Kids Reading Less, Watching More, Getting Dumber By The Day

A Globe story by David Mehegan today reports on a “a 99-page compendium of more than 40 studies by universities, foundations, business groups, and government agencies since 2004 – paints a dire picture of plummeting levels of reading among young people over the past two decades.”

Some of the findings:

    • Only 30 percent of 13-year-olds read almost every day.
    • The number of 17-year-olds who never read for pleasure increased from 9 percent in 1984 to 19 percent in 2004.
    • Almost half of Americans between ages 18 and 24 never read books for pleasure.
    • The average person between ages 15 and 24 spends 2 to 2 1/2 hours a day watching TV and 7 minutes reading.

Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, put it like this:

“This is a massive social problem,” NEA chairman Dana Gioia, said by phone from Washington. “We are losing the majority of the new generation. They will not achieve anything close to their potential because of poor reading.”

He goes on to note that proficiency in reading, which is part of what’s being measured in various tests, isn’t about reading Proust or Shakespeare, but just being able to read the daily newspaper. According to the study, one-third of high school seniors can read at that level.

That means two-thirds are dumb as posts.

The Lion notes that reading is tied to writing. If you can’t read, you can’t write worth a damn. One need only slog through any number of blogs on the net to discover that literacy has become a dim memory in American culture. Badly written rants based on a complete lack of critical thinking abilities are becoming the norm, along with a lot of really boring stuff that needn’t be boring if the writers could actually write. Be that as it may, however…

Among the consequences:

Besides plotting statistical trends, the report cites economic consequences. Seventy-two percent of employers rated high school graduates deficient in writing, and 38 percent cited reading deficiency. One out of five American workers reads at a lower level than necessary to do his or her job. Not surprisingly, proficient readers are more likely to attain management jobs and higher incomes.

And the dumb ones are the ones who can’t count change in the store, can’t figure out instructions, and generally end up pissing off customers. But they’re high school graduates, by golly. Of course these days that just means they’re good at taking tests. They can’t really do anything or understand anything.

And lest those struggling through college think they are exempt, consider this:

Apparently, things are not much better among college students. In 2005, almost 40 percent of college freshmen (and 35 percent of seniors) read nothing at all for pleasure, and 26 percent (28 percent of seniors) read less than one hour per week. Even among college graduates, prose-reading proficiency declined from 40 percent in 1992 to 31 percent in 2003.

The Lion notes that if you aren’t a reader, you aren’t a thinker either. You won’t want to bother yourself about anything challenging, like trying to understand the news, even TV news – which is about as dumbed down as it can get. You sure as hell won’t understand a newspaper, much less a book explaining why we’re in Iraq or why your pay sucks or why climate change matters.

The report notes that if you don’t read, you’re far less likely to be involved in community, social, cultural, and political life.

And The Lion thinks you’re far more likely to be led around by the nose by fraudulent leaders in religion, politics, and other areas of life.

The report doesn’t offer a fix for the problem. Gioia ‘hopes it will wake people up.’

Only if they read it, Dana, only if they can read it.


6 Responses

  1. One of the things I think that gets ignored is what kids are actually watching. In the 60’s it was very clear because a lot of people only had one channel and watched sitcoms. Today with hundreds of channels there is a lot that’s very valuable and interesting. It also is an easier way to learn for those who are visual learners. I can read a book about the universe and not get out of it what I can from the Discovery series on the universe. Words can’t really describe well some of the 3D simulations and pictures from the Hubble telescope. It’s also easier to see on a 60″ screen than on a 5 x 7 page.

    The other factor is how we teach reading. Today, you learn to read in the first grade and that’s all the instruction you get unless you’re having a lot of trouble. There’s nothing to advance the speed and comprehensive of everyone else. What I would suggest is you start on the first day of school and you continue working on reading with instruction and coaching until you reach 2000 words per minute. Speed builds confidence.


  2. The problem with learning from commercial TV is that you get only what the producers want or can put on the screen. Too often, flashy graphics get the nod instead of a genuine teaching. But no matter how they do it, it can never present more than a shallow understanding. And it’s limited to the producers’ choices.

    Sure, the Hubble images are great, and I like the Discovery channel and the History channel, et al. But if I want some real depth in a subject, I know I won’t get it there.

    A book provides depth and breadth. And invites comparison with other books on the same subject. You learn from books because to learn you have to get actively involved with the material in a deep way.

    Too often what passes for active involvement with TV amounts to ‘Oh wow, isn’t that cool!’

    TV may pique a person’s interest and lead him to explore a subject more deeply, but he’s not going to qualify to join a profession based on what TV puts in front of him. Casual interest may be satisfied by the ‘Universe’ or other quality shows, but learning and deep interest, no.

