Do We Care If Johnny Can Read?

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The battle of methods has gone on for well over one hundred years now, and it may go on for another hundred. It is a real question, however, whether pedagogical methods are the most serious aspect of the problem. One hundred years ago the literacy rate was considerably higher than the percentage of children attending school; now everyone attends school, and levels of literacy are dropping steadily. A cynic might say that this only proves the incompetence of the schools, but it may be that schools and their teaching methods are not the whole story, that declining literacy is, in fact, a much larger problem which is not simply the result of incompetent schools, but includes them.

The larger problem, tHE historian Carlo Cipolla suggests, is the problem of values. What the history of literacy in America seems to demonstrate is that a highly literate society evolves out of deeply held values, not out of teaching methods, and where such values are missing, literacy will decline no matter what the teaching methods. Puritan New England became highly literate because the Puritans believed so strongly in the value of access to the Word, not thanks to any teaching method; a Puritan had to learn to read in order to save his unregenerate soul from the vividly imagined fires of Hell. Later, literacy became a way up and out of one’s economic or social circumstances; Devereux Jarratt had to learn to read if he wanted to escape the farm. If one wanted to rise, or become involved in the country’s political life, or master the complexities of an increasingly industrialized environment, literacy was a necessity. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, then, America was full of self-made readers, men who had had to struggle to become literate, ambitious men like Abraham Lincoln who were unwilling to spend the rest of their lives splitting rails. Books were scarce, teachers were few and often incompetent, but the desire was there; consequently literacy did not depend simply and solely on the schools.

Now the desire seems to be on the point of disappearing. For whatever reason—television, widespread anomie, the anti-intellectualism that is also part of our history—we no longer value literacy as we once did. The public worries about the high rates of functional illiteracy and talks nostalgically about a return to the three Rs, but that same public would just as soon watch television as read a book. The problem is not just a technical problem of teaching methods, of “language skills”; it is based on a profound public indifference to the blessings which only the printed word can bestow.

“We shall some day accept the thought that it is just as illogical to assume that every boy must be able to read as it is that each one must be able to perform on a violin, that it is no more reasonable to require that each girl shall spell well than it is that each one shall bake a cherry pie.” The speaker was a junior high school principal, but he can be taken to represent more than an obtuse educational establishment; educators do not exist entirely isolated from the public, or opposed to it, but must be understood as in some degree reflecting public attitudes. And a public that would tolerate such a remark from an educator is a public that has lost, or forsaken, its belief in the value of literacy.

Yet we must remember that this is a value that, from the long perspective of history, we have acquired very recently. “It is only during the present century that the goal of reading for the purpose of gaining information has been applied in ordinary elementary schools to the entire population of students,” write Laura and Daniel Resnick. As these writers also point out, the standard of skill required to make one functionally literate is rising; literacy skills which were sufficient one hundred or even fifty years ago will no longer suffice. This is especially true in technology. The U.S. Navy’s most advanced weapons system in 1939 came with a technical manual of five hundred pages. Its most advanced system in 1978 came with three hundred thousand pages of documentation. Many other technical systems require more reading, at a higher level, than those of the past; computers are especially prolific, printing out enormous quantities of information and analysis, which someone has to read. Literacy is declining, then, even as the demand for higher and higher levels of literacy grows.

What the outcome of these trends will be is anybody’s guess. Perhaps we will return once more to conditions similar to the “craft literacy” that prevailed in the Middle Ages, when the clergy monopolized the instruments and organization of knowledge. Or perhaps public attitudes will shift and people will again demand access to the word. Literate persons can only hope that a hundred years from now we will have a public in which, fulfilling John Adams’ claim, someone who cannot read and write will indeed be as rare as a comet or an earthquake.