The 1983 report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk, used jarring language: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.”
Despite the passage of 25 years this April, and despite the existence of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, too little has changed since the commission penned its indictment. Now comes a new report from the National Endowment for the Arts, “To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence,” chronicling the precipitous decline in reading in the United States. At home, TV, the computer, texting, video games, and the iPod steal time from books. And sadly, at school, the American classroom focuses on test-centered reading proficiency more than on shaping habits of mind anchored by the written word. The national endowment believes that the impact on civic life is consequential. The report states:
“The story the data tell is simple, consistent, and alarming. Although there has been measurable progress in recent years in reading ability at the elementary school level, all progress appears to halt as children enter their teenage years. There is a general decline in reading among teenage and adult Americans. Most alarming, both reading ability and the habit of regular reading have greatly declined among college graduates. These negative trends have more than literary importance. … [T]he declines have demonstrable social, economic, cultural, and civic implications.”
There will be dire repercussions when we fail to educate an informed and discerning electorate in a world ravaged by anti-democratic forces that everywhere trample human rights.
What do real readers look like? Anne Fadiman described them in her wonderful book Ex Libris: “I’ve never equaled the sensory verisimilitude of my friend, Adam, who once read the ninth book of the Odyssey, in Greek, in what is believed to be the Cyclops’s cave, a Sicilian grotto Homerically redolent of sheep turds. But I have read Yeats in Sligo, Isak Dinesen in Kenya, and John Muir in the Sierras.” I get this passage. I once read—and taught—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on the fusty banks of the Mississippi River.
It's not too much to think that we can stir children's souls with literature. ... School must be a print- and language-rich environment, and home should mirror it.
I remember reading one of the Oz books as a child, finishing the last page, and turning back to Page 1 and starting all over again because I couldn’t bear for it to end. Forty years later, I did the same thing when I read Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. Good literature showers us with wonder, blurring the lines between the real and the imagined. Great literature mines the human heart.
William Faulkner described the purpose of literature in his great Nobel Prize lecture. In 1950, the Cold War hung like a nuclear cloud over Stockholm, where worry about what he called “the end of man” circumscribed hope. But man would “prevail,” Faulkner wrote, “… because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things.” We cannot be educated citizens unless we have read the best of what has been written. Whether we agree with the author or whether what we read makes us furious, it is the active engagement with the lives and ideas of others that matters.
It’s not too much to think that we can stir children’s souls with literature. Stories naturally engage young children’s minds; it becomes our job as adults to tend and feed those imaginative fires. School must be a print- and language-rich environment, and home should mirror it. When my own children turned 21, I presented each a stack of my favorite books. It was the only way I knew how to pass on to them a tomorrow where things of consequence mattered more than anything else. It becomes the parents’ job to place their vision of the future in their children’s hands.
At my school, in good weather (and sometimes in foul), book-loving students still settle onto windowsills, curl up on porches, or sit with their backs to a tree during daily Quiet Reading time. They don’t take their eyes from the pages—lost they are, words swirling like a gale around them. Perhaps the book has taken them beneath the sea or high on a mountain. Maybe they’re battling a monster or running with animals on the veldt. When they confront “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself,” as Faulkner put it, they will be learning what it means to be human.
That’s what education is all about. Were it the norm, we would no longer be at risk.
A version of this article appeared in the March 12, 2008 edition of Education Week as Our Nation Still at Risk