    As for speed reading, I’ve never been convinced that it’s all that useful or effective. I think more value can be had by not only teaching good reading skills, but complementing them with teaching memory skills a la Harry Lorayne, and critical thinking skills, all from the first grade, as you say. Speed has its uses in reading, but without understanding and the ability to solidly remember material, speed’s just a waste of quick neurons.


  3. Yeah, if kids were immersed in The Discovery Channel and programs on public broadcasting I wouldn’t be QUITE as alarmed (for one thing, kids who do THAT also read)! But I’ve seen what kids watch. I only wish it were as intellectually stimulating as Gilligan’s Island or 3’s Company. It’s not.

    But as the Lion shares, you still don’t learn from audio/visual the same way you learn from written words – for a number of reasons.

    The only thing that really surprises me about your post Ric, is that it’s only 2+ hours per day that they are watching. Maybe it’s that low because they have other priorities like video games, movies, cellular phones (texting), internet (IMing), etc.

    My own TV viewing has dropped off over the years, as I read more and more. My head feels the difference. I know this is highly anecdotal, but I really think TV is bad for the mind. Al Gore gives it a good thrashing in his book “The Assault on Reason”.


  4. If you’re talking academic maybe a text book is better but that’s just a tiny part of what’s going on. If you want to get ahead in the business world, you need to do three things, sell, faciliate teams and make large group presentations. You can’t learn these things from a book. In fact, try learning how to practice medicine from a book. “Hi, I’m your heart surgeon and I just read up on your operation.”

    I also don’t see the value of slow reading. Slow reading comes from having to sound out every word as you read which is not necessary. Try reading at 2000 words a minute with 90% comprehension and then tell me you’d rather read at 400 words per minute.

    I will say that reading is much better than lectures which are basically worthless. All the research shows that you forget 80% of any lecture the next day.

    I will say that when Al Gore is on TV I can’t wait to turn it off. Has to be the most boring human alive.


  5. Steve –

    If that heart surgeon hadn’t spent a lot of time with his nose in medical books he wouldn’t be a heart surgeon.

    As for getting ahead in the business world, sure, those things you mention are one way of getting ahead. And there are also a lot of books out there on those, and other, business subjects. You get ahead faster if you study what others have done before, and you get that from books.

    You might note that I didn’t advocate ‘slow’ reading. And you’re right about sounding out words – most readers do subvocalize and it does slow down reading. I do believe that reading can be taught better, but also that teaching memory skills and critical thinking skills significantly enhances reading.

    As for lectures, again, there are skills and techniques a student can apply that will allow him to remember as much of a lecture as he wants. Just sitting there and listening and writing linear notes won’t do it, though.

    For more information on various techniques and skills for reading and study, look into Tony Buzan for study and Harry Lorayne for memory.

    As for Gore, yeah, not the most entertaining presenter, but that he is passionate, dedicated, and intellectually vital, no doubt. But if it’s more important to you to be jazzed by presentation than it is to understand the information, then you miss out. I’m not just talking about Gore (nor about you).

    Here’s a clue to how the mind works in a mass, societal way. Back in the Fifties when people got shot in films, they pretty much fell down, and rarely bled. But that wasn’t enough. Pretty soon they bled more. And they didn’t just fall down – they did acrobatics, they did blood-drenched ballet deaths. And today we have film violence that’s just plain obscene in both scale and detail. In the absence of intelligent stimulation developed by active involvement in a film or television entertainment, the brain seeks more of what stimulation is presented to it. A little bit of violence is never enough. Many popular films don’t encourage involvement today – they splash blood and graphics at us. What involvement there is, is purely emotional, purely visual. Without critical involvement, we just want to get more jazzed, and there’s never enough.

    And when we come to expect heavy jazz, we don’t adapt to the Al Gores who are asking us to think, to make a critical commitment to understanding something. We see the surface presentation, or the presenter, as boring, and tune out.

    Perhaps Gore should have done a heavy hip-hop gangsta score, with masses of people choking to death on methane, drowning in storm surges, and soldiers killing thousands seeking to flee across borders to escape devastation.


  6. John –

    That 2+ sounded low to me too, but as you say, with all the other visual stimulants and drugs, maybe not. Profound involvement in trivia has become a way of life. And thus life becomes about trivia without profoundity.

    Or something. Coffee’s not working too well this morning.

    Anyway, as I noted to Steve, there are techniques and skills we can apply to material. A lecture or a book is analogous to a sculptor’s block of stone – it’s just stone until you start applying tools and get involved with it. Very little TV operates that way.


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