Americans often bemoan the diminished condition of our political discourse without recognizing the role that a general decline in literacy is playing in that diminishment.
The president of the United Arab Emirates recently passed a law intended to promote reading among his citizens. Among other provisions, it allotted time to government employees to read every day; ordered cafes to keep sufficient reading material on hand for customers; exempted book purchases from taxation; and provided gifts of books to children at birth.
President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan says he passed the law because “there is no future without books; no enlightenment or tolerance or co-existence, without books, no creativity or innovation or invention without books; no economic prosperity or pioneering or leadership.”
I wish to be first among my countrymen to declare my allegiance to whichever political party incorporates a similar plan into their platform. Alternately, I am content to vote for the sheikh, should he become a naturalized citizen and choose to run for office here.
I am not being the least bit facetious. Americans often bemoan the diminished condition of our political discourse without recognizing the role that a general decline in literacy is playing in that diminishment. Those outside the world of education, perhaps, do not grasp the reality of that decline, but I am certain that many who work in our schools have witnessed the increasing inarticulateness and limited reading capacities of our students, even the best of them, from year to year.
Yes, Reading Abilities Are Declining
These students’ general inability to tackle advanced texts, to follow an argument (theirs or another’s) through its logical steps, and to consistently express themselves in a coherent, or even grammatical fashion, would be stunning to those who witnessed these phenomenon for the first time.
But I am not relying on the experience of teachers alone. Numerous studies have confirmed the reality of our declining reading habits. A widely circulated report put out by Common Sense Media in 2014 indicated that 45 percent of America’s children stop reading for pleasure by age 17. Among adults, the percentage of the population reading literature (defined as poetry, plays, short stories, or novels) declined from 57 percent in 1982 to 43 percent in 2014, according to a report put out by the National Education Association this past July. A perusal of these studies leaves little doubt that a decline in reading is something that is really happening, and there can be even less doubt that this decline has impaired the linguistic competence of the American people over time.
A lack of linguistic competence handicaps a people’s ability to debate their political affairs in an intelligent and constructive manner. Consider only one way in which this decline in literacy has affected our politics recently.
We Can’t Even Tell What’s Good
The current president is finishing his term to general disappointment. It’s hard to believe just how much fervid optimism greeted his election eight years ago, little of which has been justified. But it is worth asking ourselves why there was such immoderate optimism over his candidacy in the first place. One big reason was his reputed oratorical brilliance. He was lauded over and over again, by pundits across the aisle, as a world-class speaker, and this oratorical distinction was taken to be the mark of superior intellectual gifts.
But was this reputation ever warranted? Look at his speech from the 2004 Democratic National Convention, the speech which planted the seeds of his legend:
In the end, that is God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation; the belief in things not seen; the belief that there are better days ahead. I believe we can give our middle class relief and provide working families with a road to opportunity. I believe we can provide jobs to the jobless, homes to the homeless, and reclaim young people in cities across America from violence and despair. I believe that as we stand on the crossroads of history, we can make the right choices, and meet the challenges that face us.
As a matter of rhetorical art, this is nothing. It is less than nothing. It is merely a tissue of platitudes and bromides, a vapid wisp of pleasant generalities, intended to soothe an audience like the puff of an air freshener, but with no more substance than such a puff. A true student of rhetoric would disdain to place such vaporizing in the same category as the speeches of Cicero or Burke. Among a literate populace, Obama’s candidacy would never have been taken seriously.
We Call People Educated Who Are Not
Yet it was taken seriously, and by the purported “intelligentsia” most of all. It is hard to fight the suspicion that this is because most of these people have never read Cicero or Burke, or made a close study of any other classic author, and so have no idea what true excellence in literary art looks like.
In fact, the more one observes these people, the more one finds evidence for the decline I am talking about in the yawning gulf between their literary pretensions and true literary competence. Read the following passage, bearing in mind that it is an excerpt from a prize-winning novel, and its author is regarded as a very important figure in literary circles:
Oscar had always considered Miggs to be an even bigger freak than he was. Acne galore, and a retard’s laught and gray f*-ing teeth from having been given some medicine too young. So is your girlfriend cute? he asked Miggs. He said, Dude, you should see her, she’s beautiful. Big f*-ing tits, A1 seconded.
This is the garbage that now passes for “high art” among a people that formerly read Hawthorne, Millay, and Fitzgerald. Over the last half-century or so, there has been a dramatic lowering of the standard of what it means to be an educated person. This lowering is intimately connected to the decline in literacy I have been describing.
Hugh Blair, the eighteenth-century theorist of rhetoric, claimed: “when we are employed…in the study of composition, we are cultivating reason itself. True rhetoric and sound logic are very nearly allied. The study of arranging and expressing our thoughts with propriety, teaches to think, as well as speak, accurately…”
When we observe the sorry incompetence of our governing classes, we are observing in large part the folly of those who have never properly learned to read, argue, or articulate their thoughts properly; who have acquired no stores of wisdom from their education; who have never developed the capacity for serene, detached reflection—that “smile of reason”—induced by habits of reading. Their stunted, narrow policies are the direct result of their stunted, narrow literary capacities.
Consider the Ignorant Rage on College Campuses
This is really what is going on when we behold the increasing viciousness of debate among our college students. This virulence is routinely regarded as the fruit of ideological fervor. But that fervor is a consequence itself of the inarticulateness and constricted views of these students. It is the immoderate rage that grows in souls not trained to habits of dialogue and reflection—habits nurtured through reading. The primary reason they are shouting is not because they are impassioned ideologues, but because they are not capable of doing anything else—certainly not capable of forming a tightly reasoned, lucidly expressed argument.
It is ridiculous to demand these students stop screaming and argue civilly when they have never been taught to do so, when their education has never placed any emphasis on the arts of speech. Indeed, when we find that their professors are every bit as prone to screeching as their students, it seems almost unfair to expect these young people conduct themselves any differently.
So here’s a place for us to start. The tumultuous presidential campaign that recently concluded has compelled conservatives to reexamine their own convictions, and identify viable causes to espouse in the near future. So how about literacy? How about defending the foundation of political discourse? How about we stop pretending any of us can enjoy true political freedom while we watch our language decay and rot all around us?
One practical form such a policy could take would be to support the classical schooling movement, which, in its various forms, places the teaching of language and literary competence at the core of its curricula. One could also support vouchers, in order to allow these schools to proliferate, and funding to organizations like Great Hearts and the Barney Charter School Initiative, to help bring these schools into existence. These are the sorts of real-world policies that could accomplish a genuine political good.
Find Mark Signorelli online @signorelli89.