Imagine what would happen if there were a general decline in batters’ strength in professional baseball such that no one could hit the ball over the fences for home runs anymore.
I suspect the sport’s powers-that-be, while trying to restore the lost slugging power, would quickly move the fences in.
An analogous power outage is happening with literacy in our culture—a general decline in our reading and writing for reasons easy to fathom and hard to reverse. In addition to strengthening the population’s baseline facility with the written word, we ought to take a more realistic look at ways to reconfigure the “ballpark”—accepting the reality that reading and writing aren’t what they used to be and it’s okay for spoken words to play a larger role in how we communicate.
Illiteracy has been on my mind since I viewed the new documentary “Sentenced” at the Justice Film Festival in New York last month. Produced by Jeff Martin and my friend Tony Kriz, the film is agonizing to watch at times. Director Connor Martin gives viewers an astonishingly up-close view of four illiterate people and the incredible struggles they face navigating life without the ability to read or write.
One of the film’s subjects cannot keep her job at a store because she can’t read the labels on the merchandise she’s supposed to stock. She and her husband live in a tiny tool shed in a friend’s backyard. Another—also unemployable—has to do guesswork while preparing a simple meal because he can’t decipher the cooking instructions. Another needs to drag her son out of school to help her make her daily trip to the methadone clinic. The son is well on his way to being “sentenced” to illiteracy like his mom.
The film’s graphics and website report the grim statistics: Sixty percent of young men entering prison cannot read beyond a third-grade level. Forty-three million Americans struggle to read. Not high to begin with, schoolkids’ reading proficiency dropped during the pandemic. The filmmakers cite a famous Frederick Douglass quote—“Once you learn how to read, you will be forever free”—while making it ultra clear to their audience that the inverse is also true.
Depressing stuff. But the film ends on a positive note and with a practical call to action. Virtually all kids can be taught to read if given the right instruction and individual attention. Want to have a positive effect on the world and enrich your own life in the process? Volunteer to tutor a struggling young reader.
Like letters on a piece of paper, illiteracy is black and white: In a society organized around printed information, you can’t live a decent life if you can’t read and write. Period.
But other forms of reading-and-writing trouble are developing in the gray areas between illiteracy and total mastery of the written word—more subtle than out-and-out illiteracy but profound in their implications.
Americans of all intellectual castes and categories, even the most educated, are reading less and reading less well. This is happening in a society built on the assumption that people can engage text with skill and extended concentration, to degrees varying with their occupations and levels of responsibility.
Take book reading, the most committed form of reading and, in my view, the most rewarding. Gallup finds that the average American read 12.6 books in 2021, down from 15.6 in 2016. It’s the lowest figure Gallup has found since it began surveying on this question in 1990.
The decline in book reading is steep among college graduates, dropping from 21.1 books per year in the 2002-2016 time period to an average of 14.6 books a year in 2021. “Reading,” Gallup concludes, “appears to be in decline as a favorite way for Americans to spend their free time.”
Facebook, Instagram, podcasts, video games, streamed music, a proliferation of good TV shows—all these and more conspire to make time with a book seem less compelling and the required focus harder to muster. If you’re like me, you find these electronic temptations whispering in your ear even after you’ve settled in with a novel or nonfiction volume. Whereas I used to book-read for 90 minutes or more at a time, these days I’m lucky if I do it for a half-hour or 45 minutes before giving in to FIFA23 or Paramount+.
Transition to a new oral/aural age
According to Samuel Loncar, a philosopher and journal editor with a Ph.D. from Yale, the struggle to read deeply is pervasive. It matters, he argues, “because every institution on which the modern, advanced society depends assumes a level of competency in literacy that is no longer present.”
It’s not just how much people read but how well—how proficient they are at processing and understanding what’s being said by those lines, dots, and squiggles on a page.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress finds that reading comprehension is down among middle-school kids. College students aren’t faring so well, either. “Over the past two decades,” The Conversation reports, “educators have raised concerns about changing patterns of student motivation, engagement, and comprehension of academic reading.”
In many subjects, professors give students a lot of reading to do between class sessions, reading they’ll have to (mostly) complete in order to participate meaningfully in the next classroom discussion and succeed on the upcoming writing assignments and exams. Many can’t or won’t do the reading. It’s a major reason so many cheat. They’re desperate, under pressure to succeed but lacking the time and ability to do all the reading they’re assigned and do it in a way that allows them to absorb it, make sense of it, and speak and write about it.
Managers in office settings might think a lengthy written memo is a reliable way to convey important, complex information to their staff. It’s probably not. There’s a good chance some recipients won’t read and internalize the information and instructions. And if that’s the case, it’s probably not entirely their fault. Many workplace communications are unclear, stilted, and thick with off-putting jargon and obfuscations.
Just because we’ve told a colleague something in an email, we can’t assume they will have read and remembered what we thought they needed to know. I have noticed my own tendency lately to fail to read longer messages all the way through, leading to my asking dumb questions whose answers I’d have known if I had read the final paragraphs.
When it comes to dexterity with written language, many people are incompetent not because they’re unintelligent, Loncar says, but because they’re part of a culture going through “a transition in which book culture and the skills associated with it have been disappearing.”
Loncar sees the culture shifting to an oral/aural age. This is no small development. Text has been foundational in the Western world for centuries, deeply ingrained in institutions and our ways of doing things.
So literacy’s decline is bound to be disruptive, especially when many organizations, from universities and government to large businesses and nonprofits, go on behaving as though it’s 1923, not 2023, and continue their unquestioning reliance upon text as the best if not only way to convey and receive information.
Communicating through sound is hardly novel. Culture was oral through most of humanity’s existence. What’s new is humanity’s technological ability to convey audio (and video) so quickly, widely, and conveniently to so many. No wonder it’s becoming the preferred communication method for more people.
A hybrid model
As someone who writes, I say all this with a twinge of pain. It still strikes me as magic that marks on a page have such power to galvanize and inspire, to open up whole worlds in people’s heads.
But I really like audio. I can’t read every alluring book or long-form article that comes to my attention, but in many cases, I can listen to in-depth podcast interviews with the authors. And I can do it in convenient ways. Try reading a book while working out or running. I’ve listened to every episode of Loncar’s fascinating “Becoming Human” podcast series while in the gym or on a running trail.
Let’s be clear: For the foreseeable future, basic literacy will remain absolutely necessary for people and organizations to function. We must teach everyone to read.
But people and institutions are well-advised to adjust to the different communications age that is setting in, one in which audio plays a more prominent part. What that looks like in practice remains to be determined: More audio memos in workplaces? More teachers assigning podcasts and videos instead of, or in addition to, books? More books consumed through our ears than our eyes? (Audio books, not coincidentally, are skyrocketing in popularity.)
It does no good to lament the fading age of print. Better to accept the emerging hybrid reality, one in which we use print, or audio, or video—Morse Code and smoke signals if necessary!—to get ideas and information across in the most effective way possible.