The power of print

William Murchison's picture

I know, I know, “reading” is a righteousness issue: the kind that brings the well-meaning and high-minded to the table, causes them to pull off their spectacles and pass their palms across their foreheads at the imputation modern kids don’t want to do it.

I mean, don’t want to read because of all the competing temptations out there — weak schooling, video games, the Internet, TV — as identified by commentators on a new study.

The study, issued by the National Endowment for the Arts, says daily pleasure reading among kids is on the decline. But — aha! — so also among adults. Indeed, the study correlates the drop in reading to declines in performance on math and science.

Among other findings: When you have books at home, you read more; when you don’t, you don’t. And another: Low reading skill correlates to low pay.

I have to acknowledge this isn’t the first time we have heard such stuff. I couldn’t say exactly when I first read about, perhaps commented on, pronounced declines in the intellectual drive of American students. Elvis might still have been alive then (if he isn’t now).

What’s easier to know, though not to understand, is the intractability of the desire not to learn. That’s right — not to. Americans spend enormous amount of money each year on trying to persuade students they should care whether “cat” has two t’s or just one and whether Robert E. Lee played the bull fiddle with Bob Wills or built the Brooklyn Bridge — whatever the Brooklyn Bridge may be, and wherever Brooklyn is. Whoever Bob Wills was.

A half decade in higher education convinces me that hard as the grown-ups try these days — and that isn’t monumentally hard — the kids end up with pretty much what they want in the way of knowledge. A lot or a little.

Curiosity seems to drive it: the thirst to know, or not know. I had college journalism students for whom, curiously enough, curiosity was a lost art. There wasn’t anything they particularly wanted to find out about. They just wanted their degrees so they could do something or other.

Reading, we’re all taught to understand, is the passport to wisdom. Except I gather that’s not what everyone wants — wisdom. There’s a lot of just-get-by-ness out there in the world, and not just among students but also among those ex-students who propagated them originally. I don’t mean this to sound snobbish. I don’t care whether a good plumber can quote “Purgatorio” (actually, I can’t either), but I care very much how he works with a pipe wrench. We do as we do because we do: I can’t put it any other way.

At the same time, we could do better than we do. Quite a lot better. The willingness of the public schools to enforce standards of knowledge and attainment fell off the cliff during the 1960s. What? Standards? Someone better/smarter than someone else? We can’t say things like that! Feelings might be hurt!

So — ha, ha (not caring if I hurt feelings), I probably know more poetry than you do, simply because the public schools I attended, in the ‘50s, made us commit to memory such jewels as “Let us then be up and doing/with a heart for any fate/still achieving and pursuing/learn to labor and to wait.”

The times in general are non-conducive to the pursuit of knowledge through (ugh!) looking at words on a page. Probably the point to bear in mind is that Our Times, as such, never last. They melt, they merge, they fade. Often, that’s a good thing.

I worry along with the NEA about the state of reading — the most enlivening of pastimes — but I know at the same time that curiosity is uncontainable. Those who want to know will know.

Why, when ready, they’ll even pick up a book and bury their noses between the pages to smell the glue. And then ...

For the rest of us, learn to labor and to wait.


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