Ask Dr. Blank: What are some of the consequences of kids reading so few books today?

Dr. Marion Blank answers:

This question, like so many in the area of education, is marked on the one hand, by solid agreement and on the other, by significant controversy.

In terms of agreement, there is little dispute that we are witnessing an enormous cultural shift from print media to electronic media—a shift that has led to a major decline in book reading. For example, a 2004 report from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) says the number of non-reading adults increased by more than 17 million between 1992 and 2002. Only 47 percent of American adults read “literature” (poems, plays, narrative fiction) in 2002, a drop of 7 points from a decade earlier. Those reading any book at all in 2002 fell to 57 percent, down from 61 percent. The NEA’s study also found that literature participation is lowest among young adults between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four. The decline in reading rates among young adults was 55 percent greater than that among the population as a whole. NEA chairman Dana Gioia, summarized the situation as “This isn’t a case of ‘Johnny Can’t Read,’ but ‘Johnny Won’t Read.'”

While study after study clearly shows the decline, there is considerable disagreement about the consequences of that decline. Some argue that we are in a postliterate society — that is, a society where multimedia technology has advanced to the point where literacy, the ability to read or write, is no longer necessary or common. For those who hold this position, the decline is just part of the evolutionary changes in human societies and the dire warnings that are being issued about the decline of reading are misplaced. From this point of view, it is sort of like arguing that in the age of the automobile, we should not be pleading for a return to the horse and buggy.

I believe it is best to view the two domains (reading and technology) as relatively independent areas—with each one vital to modern life and with no need to abandon, or replace, one for the other. For example, the NEA report referred to above suggests that persons who read literature are 300 percent more likely to be involved in civic activities. This has led some analysts to suggest that declining reading habits may also lead to a decline in democratic participation. If this is the case, the implications for our maintaining an educated democracy are troubling.

Further, if we expand our horizon and consider the much-discussed issue of the world being a “global market,” the decline in reading raises many concerns. For example, according to international surveys, the reading skills of American adults are significantly lower than those of adults in most other developed countries. In other words, the decline in reading will have major economic consequences for our population as they fail to learn the skills required to compete with residents of other countries.

One of the most disturbing issues is how little attention is being given to this topic. It is vital to educate people as to what is happening in this realm and to have them engage in a continuing national conversation on the topic. We know that when the country gets mobilized and is offered the necessary guidance and support from the government, major achievements are possible. That is what happened in the 1960’s when President Kennedy set the nation on a course to send a manned spaceship to the moon.

The decline in literacy is an issue of monumental proportions and it deserves to receive the attention and discussion that it merits.

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