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Solomon D. Stevens column: Democracy and reading
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Solomon D. Stevens column: Democracy and reading

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After spending 35 years in higher education, first as a professor and then as an administrator, I have witnessed a significant decline in the reading skills of students.

At first I was concerned to see that more and more students entering college could not name a single book that had been a significant influence on their lives.

Then, over the years, it got worse. In the past few years, many first-year college students confessed that they never had actually read a book before college, unless it was assigned reading for their schoolwork.

Studies of reading trends confirm my anecdotal observations. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as The Nation’s Report Card, indicates that most high school seniors are not ready for college or careers.

Around two-thirds of children in the United States do not read at a “proficient” level. They lack the reading skills necessary to be successful in life.

Along with this startling decline in reading came a decline in the ability to interpret what is read. More and more students have trouble reading complex texts. Their ability to understand what they were trying to read has declined.

One of the interesting things I observed was that the students themselves didn’t always notice that they did not understand what they were reading. This was because they often thought that whatever they were reading simply said something they already believed. They read their own lives and own biases into the texts.

And so they were stunned and sometimes upset or even defiant when one of their professors pointed out to them that what they were reading actually challenged their beliefs rather than confirming their beliefs. As the ability to read has declined in the United States, a focus on self has increased.

In her book “Reader, Come Home,” Maryanne Wolf discusses the changes that have taken place in our brains during the digital age.

She is not an anti-technology person, and her focus is not just about how much screen time young people are putting in each day. Rather, she looks at the kind of reading we tend to do today — quickly browsing through short pieces on social media or glancing at quick summaries of things.

Along with this comes an impatience with longer, more complex texts. Notice that texts on the internet often come along with a helpful statement that what you are about to read is only a “three-” or “five-” minute read. Obviously, the concern is that people will not read something if they are concerned that it is too long.

Wolf gives a name to this growing problem. She says that we are losing “cognitive patience.” She says we should be concerned about “the reader of the 21st century — whose eye increasingly will not stay still; whose mind darts like a nectar-driven hummingbird from one stimulus to another, whose ‘quality of attention’ is slipping imperceptibly with consequences none could have predicted.”

This new approach to reading — as entertainment or just stimulation — weakens our ability to think critically. We no longer have the patience to read slowly and in a sustained way to tackle hard, complex texts. It’s not that young people today read less; they might read about the same number of words each day that earlier generations read.

It is the way they approach reading that is hurting them. It is an approach to reading which is, as Wolf says, “one spasmodic burst of activity after another.” Young people are reading, but they are not doing what might be called “deep reading.”

This decline in the ability to both read and understand has implications for our personal lives, but it also is keenly important to our social and political lives. In autocratic regimes, people are only expected to believe their rulers and obey the decrees of the government, but in democracies, people need to prepare themselves to vote and to hold their government accountable.

In other words, true citizens are needed in democracies, and that means that they must be informed. To achieve this, the ability to read is essential.

But literacy in the simple sense of the term is not sufficient. Citizens need to be able to read critically in order to recognize propaganda for what it is, to steer clear from shady sources of information, and to be open to arguments and information that challenge their worldviews.

The United States is facing a looming crisis right now as reading skills are declining, and even more importantly, deep reading skills are disappearing.

Solomon D. Stevens, Ph.D., recently retired as provost of Hampden-Sydney College. Contact him at:

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