The End of Literacy?

February 17, 2008

An article by Professor Howard Gardner of Harvard University — and a response. 

The End of Literacy? Don’t Stop Reading.
by Howard Gardner, The Washington Post


What will happen to reading and writing in our time?

Could the doomsayers be right? Computers, they maintain, are destroying literacy. The signs — students’ declining reading scores, the drop in leisure reading to just minutes a week, the fact that half the adult population reads no books in a year — are all pointing to the day when a literate American culture becomes a distant memory. By contract, optimists foresee the Internet ushering in a new, vibrant participatory culture of words. Will they carry the day?…

I don’t worry for a nanosecond that reading and writing will disappear….

Two aspects of the traditional book may be in jeopardy, however. One is the author’s capacity to lay out a complex argument, which requires the reader to study and reread, following a circuitous course of reasoning….

The other is the book’s special genius for allowing readers to enter a private world for hours or even days at a time.

My note to Professor Gardner

Dear Professor Gardner,

I enjoyed your column (The End of Literacy? Don’t Stop Reading) in The Washington Post and wanted to make comment or two. I tutor and here’s what I find among many of my students, as well as the host of other young people I talk to when I’m out and about: They’re bright – and ignorant. Sometimes it hardly seems worth the effort to try to talk to them about anything substantial, because I have to provide a phenomenal amount of background information before there can be any comprehension (much less conversation) – and most of them don’t have the attention span to listen to all the background.

On the other hand, I once taught a class of sixteen homeschoolers (ages 15 and up). We covered an overview of economic theory, the Constitution and the judicial system. The level of interest was so intense that at break time the students gathered up front to continue our discussions rather than take their break. Many of them did research outside class and brought in material and ideas to contribute to our studies.

There are, of course, these sorts of young people in a variety of education settings, and when you find one – or better yet, a group of them, it’s like a breath of the freshest air. But you do have to search.

Of one thing I feel certain: as long as we continue to allow the state to define education we can expect a decline in both skills and general knowledge. A significant portion of people today are taking back their minds (and children) from the state and all the special interests and social activists who use it to access children for their various purposes. But we must go beyond taking back our minds – we must also reject the templates the state has created for defining and delivering education. We must look to the ways people have learned (and still do) out of a yearning to know and understand the world and life.

I believe there is plenty to feel hopeful about, but I think it’s a mistake to think that just because there has been progress in the past, progress will continue. Progress is not a given. And regression has not been unknown within civilizations. Just as the preservation of liberty requires eternal vigilance, so too, I believe, does the process of learning, knowing and understanding.

Again, thank you for your thought-provoking column and the opportunity to e-mail you with some thoughts. I hope you don’t mind that I’m also posting a link to your column, and this note, on my blog in order to contribute to the on-going discussion about education.


Tammy Drennan