated, by a standardized literacy test, into six categories. For the purposes of this discussion, I will just address these results as they apply to the US. About four percent of Americans can basically not read at all, not enough to be able to even manage any kind of literacy test. The most basic things, like reading a street signs, or an election ballot, or a restaurant menu, are out of their reach. In fact, about fourteen percent of our fellow citizens read at below Level One Literacy, able only to read and write at the most rudimentary level. According to the U.S. Dept. of Education, fifty-four percent of Americans aged sixteen to seventy-four read below the sixth grade level.

Of the remaining fifty percent of us, only twelve percent of us can read at a proficient level, able to manage most things that require reading and writing, and a paltry two percent of us can read at a level that is considered to be highly proficient. The implications of this are clear. A sizeable majority of Americans could not, in fact, be able to read and comprehend this article, or for that matter, the Humanist magazine. For comparison, it is widely considered that the New York Times can be reasonably read by the average sixteen year old if one only considers sentence structure and vocabulary,  according to a metric called the Flesch-Kincaid readability test. Looking at reading ability among two important groups, high school graduates and college graduates one finds similarly unsettling statistics. The average college freshman (these are supposed to be the most literate among high school grads) reads at a 7th grade level, while the average college grad only manages to read at an 11th grade level. One might ponder over how either of these groups could manage to graduate at all. It also begs the obvious question about just what is being taught and learned in our high schools and colleges, and what is being expected by these institutions that justifies a diploma.

Why does any of this really matter? Not being able to read means that one cannot manage things like the internet, directions from a doctor, or instructions on the many forms one encounters in life. It also deprives those people of the richness of literature, the ability to access the most complete information on a given subject, and the capacity to challenge one’s own thinking by reading and contemplating complex texts. Beyond all of that, and perhaps most consequential, is the inability to develop and utilize critical thinking. One does not have to look very far to see how many of our opinions on matters of great consequence are defined by what we are told by others is the right way to think. This is surely something inculcated in many of us, beginning at a very early age, by religious leaders who tell us not only to blindly accept their version of reality, but that it is evil to even question it. So, it is of little surprise that the majority of Americans seek out what they deem important to know from individuals to whom they have consigned their need for independent thinking. Critical thinking is, at its heart, a search for the truth, based upon evidence. It demands that, when confronted with information, one must ask whether it is true and accurate. The development of proficiency in reading, as is the case for almost anything one can bring to mind, requires that one read, and read a lot of different things.

One must also read with the full intention of comprehending what has been read. According to a 2016 Pew Research study, the typical American reads four books per year. With the advent and domination of social media and television programming with a decided political bent, it has become far too easy to not confront one’s lack of competence with the written language. It also makes one wonder just how far in the wrong direction this will ultimately take our society. It seems little wonder that broad segments of our society today are so easily misled by fantastical thinking, misinformation, falsehood and conspiracy theories.