published Sunday, September 4th, 2011

Literacy and the future

As was often the case, Dr. Seuss got it just right. "The more you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go," he memorably wrote in 1978 in "I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!" The author understood and wanted others to understand the integral and complex link between literacy -- the ability to read and to write -- and an individual's capacity to lead a meaningful and productive life. That's a connection that still has special resonance today.

Dr. Seuss, or Theodor Seuss Geisel, grasped the essential truth that there can be little freedom -- personal, economic, religious -- without literacy. That's never been more true than the present. At a time when America and many Americans continue to struggle in an economy and society radically different than that of just a few years ago, the inability to read and to write hampers the ability to pursue the life, liberty and happiness central to the American experience.

Many things have changed in recent years, but the fact that reading and writing are central to individual progress and freedom is constant. No man, woman or child can be free if they are shackled by illiteracy. There is no guarantee that reading and writing will bring a lifetime of benefits, but there is growing certainty that the inability to do so is an almost insurmountable handicap in seeking those benefits.

Youngsters who are unable to read or who read poorly almost always fare badly in school. Children who fare poorly in school -- especially if they do not earn a high school diploma -- increasingly find it difficult if not impossible to find fulfilling employment. Adults who are unemployed or underemployed quite often discover that it is almost impossible to partake in the American dream. The lesson, as Dr. Seuss knew, is that reading (and writing) are essential skills in the contemporary world.

Once, physical strength and agility coupled with a strong work ethic were enough to provide a man or woman with a job that could provide a modicum of comfort and an accepted place in society. No more. Now, even the most basic jobs require the ability to add a column of figures, to read a diagram or use a computer or other electronic device. Those who are unable to do those and other basic tasks will be left behind in the increasingly competitive and technological workplace where literacy is no longer an option but a necessity.

There is a remedy to the issue of illiteracy, but implementing will require patience, skill and money. The problem is more common than many people know. Some surveys suggest that as many as 20-25 percent of U.S. adults have reading and writing deficits so great that they are unable to get or hold anything other than a menial job. Another 15-20 percent are estimated to have basic skills, but still have problems in reading and writing at the level required to participate fully in contemporary American life.

The corrective starts at home, continues in schools and extends to adult education. Children who are exposed to books at home before pre-school generally read and learn at higher levels than those who are not. There are public and private initiatives that encourage home reading and that provide books to parents who can not afford them, but their reach should be extended.

Educators work diligently to teach literacy skills, but success is not always certain. It is true that the number of American schoolchildren who read at grade level or above is slowly improving on the whole, but progress is not uniform. Proven programs that provide a stronger connection between public schools and homes where literacy is not a given are scarce. So are in-school programs dedicated to improving literacy skills.

Lack of funding always has been a problem for many reading-specific programs, but current economic conditions have made appropriations from federal, state and local governments even more scarce. The programs, even in troubled times, deserve more meaningful support.

As individuals and a nation, we increasingly will be gauged by our ability to interact with a knowledge-driven world in which only the truly literate will be able to compete. A revitalized national commitment to provide every American with functional literacy skills would go a long way toward safeguarding the United States' place among the globe's economic and educated elite. It also would give credence to Dr. Seuss's belief in the power and benefits of reading.

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dfclapp said...

The only thing our local governments haven't ever tried is supporting library services at the level of other metros in TN.

The last time I checked, support for public libraries in TN ranked 47th among the 50 states. Making matters worse, Chattanooga's library system isn't in the same funding league as Knoxville which has a similar population, and is about to disenfrachise over 47,000 Hamilton County card-holders who pay sales tax in Chattanooga stores, and who jointly funded every single book, DVD, and database now in the system.

Studies have shown that children are more likely to read for fun if they have a wide and convenient selection of quality children's books about different subjects. One child may love Captain Underpants, Yertle the Turtle, or dinosaurs, or big trucks, etc., and giving them something they don't care about much isn't naturally going to attract them.

All that Hamilton County ever supported as a separate literacy initiative was to give one old standard childrens book away to a child each month under the theory that putting books in homes that normally don't have them equals literacy. This is equivalent to finding research that people who own tennis rackets are more healthy, and sending a tennis racket to every home as a wellness initiative. The valuable indicator is based on use, not presence.

The public library in Chattanooga has the wealth of options and its sole function is to encourage reading enjoyment, but it has very few branches, and an extremely low book budget, and only one easy to find branch in a heavily-trafficed commercial area (Northgate). It serves all communties North of the river Much worse, plans are underway to move that one easy-to-find branch to a suburban backroad where only nearby residents will be able to find it easily. The normal system has a branch every few miles. Many have to drive ten miles or more to get to one of the Chattanooga branches and then have to search it out in an unfamiliar setting.

The question isn't: Why do we have a literacy problem? The questions is: How could we not when we provide so few ways for children to develop a love of reading?

September 4, 2011 at 6:51 a.m.
nucanuck said...

My new city of 300,000 values education and the library system is easily accessable to all. Libraries here are like bee hives buzzing with activity. The hunger for learning permeates the whole community.

Just before I moved from Chattanooga, a mayoral candidate suggested to me that Chattanooga should close their libraries to save money.

I simply can't explain why one city would be almost anti-intellectual while the other is alive with learning.

September 5, 2011 at 1:59 a.m.
macropetala8 said...

When I was growing up our Saturday morning specialty was hanging out at the local library. We couldn't wait to finish our early morning chores and rush to get there. That's when there were libraries right in the neighborhood and in walking distance. The library was my first introduction to cultures, foreign lands and people. I always felt as if I'd traveled world after reading a book on far away lands.

September 5, 2011 at 9:44 p.m.
EaTn said...

I hate to hose some of these comments, but the electronic age has put much more information available instantly. What is sad however is that much of this information is video and discourages the desires and abilities to read. Reading provides not only information, but the ability to scan and search and weed-out propaganda.

September 6, 2011 at 7:46 a.m.
dfclapp said...

EaTN, the information is only available electronically to those who can afford both computers and fast Internet service. For many others, the library computers are a lifeline. For all, the library remains the best source for children and seniors, and for those experienced Internet users who need something more and know it.

Parents and children have no cheap and reliable way to pursue independent learning without the library. The average children's book in the Chattanooga library system, and, yes, this includes books that are 20-years-old or more in the average, circulate over 100 times a year. It is not uncommon to see a preschool child lug ten or more easy reading books up to the circulation desk each week, and check out an equal number the following week. Even rich parents would have difficulty purchasing a collection of 40,000 different children's titles on different subjects that would satisfy the normal curiosity of a growing child, books that would be passed through for other titles almost immediately. The mind is a wonderful playground, when nurtured in this way, and these children go into school literate and with a much larger vocabulary, because they were doing it for fun.

Seniors also depend on a range of large print and audio titles otherwise very difficult to find in quantity or cheaply. It is really just working adults who have completed their education and do not need to retrain who find it easy buying whatever they want to read in their spare time or to find most anything else on the Internet or at work. Those out of work or in need tend to find and use the library often.

Otherwise, studies show that it is the best educated who are most aware of the limitations of the Internet and use the library a lot. There are financial resources, language resources, and legal resources, not to mention many other subjects, that are not given away for free on the Internet, at least not worth bragging about.

September 6, 2011 at 11:21 a.m.
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